Summer Movie Flashback: Inception



The best way to explain the genius of INCEPTION is just to describe what’s going on at the climax. The main characters are all asleep on a jet, dreaming that they’re in a van that’s crashed and is falling off a bridge. All but the driver, Dileep Rao, are asleep and are also in a dream-within-a-dream where they’re tied together floating weightlessly in an elevator. Joseph Gordon Levitt is preparing to wake them up, the rest are asleep and in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream about blowing up a snowy fortress. But Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are asleep there because they’re actually in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream where Leo is making the emotional decision to leave behind a SOLARIS-type living memory of his dead wife Marion Cotillard to go into a limbo to rescue his client, Ken Watanabe, who has lived a whole life there and is now an old man and forgets that he’s not in reality, because time passes at a different pace within each of these worlds. And there is a decades long slowed down music cue that tells Leo the van in the first dream is about to hit the water and wake them all up.

And here’s the kicker: all of this was understandable even on the first viewing for knuckleheads like me and the millions of people who made it a huge hit summer movie. I mean, you don’t have to like it, but it takes a silly motherfucker to deny the accomplishment of making such an effective mainstream thriller out of a concept this complicated.

The other night I did that thing where I feel like I stepped wrong and I’m in free fall, and I wake up. And my first thought was “yeah, the kick from INCEPTION makes sense.” (They can wake themselves up by dying or freefalling.)

mp_inceptionOne thing that worked better seeing it this second time was the tragic situation with Cobb (DiCaprio)’s wife Mal. We ultimately realize that her death was caused by him introducing an idea to her – this is why there’s so much apprehension around the idea of “inception,” why he feels so guilty that memories of his wife come after him and endanger all his missions. The scene where he has to tell her to her face that she’s only a shadow of his wife is very powerful.

I know there’s a strong anti-Nolan contingent out there (apparently there wasn’t yet when I wrote my first review), and the criticism I’m always hearing is that because his movies have a real serious tone to them that they’re joyless and no fun. To this I must politely say “you’re fuckin crazy.” Playing it straight is not the opposite of fun, and within this tone he is always building enjoyable suspense and reasons for thrilling setpieces that simultaneously follow the rule that these type of things have to come out of interesting characters but also the ethic of trying to show the audience something they’ve never seen before (the obvious example in this one being the spectacular anti-gravity hallway fight). This movie is what they used to call “a blast!” (And it needs to be said that all of his movies have some good laughs in them too. Let’s not pretend like we’re watching SHOAH here.)

And we could get into the whole “it’s not dreamlike enough” argument if you want to. I still say that my dreams are more like this than like a Terry Gilliam movie or THE WIZARD OF OZ or whatever fanciful thing that’s supposed to mean. As in the movie I’m in some place but if I think about it I don’t remember how I got there, and I might walk through a door or elevator and suddenly be in an entirely different place. Things seem normal as you’re experiencing them, it’s only when you wake up that you realize they didn’t make any sense. That works well for INCEPTION since their job usually requires a mark who doesn’t realize they’re dreaming. And anyway it does have fanciful imagery like the city bending in on itself or the skyline in Cobb and Mal’s reality where the same building is repeated over and over again.

Three years removed from the hype, the expecations and these arguments it’s more clear than ever that THIS MOVIE IS FUCKIN GREAT. It more than holds up. And post DARK KNIGHT RISES it’s kinda cool that it’s the Batman All Stars: Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine from all three BATMAN movies, Ken Watanabe from BATMAN BEGINS, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would then be in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Hardy steals the movie but hats off also to Watanabe. I’m glad they decided to repay him for what little he had to do in BATMAN BEGINS. He gets to be suave, badass, dying, real old…

In the context of this Summer Movie Flashback series it seems even better, because most of the ones I’ve ended up watching don’t have anywhere near this level of originality or craftsmanship. SPEED RACER gives it a run for the money, and even that one had the perceived advantage of being based on an existing title that would be familiar to people. This one was sold mainly on the auteur theory: FROM THE DIRECTOR OF THE DARK KNIGHT. (I bet LEONARDO DICAPRIO on the top of the poster didn’t hurt though.)

Question: was the INCEPTION trailer the start of the current repetitive-drone-trailer cliche, or did that come earlier?

Also, is it in any way a tribute to the camera flash sound from the opening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE?


Well, I guess it wouldn’t be, but some of the other trailers of this type really reminded me of ol’ hitchhiker’s weird noise, especially the one for PROMETHEUS.

I mentioned in my original review that the title comes up right before the end credits, just like with the DARK KNIGHT trilogy. In each of those the timing has meaning: now that Bruce Wayne has gone through all this, Batman begins. Now that the dream of Harvey Dent as “Gotham’s White Knight” hasn’t worked out, Batman must be the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight ascends to become an enduring symbol more than a man, as Bruce Wayne always dreamed (and also the new Batman literally rises up on a platform), so the Dark Knight is rising.

But when it says INCEPTION, watching it this time, I thought it was just the title, no additional meaning. Thinking about it more as I write this, maybe not.

Remember, the movie cuts away before we find out if the top is going to tip over or not. So obviously alot of people fixated on the question of “is he in a dream or not?” This time I noticed hints that it could be a dream. For example, the knowing looks between Cobb and his team as they all leave the airport separately reflect the earlier-in-the-movie notion that in dreams everybody looks at you.

Mala has a point about Cobb’s accepted reality sounding like a paranoid persecution fantasy. On first viewing I just accepted the backstory as I was hearing it, but in retrospect it all sounds so fishy: why would it be so hard to prove that she committed suicide, jumping out a window on a building across the street from him? Why would he abandon his kids rather than stay and try to prove his innocence (or was he already convicted, maybe I misunderstood that)? And how could all this be fixed with a phone call, like it’s only an immigration issue? Even if he could clear himself legally wouldn’t he be in an O.J. situation where everybody thought he murdered his wife?

