It took me a week to read Dax-Devlon Ross's review of Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, Inception. He warned the reader that it was a spoiler, and having not seen the film, I wanted to go in with an open mind. When he mentioned having been disappointed, I could not imagine why, considering Memento and both Dark Knight movies warranted multiple viewings. While not a must-see-opening-weekend type of moviegoer, I didn't mind heading to a smaller Brooklyn cinema on a summer Saturday evening to believe (or not) the hype. When I returned home and finally read Ross' poignant review, I found myself agreeing with every point.
I felt betrayed. I'm certain part of this was my own expectations, and expectations are dangerous, as they make you feel all the more let down if things aren't up to snuff. But what began with an incredible scenario -- dream invaders and the many layers of consciousness -- turned into an expectable, cliched piece of Hollywood filmmaking, with little of its actual premise left intact.
Nolan tackled two major issues in American culture today, war and corporate dominance, and failed to connect with both. The third theme, a love story riddled with guilt, proved shallow and unbelievable. Hence a number of woven plots ended up serving as pivot points for machine gun battles and corporate espionage, concerned more with visual effects than inherent meaning.
Not that I don't like visual effects. But the gratuitous violence displayed throughout this movie was ineffectual. In fact, having recently watched the enlightening documentary Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's 15 months in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley giving voice to American troops stationed there, Nolan's snowmobiling skirmish and freight train homeland security looked amateur and, even worse, self-absorbed. The gunfights were complete fantasy. They were, however, what American audiences have come to adore in film: the predominantly white heroes fending off a masochistically armed militia with pistols, magically ducking every spray and grenade before making that perfect shot from an insurmountable distance.
I have a theory that I know won't be popular: Every actor who wields a gun in a big action movie or on a billboard should be shot. Not killed, mind you, but shot to feel the pain of what their symbolic postures represent. Let's get serious about method acting. America ships its young to mountainous desert regions with heavy artillery to defend our suburbs, and when they return home, if they return home, we don't know how to deal with the psychological and physical injuries they sustain. Meanwhile we glorify million-dollar actors partaking in impossibly staged battles. It feeds our cultural ego, but it does nothing to represent what violence actually does in this world. Paying actors millions to reap the benefits while paying none of the tolls is bipolar and outdated.
The argument is that entertainment offers an "escape" where people can forget about the world for a while. But we don't actually forget while seated in the theater. We revel in the fact that the good American wins, and become disappointed when that doesn't pan out in reality. There's a difference between forgetting and forging a culturally narcissistic "worldview" that situates your country in the center of the universe. (Yes, I understand that very little of the movie takes place in America, but remember, it is the Eden that Cobb is trying to return to.) The macrocosm informs the microcosm, creating a nation of individually invulnerable clones that scoff at the possibility that their lifestyle isn't the only way to exist. Killing thousands overseas is of no consequence; that anyone over "there" could kill someone "here" is a godless atrocity that demands swift revenge. Entertainment of this magnitude is not an escape; it reinforces the philosophy of the dominator.
We can see this also in terms of humor or, better put, humility. As Ross points out, Memento had very funny scenes that lightened the psychological load, making the movie human by playing off the paradoxical nature of our seriousness and our humbleness. During Inception, the crowd laughed only twice, the first being when, in the first layer of Robert Fischer's dream, Arthur is creating an escape route with his machine gun. Earnes tells his fellow dream walker he doesn't dream big enough, pulling out a rocket launcher. (The second and only actual funny moment occurs when Arthur tricks Ariadne into kissing him on a hotel lobby couch.)
Couple our glorification/ignorance of war with the economic recession, and you have Nolan's ambiguous corporate stance in the form of Cobol Engineering. It's never quite explained how or why Dominic Cobb is being chased by them (besides a failed extraction mission). The general theme is that this big bad corporation is running things, with Cobb running both from them and the American government. So the rebel sprints through an African medina again barely ducking out of gunfire before finding the "mysterious" alchemist, Yusuf, who devises a strange brew that brings the dreamer to the unfounded third layer of dream (and later, inexplicably, fourth) while keeping the "inner ear" awake. Otolaryngologists may be able to explain the bony labyrinth, yet few spin doctors could make sense of Nolan's scientifically bunk maze, or his lazy use of symbols.
With Memento, Nolan had little money and lots of imagination. With Inception, that is reversed. Perhaps nowhere is this evidenced as much as in the hiring of his Dark Knight composer, Hans Zimmer. The music was simply overbearing, reminding me of the lackluster score of DiCaprio's last thriller, Shutter Island. The viewer doesn't need an entire symphony to create tension in the hands of a credible director. And Nolan is usually more than credible, but once again he falls into the expectable and trite with overindulgent violins crashing against the opening waves, suffusing with unnecessary edginess the closing montage that begs the question: Is Cobb still in the dream or not?
Unfortunately I didn't care where Cobb was. The underlying premise of the group's descent into the deeper layers of consciousness was fueled by his "inception," his planting of an idea into his wife Mallorie's mind that what's real isn't real in order to get them back to the real, which she fails to grasp upon returning to reality. The once again convoluted plot twist is a useless tourniquet. Given the 50-year dream world the couple built, a city of lifeless skyscrapers, I'm not surprised they'd want to get the hell out. That Nolan's basic foundation -- the ability to create an original idea -- failed so miserably is an indication of a man with too many resources at his hand and not enough hunger to actually create something fresh.