I think I’m getting old. Back in the day, when I watched movies, I tended to search for movies that would touch my soul. Films about dreams were always high on my list: after all, dreams are often where we almost touch the numinous. But, at 50 I’ve come to understand that soul-touching movies are few and far between, so I’m not as disappointed in Inception as my more idealistic self would’ve been.
First off, Inception is not a bad movie. It’s actually quite well done, and that’s probably part of the problem. We live in a time when excellence of craft, well-wrought screenplay, okay cinematography, and great acting can create a beautiful, spiritually empty story that feels like a great classic. (Of course, the problem could lie with me). While all around me were weeping copious tears about the beauty of Lord of the Rings, I sat through the trilogy feeling vaguely distant. So, yeah, stuff tends to leave me cold…. and maybe I expected more than I’m willing to admit.
But, dream-promise of depth aside, Inception is primarily a heist movie and — angsty though heist movies often are — there is no rule that a heist film should touch the soul…even if it aims to.
The basic plot of the film is this: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is unable to get back to his children. He’s wanted on suspicion of murder. He has a specialized skill in dream-making (with an equally skilled crew, led by Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) Saito (Ken Watanabe) wishes to use this skill to destroy his competitor’s (Cillian Murphy) empire (with one phone call, he can help Cobb get home to get rid of those criminal charges). Of course there are dangers: namely the subconscious of the intended victim and one’s own pesky subconscious.
The trouble with Inception is that director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan often mistakes hinting at echoes with exploring echoes. Three times characters mention the phrase “leap of faith” and yet, aside from the mouthing of those dramatic words, the film has no internal thematic echoes of faith. In the end, I was tempted to ask, “Leap of faith about what exactly?” Leap of faith about the success of “getting home,” of trusting that the expert at fooling around with reality will not be overwhelmed?
Other echoes occur — parallels of addiction, dream versus reality, the strength of the mind, the power of deeply ingrained subconscious pains or joys, the trapped mind and the protected mind — but all these echoes are not explored. With so many echoes Inception should have been written by a poet. Isn’t the subconsciouis supposed to be about nuance and resonance?
Characters’ names hint at mazes, guiding, fields. Yet that’s as far or as deep as the screenplay goes. No attention is paid to the little things… such as giving Ariadne (Ellen Page) and the rest of the crew actual personalities and subconsciousnesses that affect the shared dream. Of course, if all the dreams from beginning to end are really the dream of one dreamer caught up in limbo, the sameness of the dream world/clothing, etc. might be understandable. But even so, wouldn’t the dreamer (if the entire movie is a dream) have deceived himself by attempting to make all dreams unique? Either way, the dream worlds lack variety and distinct personality.
Three main ideas ride through the film. Again, they’re not explored as I would’ve liked. The first is the idea of ideas: their uncontrollability, their permutations, and so on. But even then the film stops short of really exploring all aspects of uncontrollability — the echoes, branches, shades, navigation, fading, and counterfeits of ideas, for instance.
The second theme seemed to be about collaboration and creativity. As in any good heist film, the team is the important thing and everyone brings his own skills. The meetings in which the ideas are discussed are like brainstorming sessions with a film director. Perhaps movies are subversive in the same way art and ideas are. Folks plan how to plant ideas in our mind in a way that makes us think the ideas came from our own minds. These are fun scenes, and if one loves Borges or stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths,” one begins to anticipate where the film might go. I hate watching a film and adapting it as I view it, and I understand that newbie Ariadne “learns fast,” but it would’ve been more believable if we had seen several more scenes of her learning how to rein in her own subconscious.
The third theme of course is about the subconscious — its rules, secrets, desires, workings (okay, the pee thing was funny). The main subconscious issue for Cobb is self-forgiveness. But of course, he knows all this. So what does his subconscious not know? What fun is a movie about the subconscious where the two pivotal characters are so in touch with their inner workings? Oh, I’m not asking for The Cell by any means. But I wanted to see the magic of the soul, the unique interior worlds of each dreaming participant. Maybe my argument is with the set designer, but surely even in shared dreaming each dreamer should display a bit of personality.
The last idea is the notion of mazes, specifically, the maze of the mind. Again, this would have worked better if objects in each dream scene had more personal, distinct, subconscious emotional weight. Plainly said: the sameness of all the dreams is either a clue to the puzzle of the film (if for instance, we’re stuck in a solipsistic dream), or a flaw (the director/screenwriter simply wasn’t interested in his lesser characters). Should I take a leap of faith and believe that Christopher Nolan actually was using the sameness of the dreams as a clue?
Honestly, I wanted a world where the subconscious was as wide and as rich as time, but instead Cobb has only two main sorrows (not particularly hidden from himself) and two chief joys (no childhood issues?). The character Fischer has one primary sorrow (yeah, I did love the Rosebud touch), and in dreams created by the other characters, there is no hint that those dreamers have personalities. The plot is so streamlined that the messiness of the subconscious (which, yeah, is what I wanted to see) is not allowed to pass the armed fortress of Christopher Nolan’s much too honed plot. It is as if none of the characters have a life outside the film, or have pasts outside the confines of the plot’s needs (again, the pee thing was funny).
The major problem is that for a film about how uncontrollable ideas are, this is one overly controlled film. Inception uses the language of the conscious mind instead of dream-logic. We have a maze, yes, but we do not have a puzzle of the subconscious mind. In addition, the only unforeseen problems in the characters’ dream-making come from “people” we would expect them to come from, from parts of the mind “trained to prepare for them, and from natural body functions” (again, the pee thing was funny). Once one understands how the dream world works, the story is so air-tight that it allows for no “surprise” from the dream world.
Then there is my personal peeve, something not entirely the film’s fault because, as I stated earlier, I do have a liking for movies about dreams. Quite simply, the movie feels leaden. The dream sequences are beautiful but leaden. The subconscious does not take flight. One leaves the theater feeling one has seen a science experiment. Inception is not rhapsodic. It is not hallucinogenic. I had wanted it to be, but while it didn’t touch my soul, it was fun… in its limited, grounded way.
Inception is a movie where the mind attempts to depict the soul. The result is an admirable but ultimately empty failure. It’s like a tour de force that one is properly awed by but not fully engaged in. Nevertheless I’ll recommended it.