Also, they talk about it like alot of time has passed, but the kids don’t look like they’ve aged a day. So if I had to pick this time I would go with “yes, he’s in a dream at the end.”

Then again, the very concept of highly skilled scammers hired by business people to illegally go into the dreams of rivals and steal their secrets is very surreal, kinda Cronenbergian. And at least that part has to be real, right? So who’s to say what feels like a dream and what doesn’t?

But my point in bringing it up is to say that it’s beside the point anyway. I don’t think there really is an answer, he could be or not. The significant thing is that he doesn’t stay to find out if the top keeps spinning or not. He accepts the idea that this is the life he wants and it doesn’t matter if it’s reality or not. And maybe that’s the inception. An important idea has made it into his skull, whether somebody meant to put it there or not. INCEPTION.

Anyway, pretty good movie if you’re the type of person who’s into extremely entertaining, original and well-crafted thrillers that are unlike anything you’ve seen before.

* * *

my original review

other movies that came out that summer: IRON MAN 2, ROBIN HOOD, THE A-TEAM, JONAH HEX, KNIGHT AND DAY, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PREDATORS, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, SALT, THE EXPENDABLES. (Are you kidding me? This is clearly the king of that summer.)

highest grossing movie that year: TOY STORY 3

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 19th, 2013 at 1:37 pm and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

58 Responses to “Summer Movie Flashback: Inception”

  1. Man, Vern, I’m not one to reflexively hate on something. I championed Speed Racer for a long time, and there’s a lot of other films I adore that aren’t super popular.

    But, man, I rewatched this not too long ago and I disagree. I politely disagree, because you’re a good dude who writes all good and you’re clearly a smart guy.

    I just don’t like Nolan. I don’t like the somewhat new approach to sci fi or fantasy where the entire point is to take the real world but add some magical component with the whole point of the movie being about the drama of breaking the magical rule established in the film. I don’t like how I didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t like Cobb’s blubbering crying face. I didn’t like the action scenes. I’m just totally disconnected from everything good about this movie and all that is left is a lot that annoys me. I remember seeing this opening night (we had to go to a second theater because the first had sold out, even) and just hating it and being afraid that the movie would never end and they’d keep going deeper and deeper in dreams.

    That this is the big sci fi movie from the 2000s that everyone lost their mind over is boggling to me. Children of Men came out a year before and is just the best.

    I’m willing to accept that there is a gene I’m missing that makes me dislike this movie.

    You know what movie tells a similar story but is just better? Total Recall.

  2. Man, I still have to re-watch this, but when I give a movie a 2nd chance, I really wanna be able to focus 100% on it and be in a good enough mood to be open minded again. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the case during summer, but my least favourite time of the year is over now, so I guess this will show up in my DVD player soon enough.

    (It must be stressed again that I didn’t HATE this movie, but was just underwhelmed by it. [Also I almost spelled “must” “mussed”. I should go to bed.])

  3. Vern, I’d like to politely request your review of SHOAH.

  4. I feel similarly about the ending. I thought it was important that he ignores the top and also that it cuts to black, forcing the audience to share in the his decision. That invites me to think that we are supposed to also realize stuff about how life requires a certain amount of trust to be lived in a good way. Good movie.

  5. I remember seeing the trailers in the cinema and thinking “damn Nolan has lost his god damn mind, this is some bullshit”.
    But then I watched it and it was me who lost his mind.

  6. I think the score in this movie is a big part of why I like it so much, I love the music in this movie (listening to the isolated score in high resolution on the bluray is real treat on a good system).

    In fact, I think a great score is a more important element than a lot of people give credit. Of all of the all time great movies, every single one of them has an extremely recognizable and accomplished score. I bet Star Wars wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon it became if ol’ George had gone with the disco tunes, and I suspect a few less people would be afraid to go in the water without the Jaws music.

    And yes, I believe this was the movie that set of the trend of the repetitive-drone-trailer cliche.

  7. This is my favorite Christopher Nolan film. This came out the same year as Shutter Island, making for a great “Tortured Leo” double feature.

  8. I don’t think the problem people have with Nolan is that his movies are too serious, it’s that they’re aggressively insistent on their own seriousness. Movies can be serious without constantly shouting in your face THIS IS SERIOUS, GUYS. LOOK HOW SERIOUS THIS IS. SEE THE FURROWS IN LEO’S BROW? SERIOUS BUSINESS IS AFOOT. DREAMS. REALITY. BIG THEMES. AREN’T THESE THEMES BIG? ISN’T THIS MOVIE HUGE? LOOK HOW HUGE AND EXPENSIVE THIS MOVIE IS. WE’RE GOING ALL OVER THE WORLD, THERE’S ALL THESE GREAT ACTORS HERE, AND IT’S REALLY COMPLICATED. HOLY SHITBALLS, AREN’T I FUCKING GREAT.

    It reeks of overcompensation, and tends to limit the development of those themes the movies so loudly insist they have. If his movies didn’t have Hans Zimmering away over them more people might notice how flat and listless and clumsily edited stretches of them are. Nolan’s main innovation seems to have less to do with upping the narrative and intellectual ambition of blockbusters and more to do with adopting the way movie trailers move and sound in order to paper over basic failings of craft.

  9. To those who were disappointed by the “dourness” and “straightness” of Inception, may I recommend Paprika by the late Satoshi Kon. It is a magnificent mindfuck that plays on dreams vs reality. It also has one of the most psychotic soundtracks ever.

    I didn’t like Inception on first viewing and grew to hate it on repeat viewing. The characters are devoid of charm and Cobb is such an arsehole I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care.

