Monday, August 30, 2010

Inception: Victory of the Banal

Look, I don't care what the reviewers say: Inception was just not that great a film. I guess after seeing the low ratings for Repo Men, a film of much greater intelligence and caliber, I shouldn't be surprised that the morons who write film reviews would be drooling all over this. After all, it had everything that they love - lots of cartoonish violence, some solid thrills, beautiful leading actors, and a turgid, pretentious and yet ultimately vacuous plotline.
Now, don't get me wrong but there were was lots of tension and many high speed thrills. With a budget this high - $160 million - you'd have to hire the most incompetent team of filmmakers on the planet not to come up with something at least impressive to look at. There were even a couple of clever ideas in the film.
But mostly it was so haphazardly orchestrated and directed and, yes, shot, that it needed all the bells and whistles (and the way over the top soundtrack) to cover up for all the emotional and plot holes within it.
Let's start with the acting and the dialogue. Until the action really ramps up and the actors stop talking except in urgent commands - "Get him to the safe!" - it is almost unbearable.
Writer/Director Nolan seems to have never heard of a contraction or he believes that actors should speak the Queen's English: "you would not want to do such a thing..." But it's worse than this, it's often unclear why the actors are saying their clunky lines. There is anger when there ought to be simple explication and there is DiCaprio's endlessly heavy droning about some pseudo science that makes no sense.
But at core the problem is that this is a heist film without any heist. In heist movies there's supposed to be some great prize as the main storyline. Could you imagine Ocean's Eleven without the stacks of cash in the basement vault of Bellagio's? Would Inside Man work if it weren't for the hidden information in the vault? What about Italian Job without the gold?
And that's just it: Inception's heist has no gold. It's no wonder that the motivation for the characters' actions is a total mystery.
Ellen Page is totally under-used in the story. In fact, after the introductory sequence where we see her ability to play the role of an architect she contributes nothing whatsoever to the "heist." She could be removed from the script and nobody would notice. All we're left with is her interest in the inner life of DiCaprio's character, for reasons that are obscure to say the least. And what of the rest of the team who aren't there for the thrill of entering the dreams of rich guys? Beats me.
Nor do we understand the motivation of Saito (Ken Watanabe), the Japanese businessman who hired DiCaprio to do the job of planting an idea in the mind of an heir to a business empire (Cillian Murphy). Does he just want to eliminate the competition, which would make him a fairly unsympathetic character, or is there some greater good in his mind, which would justify him being the palsy-walsy of DiCaprio. This is never ever made clear. And what super-powered businessman would put himself on the line to execute a dangerous job? Why does he take this risk instead of leaving it to the professionals?
So, we have a heist movie without a treasure and with no motivations for most of the major characters. What we're left with is a lot of razzle dazzle to make us forget that we don't care about what they're going after. In fact, the whole central storyline is so irrelevant that, in the end, we don't even know whether it worked and what the fall-out was from their "inception".
This leaves us with DiCaprio's subplot about wanting to get back to his kids because he's been accused of killing his wife and needing to get over the guilt surrounding her death. Not a bad B-story except that it doesn't really affect the main story - sorry, the brief intervention of a train was fun but it didn't change anything - and it isn't really much of an obstacle in the heist story when push comes to shove.
Besides acting and motivation, even the shot choices are not particularly interesting or well chosen. Often times the shots are out of focus or too close or just not particularly interesting.
There are a number of slow motion shots within the van that the characters are riding in within a dream. Almost all of these shots have a close-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, DiCaprio's sidekick, with Watanabe seated behind him. But these guys are tertiary characters by this point. Where is our lead? We don't see DiCaprio and rarely even see Ellen Page, who are now the central characters.
And, finally, not to rain on anyone's profundity parade but the thematic exploration of "what is more real: our dreams or reality?" is not particularly original in content nor in its presentation. The story never managed to rise to the level of speaking to some kind of general experience in the way that The Matrix did or, earlier, Blade Runner. Or, frankly, the much maligned Repo Men.
That film reviewers have gone ga-ga over Inception is not particularly surprising, I suppose. They also drooled over writer/director Nolan's previous offerings in the Batman franchise. And his film Memento is supposed to be a "big idea" film by a "big idea" filmmaker.
Inception, like Batman, is a product of its own massive marketing campaign: tens of millions have been spent telling us what to think of the film (it's deep, complex and visually stunning) and the reviewers play their dutiful role of parroting Hollywood's self-aggrandizement.
In fact, you don't even need to go see the movie. You already know that it is great; an "entertainment experience" as they say. You will be moved, changed, transformed. This is an IMPORTANT FILM. Except that it's not. It's just weak, bloated and pedestrian.
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