Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: An Unmastered Inception

| by Allan Stackhouse |

This is going to be a long one…

In effort to preserve a fresh perspective, I avoided all reviews for Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Inception. The trailers were all I needed to fan the flames of interest in the film. Killer cast, not a sequel, interesting concept, etc. While scrolling through the Facebook status updates of the Cosmic Toast Studios friends, I came across one on Friday: “Inception was life-changing.” The string of updates that sprouted over the weekend were ones of minds being blown and dreams being amazing. However, I successfully forgot about that update when I watched the movie and Inception, while good, was definitely not life-changing.

A film, in most cases, is supposed to capture your interest and attention at the fifteen minute mark. In some, it could take as little as one (Kill Bill), some as long as twenty (Percy Jackson), and in some, they can happen as late as thirty or even not at all (see any movie about horses or talking animals). My biggest problem with the film was that this moment where stakes are raised and interest is established did not occur until the eighty minute mark. I pulled out my phone at that exact moment in the Arclight in Hollywood because I couldn‘t believe it had taken so long for the film to get going. A film’s set up is integral and Christopher Nolan does this well in all his previous films -- Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight -- yet fails to do so in a concise or interesting manner in Inception.

Prior to this, the only established motivations are for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, the main character, to perform the inception that will secure his freedom to be reunited with his two children and Ken Watanabe‘s Saito to make sure he follows through on their deal. I waited and waited for close to the length of a feature film to find out the motivation of all the other well-casted supporting characters and I never found it. Their dialogue toward one another is entirely professional and this did not provide any indication to me to care about these characters or their relationships with one another. Having a professional investment to the point where they would risk their minds is common amongst assassin films but these people aren’t trying to kill anyone.

As a literary piece or a play, exposition is expected and integral. In film, it needs to be done sparingly and intelligently. Inception pays no regard to this and explains not only the endless mythos of entering and manipulating dreams but the story and motivations themselves. Ariadne’s introduction into the team, Saito convincing Cobb to join the team, practically all scenes within those first eighty minutes, and even here and there during the action packed last sixty-eight minutes were long sequences of dialogue and explanations.

The main conflict was Cobb doing what he needed to get back to his kids. I'm afraid I don't care. For not only himself but a group of other people who are not his friends, family or war buddies to take it upon themselves to help him makes no sense. There is no reason given as to why these characters care. It would have behooved the movie to have one thirty second scene in which they were presented with a briefcase of money, a pot of gold, or something to provide them some sort of motivation but this never occurred. Among the wonderfully talented Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao, a driving force within all of them was never even so much as hinted at. Even motivating them with the sense that this was a street cred building challenge would have sufficed but we, as an audience, are not presented with any kind of solid driving force until the eighty minute mark when sh*t starts hitting the fan. The overt lack of character development in anyone besides Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe was very frustrating especially after coming from such memorable characters such as Heath Ledger’s Joker. I believe Mr. Nolan got the performances that he wanted out of the actors yet there was no reason for me to care about anyone other than they were helping the main character. Which is nice of them, right?

When sh*t does start hitting the fan, the movie does find some of its footing. The last hour of the film did provide action-packed, suspenseful, visually stimulating ride. The characters, whose original assignment was to navigate the uncharted land of inception, turns into a life-threatening race against time. Unlike when under regular anesthesia, the special anesthesia they are under will not allow them to wake up if they happen to die in the the real world. Ellen Page’s Ariadne must navigate the fine line of keeping Cobb’s secret and protecting the others in the dream. Saito just tries to stay alive. Arthur must protect his team. Eames is just there to kick people’s asses and blow things up. Cobb’s motivation, to me, is not motivation. Instead of a staircase, I see more of an onion whose layers are peeled away which is fine for a mystery film but the setup, when finally established, is a survival/action film. Attempts to be both a suspense/action film in the past may have been successful but for Inception, the film flounders as it tries to figure out what kind of movie it is.

Some of the performances, in the few parts where actors were able to perform, were great. Cillian Murphy’s arcs in particular were highly captivating. I do not care for Marion Cotillard. She’s kind of just another pretty faced actress to me and this fact in tandem with her ability to act so convincingly as a villain made me absolutely detest her. I liken her to a Decepticon. It’s somewhat difficult to tag her as a villain since she was not real but she did pose a nice amount of interesting conflict to the team.

This movie did have some wonderful location shots. After hearing that Christopher Nolan insisted on filming in as many different countries as possible, I was practically already in line to buy tickets. Filming in Paris’ amazing architecture and building off of it was simply brilliant. Set design and location scouting is clearly not a problem for Christopher Nolan but these are not enough to support a movie of such great length.

The dreams within dreams storyline did get a little muddy. Since so many other things were explained to me through dialogue, I would have liked more to have been explained as to why the sense of synchronization of escaping dreams was so important to the characters. The limbo level dream’s time seemed infinite yet it and the other three dreams end come at the same time. I understood that this was important to wrap up the story but everything seems to get tied up in a nice bow even though the dreams within dreams are supposed to have slower time than the last.

Hans Zimmer's score completely outshined the film. I'm not a sound person but there were plenty of opportunities in the film where I wasn't paying attention to what I was watching and just soaked up the music. If you happened or happen to enjoy the film, the music in tandem will likely provide you a great movie watching experience but I, as a viewer, cannot depend on a supplementary element to fill the gaps of less than spectacular performances and a story that I did not care about.

Some sequences that I did particularly enjoy were the hotel scenes. As the van freefalls, gravity is jeopardized in the dream in the hotel. Joseph Gordon Levitt masterfully dispatches guards in a tumbling room like a gorilla in a young man‘s frame. The scene looked physically difficult for the actors and stuntmen and complicated for the crew to shoot. But the end result wound up being my favorite parts of the film.

The resolution at the end of the film is so much bigger than the initial conflict that was set up in the film. The idea of their lives being in danger literally does not come until the eighty minute mark. Have I told you that enough times? 80 WHOLE MINUTES!!!! For a lot of films these days, that's right about when films end. The length of Christopher Nolan's movies have this air of indulgence that I absolutely detest. Two hours and twenty-eight minutes is simply too long to tell a story that includes no side character development and a weak motivation for the main character. I walked away from the film knowing absolutely nothing about the supporting cast other than their professions.

A movie relying so heavily on exposition was quite unexpected out of Christopher Nolan. I have seen and enjoyed all of his films since 2000’s Insomnia which all had refined action, suspense, and darkness. In an attempt to veer from the darkness yet still create a mentally and visually stimulating film without the darkness, you would think that I would have responded better to the film. However, relaying information -- and therefore significance -- to the viewer through dialogue displayed such a surprising lack of mastery of the medium. Assuming that I'd be willing to wait the length of a film for the movie to gain my attention and interest was assuming way too much despite a likable last sixty minutes.

PS. Watch Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. Dream crime played out better for me in that.

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