    Not only that, but the plot of Inception is very, very, very similar to William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

  10. Thankyou Vern. I find myself defending this movie often. There’s so much originality, creativity and craftsmanship in this movie that it saddens me to think there are so many people willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    I can’t really get on board with allegations of “over-seriousness”. What does that even mean? I don’t see how it’s more serious than any other heist movie. It’s got a more ridiculous premise, but it’s internally consistent and beautifully illustrates it’s larger themes and ideas. It earns that seriousness. I feel like because the movie doesn’t outright drool on your shoes, people hold it to a much higher standard than they would any other entertaining blockbuster. Bad blockbuster! Get back in your box!

  11. I don’t really get that criticism, JF. You’re saying that going all over the world, being huge and having an amazing cast is rubbing it in our face? Couldn’t you say the same thing about Lawrence of Arabia or 2001? I’m not trying to take away that it doesn’t work on you, but how is being huge and great a bad thing for a huge and great movie?

  12. I fucking LOVE this movie dearly, easily my favorite movie of the last several years

    God, it was such a blast seeing this in the theater for the first time, there was a vibe in the whole audience, you could sense that this was blowing everyone’s minds, it reminded me of seeing THE MATRIX in theaters in 1999 and just how unbelievably cool and fresh the whole thing was

    and that score! outstanding! a score that not only adds to the movie instead of just being background noise but also has a memorable main theme that actually sticks in your head? they just don’t do that anymore, even in otherwise good movies

    overall INCEPTION was a huge breath of fresh air and I eagerly anticipate anything that Nolan does

  13. The top isn’t even Cobb’s totem, so whether or not its spinning at the end doesn’t actually tell you if he’s dreaming. Cobb’s totem is his wedding ring.

    Also, this movie is all about making movies. Everyone on the team has an equivalent job in a movie production. Ellen pages the writer, Leo is the director, can Watanabe is the producer, Tom Hardy is an actor, etc. It’s all about how movies are something that can give you an experience that can actually change you even though it doesn’t actually happened to you.

  14. The typos are due to me dictating this to my phone, not because I don’t know how to spell those actors’ names

  15. Holy crap Rutger, that’s kind of genius. I’m weirdly surprised I haven’t heard that theory before since it seems so obvious. I’m guessing the scientist guy is one of the FX/technical people? I wonder who Joseph Gordon Levitt would be? The director’s muse a la Scorsese and Deniro, who possibly feels threatened by Hardy?

    I had really mixed feelings about Inception on first viewing – I too got that same communal audience vibe while watching this, that we were watching something audacious and groundbreaking, that the insanely long heist sequence(s) and twisty structure was pure genius.

    But something about it just seemed flat when it was over. I probably said this in the original Inception comments but I went home and Hamlet 2 was on HBO, and I ended up watching it and weirdly liked it more, since the characters actually touched me and the story seemed to exist other than to be a technical/structural showcase. I wouldn’t go as far to say Inception is all flash and no substance, but I think Harry over at AICN actually made a few good points in his review about the lost potential of the dream world, the emptiness of the story and characters, the “who gives a shit?” factor of their mission. I mean, the stakes in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are huge in every movie, it seems weird that the only thing at stake here is what, Watanabe’s monopoly of the energy market or whatever? Nolan is too smart to think that’s a stake anyone gives a shit about so I wondered why he chose this as the idea they were trying to incept.

    Rutger’s theory above makes it all fall together – that despite the power of movies and how they can touch and move people emotionally, at the end of the day it’s still a business and some corporate fat cat is pulling the strings and the only thing really at stake are numbers and dollars and market share.

  16. JF – You mean “serious” like I dunno, most movies? INCEPTION (like most Nolan films) have humor, just he doesn’t dwell on them. (Really that scene with Juno and JGL kissing wasn’t funny for you?)

    Hell even MAN OF STEEL (a film Nolan had some involvement with) had humor in it, and people routinely criticized for being humorless.

    neal2zod – that (fascinating) fan theory came out around the time the movie was released. Roeper even mention it on his video review.

    “it seems weird that the only thing at stake here is what, Watanabe’s monopoly of the energy market ”

    Dude that was a plot device, nothing more. A Macguffin to make the plot happen, to get that mission happen and tie in Murphy and blah blah. The real “stakes” in INCEPTION is Leo wanting to get back to his family, trying to get over his trauma, and oh yeah his team trapped behind enemy lines in dreamland and basically having to fight their way home. It’s a great adventure movie, a rare hybrid that for me captured the charms of both the summer blockbuster spectacle and the arthouse intimate drama. A fully realized mythology with characters worth exploring. It should’ve failed but dammit it worked.

    “I know there’s a strong anti-Nolan contingent out there ”

    Vern – I don’t get it either, but I suppose that line from TDK comes to play here. Let me rewrite it: “Die a master filmmaker or live long enough to be called overrated.”

    What gets me about that backlash is those assholes were picky as fuck over TDKR last year. (Are there flaws? Sure I suppose, but they were mostly picky over silly shit) but then cut excuses left and right for MOS. Even Harry Knowles called MOS “the best superhero movie ever.” (Better than TDK? Better than INCREDIBLES? Pfft.) Was there a fight worth investing in or even interesting like the first Bane/Batman brawl in TDKR? No.

    These dumbshits are like those folks who routinely accuse Stanley Kubrick of being “cold.” (Despite 2001 being an emotional, optimistic story, THE SHINING the family unit goes to hell, EYES WIDE SHUT the couple reconcile, etc. Cold my balls.) I admire Nolan for many things, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the humanity in his films. What do I mean by “humanity”? Something relatable in characters or themes or the tales being told. Not necessarily warm fuzzy feelings mind you, as that term might mean to some folks.

    I mean MEMENTO, its a story of a man wanting revenge but because of his handicap he’s on a never-ending mission and like INCEPTION asks questions about how we approach the world from what we know, even if that’s not necessarily the truth. INSOMNIA, you have a dirty cop who screws up, covers up his crime (and team up with a serial killer to save his own ass) but ultimately redeems himself. PRESTIGE is about ego and what extents one is willing to go to “win.” FOLLOWING is voyeurism. Then you have the Batman films, which I could detail onwards with the little touches within this department. (Quick example: TDKR with that great uplifting moment when the cops charge the bad guys to retake the city.)

