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John Farr

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Am I Dreaming, or Is Christopher Nolan's Inception Overrated?

Posted: 01/09/2011 10:54 am

One interesting aspect of waiting to see certain Hollywood blockbusters on DVD is that you hear a lot in advance from the people who plunk down the big bucks to go to the multiplex and have their eardrums shattered.

The reaction to this much-ballyhooed film was unusually polarized, from my perspective: people were either rapturous, referring to it as this century's answer to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or they were simply baffled by it.

I sat down to watch Inception on blu-ray last month, knowing the plot was involved, and positively willing myself to get it. I've watched a lot of esoteric, demanding movies in my time, and I pride myself on usually being able to work through what the writer and director are getting at.

Nearly three hours later, the sad truth emerged that I only sort of got it (in broad terms), but did not much care for what I got, and wish I'd gotten more!

Knowing full well I'm in a distinct minority here (the film was a huge success, commercially and critically), let me explain my reaction.

Inception clearly derived from an intriguing and wildly inventive notion -- that of entering other people's dreams to change the way they think. Given that writer/director Christopher Nolan operates in an industry which gives its consumers less and less credit for brains, he earns significant points simply for having come up with this idea, and even more for being daring enough to see it through to a completed film.

But bold, lofty aims don't guarantee an effective and memorable result.

So -- why didn't it work for me?

I think Nolan's key challenge was to make a highly intricate idea coherent and accessible on screen, and for this viewer at least, he fell short. The whole enterprise feels convoluted almost from the get-go, and the resulting confusion kept me at a distance from the movie. While I was dazzled by the breathtaking visual effects that punctuate the film, I was never truly gripped by all the various twists and turns, or even the action sequences, because for the most part, I was simply trying to keep up with, or figure out, what was going on.

Compounding this problem, the movie takes itself so very seriously that it often comes off as laughably pretentious. It's never a good sign when you find yourself snickering at dialogue that's supposed to be life-or-death information, delivered in deadly earnest, but which to your clueless ear, sounds like so much new-age gobbledygook.

I suppose it's no surprise that the human elements of the film fell flat for me as well. The whole subplot of Cobb's tragic marriage and exile should have touched me a bit, right? Instead, the beautiful French actress Marion Cotillard felt completely wasted here, and that ending, as traditionally heart-warming as you can get, also left me unmoved. You can argue that the film is not intended to register strongly on an emotional level, but that seems to be what Nolan is striving for.

Maybe he's striving to make too many elements work, all in one picture. While his Memento (2000) seemed just right to me, I felt that with all its strengths, The Dark Knight (2008) was ultimately over-stuffed and simply too long. Every time I thought it would end, it just kept on going, like the Energizer bunny.

To be fair, it's evident that Inception scores higher among left-brain thinkers, as well as people who love and understand video games. Personally I fall in neither of these camps. I know a young man in his early twenties who loved the film and was able to explain to me -- clearly and concisely -- the picture's central conceit of what I'll call "the dream chain": how time progressively slows down as one goes further into the subconscious (wait -- have I got this right?).

Also the very idea of stages and layers sounds distinctly like a classic video game set-up (I have three sons), as does the feature of all those artificial worlds popping up indiscriminately. In fact, during the alpine sequences I literally thought I was watching a video game... so much aiming and shooting, and so few people actually getting hit!

All of which leads to the possibility that the disconnect may be generational, but this seems too pat an explanation. After all, I've met several younger people who shared my own reaction to "Inception".

One final note on casting: I felt Ellen Page was totally wrong for this film. Intelligent as she is, she is also too waif-like and projects a quality I can only describe as petulant -- I think the role called for a more robust, womanly presence, with brains.

Though time and the weight of public opinion may prove me wrong, for me Inception stands as an extremely cool idea that gets executed with a surfeit of style and visual effects, but lacks the necessary coherence, empathy, and restraint that might have elevated it to the ranks of an enduring classic.

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