    I’ll tell you what will suck, and it’ll happen in 2 summers from now. Remember Vern in your AVENGERS review you predicted at least 25% of the nerds praising AVENGERS will turn around and shit on it? I expect a bigger number. We’re going to get revisionistic history in summer 2015, how AVENGERS was too snarky or too jokey or not enough character or whatever garbage will flood the Internet. The sort of nonsense that make you want to bang your head against the wall.

    Or maybe my cynicism will backfire on me? We’ll see.

  17. This is one where I definitely get both sides of the argument. The movie absolutely floored me on first viewing, but it’s true that it’s so mechanical and surface-level in its construction that it ends up feeling empty on repeat viewings. I think the more time you spend away from it, the better it plays on a re-watch, because you can get caught up again in the structure and the audacity of what Nolan is doing narratively, but the thinness of the characters, the weird lack of stakes in the conception of the mission, and the way it sorta squanders the potential of an action movie set in a dreamscape does let it down a bit.

    The reality-based dream makes sense for the first few levels, but once they get to the snow level, and the subject knows he’s dreaming, there’s no good reason for the team not to pull out all the stops and start using the fact it’s a dream to their advantage. The movie establishes all this crazy stuff Ellen Page can do early on in the movie in the Paris sequence, but then that stuff never comes into play again during the actual heist. On the one hand, I respect Nolan’s commitment to keeping the movie grounded in practical effects and classic bond movie aesthetics, on the other hand, there was potential for an absolutely awesome dreamscape based action movie.

    In the end I mostly agree with Nolan’s choices, but I almost wish someone else would come in and do their version of this kind of story. The things someone like John Woo or Kosinski could do with a premise like this… It probably wouldn’t have worked as well, but damn I’d have loved to see it

  18. I liked this movie quite a but when I saw it the first time, in the cinema. Further sojourns bored the hell out of me. One reason, I think: not enough bass. Inception is bass-based cinema, a torch carried a bit further by Tron 2. It throws tones to rattle my sternum until I give a shit.

    The other reason: it’s mostly dull, plodding exposition.

    I can appreciate the complexity of the climax, and how much skill it must take to cut together anything that layered and maintain something like momentum and clarity. But I don’t think it’s much of an accomplishment to keep everyone following along and understanding where everyone is when the Unusual Thing is really a simple mechanical concept (dream time moves more quickly than real time; and if you’ve a dream within a dream each layer is quicker still) which the movie spent 90% of the prior running time explaining in tedious detail. (I would be more impressed if he delivered this information in a way that wasn’t just screaming it into my earholes via the proxy of Juno)

    Knowing that information, a second viewing left me absolutely cold, just killing time till the climax. When it got there–a part I recall really enjoying in the theater–it didn’t seem much better than what had come before. The only part I still liked was the hallway fight, since Nolan is only adept re: the shooting and cutting of action when he has a big physical gag to work around. Between snippets of shifting-or-zero-g JGL it was just tedious smears of frantic motion by characters I couldn’t care less about.

    Maybe if I had a subwoofer.

    Mr. Nolan thanks for delivering an OK time at the motion picture show the first time through I guess.

    (Also the Prometheus tone is from the original Alien trailer, which could have been inspired by TCM for all I know)

  19. I’ve seen INCEPTION a few times on blu ray and I think it holds up to multiple viewings, while it works best the first time when you don’t know what to expect, it’s still such a cool fucking movie that I can watch it again and and again and not get bored

  20. I would argue that it’s not just about making movies, but specifically about making the Batman movies, and that this is why the action in the dreams is never more surreal. It’s about the making of movies known for being realistic (y’know, for superhero movies) and using practical, old-school filmmaking techniques whenever possible. The Bond references are part of that, as Nolan put a lot of the things he loves about Bond movies into his Batman movies.

  21. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a movie being serious, that’s not the problem with Inception for me (although I may have said otherwise before some thinking has allowed me to evolve that stance), but that there aren’t very many small moments that allow us to see these characters as anything more than pieces of a puzzle.

    I watched To Live again last night and that movie is full of small moments that really help endear us to the characters, but they also illustrate the world of the movie. We don’t get very many small moments in Inception, it’s all awkward exposition and plot.

    RRA, I’m a pretty smart dude. I code and am an engineer for a living, yet I still manage to read books (without pictures, even!) regularly.

  22. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a movie being serious, that’s not the problem with Inception for me (although I may have said otherwise before some thinking has allowed me to evolve that stance), but that there aren’t very many small moments that allow us to see these characters as anything more than pieces of a puzzle.

    I watched To Live again last night and that movie is full of small moments that really help endear us to the characters, but they also illustrate the world of the movie. We don’t get very many small moments in Inception, it’s all awkward exposition and plot.

    RRA, I’m a pretty smart dude. I code and am an engineer for a living, yet I still manage to read books (without pictures, even!) regularly. I was never big on Amy of the Batmens, I remember being okay with TDK but after being told it is brilliant and actually thinking about it like a serious adult movie found it to be nonsensical and dumb. Man of Steel was a mess with parts that work but a whole that doesn’t

  23. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a movie being serious, that’s not the problem with Inception for me (although I may have said otherwise before some thinking has allowed me to evolve that stance), but that there aren’t very many small moments that allow us to see these characters as anything more than pieces of a puzzle.

    I watched To Live again last night and that movie is full of small moments that really help endear us to the characters, but they also illustrate the world of the movie. We don’t get very many small moments in Inception, it’s all awkward exposition and plot.

    RRA, I’m a pretty smart dude. I code and am an engineer for a living, yet I still manage to read books (without pictures, even!) regularly. I was never big on Amy of the Batmens, I remember being okay with TDK but after being told it is brilliant and actually thinking about it like a serious adult movie found it to be nonsensical and dumb. Man of Steel was a mess with parts that work but a whole that doesn’t, although I appreciate the insanity of the movie even if I wanted it to be more Malick or Unbreakable. Avengers was okay, but ultimately not very good (I think Transformers 3 had much better action and spectacle, but Avengers had better Joss Whedon dialogue moments from a Joss Whedon film).

    I did like Watchmen more than most, liked the XMen movies (even the third, which is fine not terrible at least), the second Spiderman, and Dredd.

    But, like I said, maybe it’s generic I don’t like movies that are soulless mouse traps with exposition confused as characters and bland action scenes. Might be like my red hair or something!

  24. On my phone on a train, sorry about this getting cut up like that, Vern.

  25. Watch “Inception”

    Then watch “Shutter Island”

    The next day try to figure out where one movie ended and the other began.

    Well, that’s what I did one day in 2010.

  26. Thank you for actually discussing the ending in a thoughtful manner. After this film I became so sick of the discussions about whether or not Leo was still in a dream. The point of the ending is not whether or not Leo is still in a dream. The point of the ending is the ambiguity itself. What does the fact that we are never given a definitive answer as to whether or not we are in a dream tell us about our own perception of reality and what we choose to ignore for our own happiness.

    Also, MacBlayne, I think you are spot on with the Neuromancer connection. I actually think Inception shouldn’t even be classified as a “movie about dreams.” It more clearly fits the genre of cyberpunk.

  27. Inception is amazing. It doesn’t have huge amounts of raw emotional depth (though I was very involved in Di Caprio’s character’s hellish psychological trauma) but it’s intellectually brilliant. By this I mean that the whole thing fits together with such incredible precision that you cannot help but marvel at Nolan’s mechanical mastery. How that whole set piece upon set piece Vern mentioned, the one all taking place while the van is in free fall, comes together with the precision of clockwork is simply incredible.

    The whole thing is structured like a fugue by Bach. Nolan actually reminds me of Bach here (formally of course). The interlocking mechanics are so perfect they almost seems robotic, like a human being couldn’t come up with it.

    I think for all the quibbles I may have, it’s pretty much a mainstream thriller masterpiece.

  28. I have quibbles too.

    I don’t have a problem with exposition as a device, but the context and timing has to be right. In “Inception”, potentially the most important piece of exposition in the movie is given right between two major action scenes that absolutely should “flow” together. It breaks the pacing of the film. This is the film’s one serious structural weakness.

    And as great as Zimmer’s music is for the most part, in the finale it can be overpowering. On my second, and subsequent, viewings of this movie, I found it a little too much during the hotel corridor fight / bridge drop scene.

    …There ends my quibbles.

    Seriously, this movie is damn close to being a masterpiece in my opinion. The characters are lightly sketched but fully realised onscreen, much like those in “The Thing” (yes, I just made another “The Thing” comparison. I’m going for one of those “millionth customer wins an ipod”-type deals.) And although I agree with a lot of criticisms of this movie in fact – they just don’t bother me – I cannot agree with the criticism of it being “cold”. I found the final scene featuring Marion Cotillard’s character to be intensely moving.

    I love that final scene in the airport (anybody else notice Michael Gaston as the customs man by the way?) A lesser director would have all of these characters meet for a final scripted farewell scene. Not Nolan. For all that he’s criticised for “tell don’t show”, he sure as heck does a good job of “show don’t tell” when he wants to. Watch the camerawork: since the scene is mostly shot either from the point of view of Cobb, or directly behind him, when he’s passing the rest of the cast the overall effect is that they are nodding their goodbyes to the audience. Add in some absolutely perfect scoring by Zimmer and you have a brilliant scene that hits an emotional “beat” without a single word of dialogue being spoken.

    And also note how almost every shot of a character other than Cobb, after he “wakes up” in the aeroplane at the end, is from Cobb’s own perspective – or, again, from directly behind him. (I think there are only two exceptions, and both of these are very short: one where Tom Hardy is standing behind Cobb with the camera in front of them both in the airport, and one where the hostess gives Cillian Murphy the immigration papers with Cobb sitting behind him.) I know that the ambiguity is the point of the movie, but conspiracy theorists may want to take note of my point, as I applied it to “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”‘s first scene a couple of months ago, that a very good way to indicate that a scene only takes place inside a particular character’s mind is to have the entire scene filmed from the point of view of that character. Yeah.

  29. This movie gets better for me on repeat viewings. Joseph Gordon-Levitt made the movie for me, instantly becoming one of my favorite actors to watch. If I had to categorize him in Ritger’s excellent movie theory, I’d have to say he is the leading man who does all his own stunts who finds himself resentful of being upstaged by the charismatic comic relief.

  30. No, no. He’s the Kato, the trusty sidekick who’s actually way cooler than the leading man because he never has to undergo an emotional arc. He starts cool, he stays cool, he ends cool. And when he steals that kiss, he steals the movie with it. Suave as fuck.

    I also continue to love this movie after three viewings. It doesn’t really reveal more layers or anything on multiple watches, it just reminds you that you were right to think it was a masterpiece the first time. I can be hot and cold on Nolan, but this one blows all the way hot.

    As for the exposition problem, I don’t see it. Shit is complicated and needs explaining, and if said shit can be explained to an exposition-sponge as endlessly charming as Ellen Page, I’m all for it.

  31. There is no exposition problem.Everything needs to be explained and is done so in a perfectly acceptable way. For anyone disagreeing,you are most welcome in making your own perfect version of INCEPTION. Chances are high though that you will fail miserably.

  32. Yeah, I frickin love this movie. Probably my favorite Nolan movie. I even think it’s better than the Dark Knight (which I love). The only Nolan (directed) movie I haven’t liked is DKR, which I really, really, really don’t like. I hope he gets to make another crazy, big, ambitious movie that’s completely original and not based on any source material.

  33. MEMENTO still remains my favourite Nolan picture. But INCEPTION and THE PRESTIGE are awesoem as fuck. I wish Nolan Nolan could keep u with his cinematic wizardry and not get stuck in comic book limbo and indeed keep creating new exciting worlds for us cinema goers to visit. Outside of the Realm of Batman (RoB),to the Nolan Nay-sayers (NNS) I have nothing to say except I pity you wretched souls for not acknowledging a great filmmaker or his films.

  34. Note To Self (NTS): proof read better, motherfucker.

  35. Memento is really great. Prestige holds up for me better on repeat viewings than it did the first time I saw it. But, even when I was sort of lukewarm about it, David Bowie as Tesla was there to win me over.

  36. Shoot – playing devil’s advocate here, but you don’t think that sticking possibly the most important piece of exposition (our introduction to “limbo”) in the middle of a large-scale action scene is a problem? For me it completely breaks the flow of the movie at that point. It’s the only part of the whole movie that I don’t like. It’s misplaced and it completely contradicts what we’ve been told before.

    Still think the movie is a near-masterpiece, but that one thing always bugs me. It’s a rare (well, rare until the last unmentionable B–man film) moment of narrative weakness from Chris Nolan.

  37. Exposition within action sequences has worked well over the years. THE TERMINATOR explains things in the middle of an action scene. Why is that a problem? If not it is a clever idea of making exposition feel less “stagey”.

  38. Also, was the idea of limbo explained in the middle of an action scene? I thought it was explained quite heavily in the aftermath of the shooting of the first layer of the dream?

  39. Guys guys guys, I’m not a big fan of the Dark Knight Rises, but I think some of the reactions here and elsewhere on the interwebs (i.e. that it’s a horrendous movie) are slightly hyperbolic.

    Catwoman with Halle Berry is “shit”. The Dark Knight Rises? What that film is simply “pretty good”.

    This is all subjective of course, but I think that the fact that we’ve been trained to expect nothing but pop culture masterpieces from Nolan taints our view too much, so anything that isn’t fucking spectacular gets judged as being a piece of shit.

    We need to stop being like junkies in season 2 of the Wire who can’t get high off the lesser smack anymore. We need to relearn how to judge films on their merits alone, not based on what we expected them to be.

    I didn’t really like DKR but I’d LOVE to live in a world where that movie is actually a shit movie.

  40. Yes it’s true, it’s now fashionable to hate Nolan and his movies. Smart-asses who want to prove themselves smart they go down on Nolan’s very smart and well thoughout movies and call them stupid. While praising the hell out of JJ Abrams’s idiotic Star Trek movies.
    It’s too funny for words. It’s reality as comedy.

  41. Dtroyt, i inform you that Christopher Nolan’s next movie is called INTERSTELLAR (it’s already being filmed and it has a great cast) and it’s about a space exploration mission to the vacinitiy of a black hole and weird time bending antics happens. It’s based on his brother Jonathan Nolan’s script, which for a long time was to be directed by Spielberg, but he septn so much time to comiting to it, they eventually tired of waiting for shopped the script around to somebody else, and Nolan tok over.
    And if you ask me, it might had been for the better. That is the kind of story that the two Nolans should be doing.

  42. If it’s just now fashionable to hate Nolan then I’m probably a fucking hipster because I’ve been annoyed with his movies since Insomnia.

    And there is a better version of Inception. It’s called Total Recall.

    I also find it funny that anyone can be so personally offended that someone doesn’t like Nolan, but also irrationally hates Abrams who has made some pretty okay movies.

    And it isn’t like Nolan is terrible, he’s just not the Coen Bros, Spielberg, or like a Leone our Lean or whatever.

  43. I really liked “Memento” at the time, and Nolans Influences are fine and admirable, but a Kubrick he ain’t.
    “Inception” feels self important & joyless, heavy-handed filmaking of the worst kind, and a waste of time.

  44. Asimov- thanks for reminding me about Interstellar. I had heard about that but I guess it fell off my radar. I hope it delivers. As much as I do love comic books and Star Treks and Wars, I feel like there’s been a severe lack of original big budget cinema these days. Everything seems to be based on something now. I miss going in to see a big tent pole picture with no expectations other than what I’ve seen in the trailers.

  45. Shalom – I think TDKR was the worst movie I saw in 2012. Which actually isn’t saying that much, considering how good 2012 was; but it was still pretty bad. I honestly don’t get what is supposed to be “good” about it. Here’s all the things I like about “Inception” which are missing from TDKR: the classic scoring (TDKR’s scoring was so bad, I couldn’t even hear most of the dialogue; although that might’ve been merciful, given its reliance on pomposities and punning, two things that I generally hate in movies anyway), the fantastic cinematography, the fine characterisation, the near-perfect puzzle-box structure of the film. Basically everything that I’ve come to rely on in Nolan’s best films was missing in TDKR. And yes, I too tend to hold Nolan up to a fairly high standard, although I’m hardly uncritical of all of his films – I thought “Insomnia” in particular had some problems – but it absolutely boggles my mind that the same creative brain can come up with both “Inception” and TDKR.

    Shoot – The limbo thing is brought up right after the characters have taken refuge in a (very convenient) warehouse. There have been snipers on the rooftops trying to kill them just seconds before then. It’s made crystal-clear that the “projections” are closing in on the characters and that time is of the essence, yet all of this is put on hold for a piece of clunky exposition (and it IS clunky, to the point where it almost seems to me to be out of character for Cobb to act as he does in that scene) that directly contradicts what we’ve been told before. This was NOT the time to introduce the concept of limbo.

    Compare that to “The Terminator”, where Reece has to explain to Sarah Connor exactly what danger she’s in and why, and only has a small amount of time to do it in. This happens throughout two very tense scenes – one chase, and that part where they’re hiding out in the car park – and it absolutely adds to the tension. It’s been made very clear to the audience by that point that Reece is for real and that Sarah’s survival depends on her trusting him.

    Casey – I’m never offended that people don’t like the films that I do like (although sometimes it annoys me when people praise films that I don’t think deserve it.) If you have a subjective problem with “Inception” then that’s fine. I have subjective problems with “Goodfellas”, to the point that I couldn’t watch it after the first forty-five minutes. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the film (I think, from the part that I saw, it’s a brilliantly-made film; I just cannot find anything to relate to with the characters.) I’m not going to say that “Goodfellas” is a bad film because I personally couldn’t relate to it. I think “Inception” has a lot of things that can be said about it that are objectively good, whereas TDKR has a lot of things that are objectively bad. The fact that TDKR’s score is so badly balanced that I can’t hear the dialogue properly – a problem I’ve had with almost no other films – is an objectively bad thing. The fact that some of the action scenes are staged in such a way that the average cinemagoer can’t tell what’s going on is an objectively bad thing. Even the problems I have with the lack of motivation for most of the characters, I would argue, are not just subjective.

    Hell, a lot of people dislike “Lost in Translation” – undoubtedly the best piece of visual filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and a film I absolutely love – because they can’t relate to the characters in it. That’s fine. The fact that a lot of other people didn’t have the same problem quite clearly demonstrates that the problem is with the viewer, not the film. Again, that’s fine: not everybody will have the same reaction to the same things (if they did, there’d be no new art made at all, because what would be the point?) What I would object to is when those people who didn’t like “Lost in Translation” turn around and say to me: “Well, it’s a bad film”. No, it’s not a bad film, it’s a film that they didn’t like. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

  46. Anyway, be back later, have to go watch “The Terminator” again.

  47. “I also find it funny that anyone can be so personally offended that someone doesn’t like Nolan, but also irrationally hates Abrams who has made some pretty okay movies. ”

    Casey – I wouldn’t put Abrams on the same level of Nolan, below him honestly.

    You all have heard my rants at Abrams before, how despite having skills and talent for action and working with a cast and FX and all that, he can’t transcend his sleeve-wearing influences. (I remember Vern agreeing with me.) Nolan on the other hand, I think he has that something extra which Abrams lacks and his films stand out above the pack. What is it exactly? Talent? Imagination? I don’t want to see its either specifically because that comes off as kinda snobby. Point is that dude gave us THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION. Abrams couldn’t have pulled off either, I’m sorry but let’s be honest. (Now BATMAN BEGINS? Maybe.)

    Or put it another way, how many times have you seen stuff in the last 5 years be described as “DARK KNIGHT-esque”? I mean that decent show ARROW is basically the Dark Knight-ed Green Arrow. You have that marketing which TDK’s marketing heavily influenced (including STID) and the last SPIDER-MAN film was observed (and criticized) for being Nolan-esque. Ignoring this knee-jerk backlash that’s hip today with some kids, let’s look longterm instead of the last 6 months. He actually made the industry and the summer blockbuster/comic book film genre react to his work, to rip off or try to one-up him. Going back, BATMAN BEGINS (along with CASINO ROYALE) are the blueprints of how to do a reboot “right,” whatever that may be. Hell how many films have we had since TDK where the supervillain gets himself captured so he can breakout for an ulterior motive? AVENGERS, SKYFALL, even STID, etc. Nolan has hiked his leg and made his mark.

    That doesn’t describe Abrams (at least as film director) at all. You don’t ever hear or read about a film being “Abrams-esque,” do you?

    This comparison doesn’t make any sense, but I think its like debating John Carpenter and Peter Hyams, both contemporaries of each other. Both made good movies (though Carpenter more consistently and many more gems) but Carpenter had his own style and attitude that was recognizable across genres. Hyams didn’t, just an efficient craftsman (at times) just working one job at a time.

  48. Ok, so there is back and forth about whether or not the spinning top matters at the end, or if the important thing is ambiguity. When I watched the movie I thought it was pretty clear that the top just keeps spinning, in fact it would be kind of impossible to “show” that the top keeps spinning, if you think about it. Would two full minutes of the top spinning be enough to convince everyone that the top was not going to fall over? An hour?
    Regardless, what killed this movie for me was the fact that AT NO TIME are we ever “outside” of a dream, therefore there is NO reality to refer to, no grounding frame, no actual people or characters to be invested in. Hell, even though DiCaprio is the ostensible main character, the dream could be anyone else’s, or maybe is just Nolan’s dream that he decided to film. There is no team of cat burglars riffling through other people’s dreams because there is never a moment that isn’t supposed to be layered in a dream already. The whole movie felt completely weightless and essentially meaningless as a result, I mean it looked cool, and the general idea is pretty cool, but there are no stakes at all. The nesting dreams thing was cool, but who cares? It is all a dream, nothing real, nobody wakes up and then there is a real world where anything that has happened in the movie has had any effect or consequences.

  49. If you listen closely, you can kinda hear the spinning coming to a close, but the movie ends right before you can tell for sure.

  50. Shoot – the big clue is in the perspective of the camera when Cobb wakes up. Again I make the comparison with “Unisol: Day of Reckoning” here. The big clue to the fact that the opening scene is all lin the protagonist’s mind (apart from the fact that it features Luc Devereaux doing something that he would never, ever do) is the fact that the whole thing is shown purely from the point of view of the protagonist. Keep that in mind when watching “Inception”‘s ending: the only time a main character is ever seen and it’s NOT from Cobb’s perspective is one single shot of Tom Hardy standing in the background behind him. Otherwise we either see directly through Cobb’s eyes (when he’s in his seat in the aeroplane) or from immediately behind him, with the camera following the direction of his gaze (the walk through the airport).

  51. Jacob – Well, obviously I disagree about the idea of there not being any stakes – the stakes are that he has to “inception” the guy AND rescue Ken Watanabe from limbo so that he can get back into the U.S. and see his children again, and also if anybody on his team dies in the dreams their brains will be fried unless he can rescue them too. So there are plenty of stakes. But also, as far as we know, the movie begins and ends in reality. It’s only one theory that it’s not, kinda like whether or not Deckard is a replicant.

  52. One thing to note, the top looks like it’s about to fall over…

    I was annoyed with the ending the first time I saw it, but on the second viewing I came around to how you see it, Vern. What I realized is: if Nolan had showed that top fall over, it’s a completely happy ending. But Leo’s character is haunted and that’s what Nolan wants to leave us with. We don’t know if he’s dreaming, and neither will Leonardo. Not realt. So we now feel the same way he does. I mean, he gets to play with and love his kids for the rest of his life, but there will be times when he wonders “What if?” He’d probably even wonder if the top DID tip over, is what I’m saying.

  53. asimovlives what if we think Abram’s Star Treks and Nolan’s last three outings are all dumber than five boxes of rocks at one level or another, but paper over their dumb–to varying degrees of success–with a variety of techniques that keep us from thinking “now wait just a fucking minute” at least until the last 20 minutes if not until after we are out of the theater and in our vehicles or on our bicycles or what have you? Is it OK to criticize Nolan if we do not also defend Abrams can I keep my decoder ring or what?

  54. I came around to this one. So much of the film is spent with the characters explaining the rules to you .. which is fine by me, I like movies to be excited about their rules and to have characters sit down and talk about them in a manner that indicates the filmmakers believe they have constructed a cool reality that is worth talking about, and not just making quips or whatever.

    But anyway for me I wanted to argue with them a lot about their explanations. Like 90% of the conceptual stuff they tell you in this movie I found unable to accept at first and/or ever. For example just because a rule applies to the relationship between Reality and Dream Level 1, we are meant to take for granted that the same applies from Level 1 to Level 2 and so on: a kick in a dream can wake you from a double dream, time slows down by another factor, all that. Cobb’s totem doesn’t make sense to me, it seems like it should work the opposite way that they claim it works (if someone counterfeited his top, wouldn’t it behave like a normal top and fall over?). The nature of projections and the whole delineation between dreamer and architect doesn’t make sense to me. Juno’s objection to Cobb keeping his wife locked up in the basement doesn’t make sense to me. Etc.

    Anyway I’m the sort of guy that 1) Assumes that if something doesn’t make sense to me, it’s probably because I missed something, and 2) Doesn’t give a shit if a movie’s rules don’t make sense as long as it adheres to them in an internally consistent manner. It’s just that the first time I saw it, so much of it deals with grappling with the rulebook that I dwelled too much upon it and didn’t get into the film’s emotional gravitas.

    Which to me, I noticed watching it for a 2nd time just now, definitely exists. Everybody seems to take for granted that the inception mission itself is just a plot device, but Scarecrow’s performance is quite intense and I found the father/son stuff to be quite moving. Also I remember what a revelation JGL’s performance was at the time, and although he’s a leading man nowadays and even a writer/director and all that I would say we have yet to see him top his performance in this film.

    I was REALLY excited for this movie when it came out because I loved Nolan’s wizardry in The Prestige, which to me is the film that really makes good on Memento’s promise and takes you on this insane ride. I went into INCEPTION expecting a similar number of twists and reveals and stuff… in retrospect it’s cool that it takes a different approach and is more conceptually fantastical and has a more action oriented plot, centering around a single heist.

    Source Code is fucking awesome too, I’m surprised people find it so mediocre.

  55. Also, if you think the conceptual exposition is annoying in Inception, take a lesson from Primer, where they have just as much dialogue-based exposition but take the dishonorable tactic of cheating and having it all be mumbled and spoken by characters speaking at the same time, almost as if they’re using slight of hand to distract you from the fact that exposition is taking place. Not cool. I did like Upstream Color, though.

  56. I’ve been revisiting a bunch of big(ish) movies from over the years that I haven’t seen for a while (DRAG ME TO HELL is still fantastic), and I just re-watched this one and it really is just a great fucking movie. Even better than I remembered it being and I remembered it being pretty fucking good. Outside of FURY ROAD it’s probably the last big movie I felt any sort of genuine emotional investment in, which is an aspect of the film people generally don’t talk about much or acknowledge, but I love that the story of Cobb and Moll is a great metaphor for how you can fuck somebody up when you’re in a relationship even without meaning to and in fact often times when you’re trying to help. And how when you share your life with someone you do build a world together and it can be easy to forget that outside of that world things don’t necessarily operate the same way as within. And in the film I found the exploration and resolution of that aspect of the story to be both deeply moving and actually really profound.

    It’s also just a rock fucking solid “men on a mission” movie that pretty much knocks all of the conventions associated with those joints out of the park, and has one of the all time great “Can you *fucking* believe that shit!?” wordless exchanges between DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt after they wake up on the plane. I also absolutely love the relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Hardy’s characters, and the fact that Cillian Murphy gives his absolute all to sell an admittedly not particularly interesting aspect of the story which I found myself kind of invested in because of how much he committed to the role.

    I’m usually not a fan of exposition-heavy movies (and this movie is certainly heavy on the old exposition) but the film doesn’t come to halt during these scenes. There’s always something else going on, some other layer added or explored, a new bit of business with the story, some background action that is helping to set-up or reinforce an aspect of the plot, some new concept or idea is introduced, some old idea is re-examined or expanded on, stakes are raised physically, conceptually or emotionally (or all three at once). Also I had actually forgotten just how many dreams-within-a-dreams they are in this thing so when it went further than I remembered it going in that department I laughed out loud at the sheer audacity of it all.

    I will also never forget the collective sound the audience made in the packed theatre I saw it in on opening night when the final shot cut to black. Great fucking movie.

  57. *Mal, not Moll. I have no idea why I wrote that but it’s possible I was thinking about MOLL FLANDERS for reasons I would have no idea how to explain.

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