Try Changing A Mind?
Sometimes a film comes along and it is meant to be the film to redraw the map of possibilities in film. ‘Avatar’ was such a film, as indeed ‘Titanic’, and maybe even the second Nolan Batman movie with Heath Ledger as the Joker was one of those films. It just seems like every blockbuster made in recent times has aimed for that title. It was probably true for ‘Avatar’ but it most certainly wasn’t true for ‘Jumper’, for instance.
It’s hard to say which films actually do change the way we see film and cinema itself until sufficient time passes, but more and more you get the feeling the premier directors of our time are going for the big one. This is good news because the largest segment of the market that pays the most for these blockbusters ought to be getting good content for their money as well as good effects.
It’s a very ambitious film from the screenplay up.
What’s Good About It
At least the script is an original screenplay and not some adaptation from a comic book or some game. It’s not as if it’s a small consolation given how unimaginative the Hollywood machine has become this decade. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to see a new sci-fi block buster special effects movie without knowing a thing about the script.
The acting is good. Leo is always good, but he seems to have hit a particular kind of zone in the last several films through ‘The Aviator’, ‘Shutter Island’ and now ‘Inception’, where he is playing characters in predominantly psychological dramas where his sanity is at stake, as opposed to more classical dramas where the action is extrinsic to the psyche. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as his sideman, and he has managed to bring in Lukas Haas (the guy who was once upon a time the Amish kid in ‘Witness’) from ‘Brick‘. Marion Cotillard as the anima made from the dead wife is also very good, but Ellen Page as Ariadne is a bit flat.
The visuals in parts are totally spectacular, while the action scenes have a taut, focused quality amidst all the spectacle of effects.
What’s Bad About It
The film is actually not that internally consistent to its own claims. The sense of passing time, and the levels of the dream state are all interesting but they begin to contradict each other in the third act. For instance Dream State 2 undergoes weightlessness for a very long time because of the free fall situation in Dream State 1. Logically the weightlessness should propagate to Dream State 3 and down to Dream State 4, but it doesn’t.
The other bad thing is the way the film ends with a very strong suggestion that Leonardo diCaprio’s character Tom Cobb is still in some kind of dream state because the top doesn’t stop spinning. It’s one of those endings that strongly suggest that the entire film is in fact a dream. Except when little kids tell this one, it ends with “and then they all wake up.”
I take strong issues with narratives where the narrator takes leave of his senses and responsibility to the audience and abdicates their authority over their own text. It might be trendy and post-modern but it makes for very dissatisfying films – not because it’s not a happy ending, but because in this instance it is a lame trick ending.
What’s Interesting About It
The film is in most part more interesting to analyse than any run of the mill Hollywood summer blockbuster movie, so what follows is not really me calling into question the quality of the film. It’s more of me spelling out immediate problems and contradictions to the story as I stepped out of the cinema. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read on.
I imagine that in years to come this film will become a touchstone of a particular kind of fragmented narrative. Its immediate precursor might be films like ’12 Monkeys’ and even ‘Brazil’ with its very tricky ending suggesting the breakdown between the nominal reality and the dream state within the main character. In some ways, the uncertainty is really Taoist – and you sure don’t see that everyday in Hollywood.
I always wonder about films that try to re-couch the entire experience in the dying minutes. It must appeal greatly to a certain kind of film-maker but it just doesn’t work for me. That being said when I think about the strange logical circle in ’12 Monkeys’ or the the Director’s Cut of ‘Blade Runner’ where it is strongly suggested that Deckard too is a replicant, then maybe there is a case to be made for a film with oblique endings. I absolutely hated the non-ending in ‘Atonement’ so you know I hate it when the author walks away from resolving his/her text.
The problem I’m having in this instance with ‘Inception’ is that if the final shot suggests Tom is still in a Dream State, then we will never be sure of the frame of reference that sets up the narrative. The problem then spills over into understanding the scene before it and the one before that until your doubts spread across the entire film. The audience’s doubt is in a sense tied deeply in with their bullshit sensor. If it’s all a dream, why should be care to invest as the audience?
Dream Within A Dream Within A Dream
In some ways it is a funny film because it launches off Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Dream within a dream‘ concept, but adds a variety of Hollywood devices to make its point. A film is actually a dream state of sorts as we suspend our disbelief.
John Gardner made the point in his work that a successful piece of fiction achieves the dream state consciousness in the reader – the continuity of the fictive dream as he called it – and went on to explain that good works of fiction allow us to keep on suspending our disbelief. It’s an interesting view, but I’ve never really been able to say with as much authority as John Gardner that it is the central purpose of fiction. But it is an interesting point he is making. So when we’re watching this film about a dream within a dream within a dream, we’re also dreaming to what the director is showing us. There actually is one more layer of dreaming.
When I complain that there’s not enough depth, I guess I’m complaining that the film actually only feigns to deal with what dreaming might be, and does not really tangle with it properly, all of it while shooting off into many story tangents. And there are many of those.
Too Much Story (Is Never Enough?)
There are a lot of story fragments in the film and not all of them get tied back in to the issue at hand, which is presumably to implant an idea into some stranger without getting noticed. There’s the Tom and his dead wife story which is a sort of story into regression to the origin. This is taking place while the main story ostensibly about putting the idea into some rich heir. But somewhere along the way we get regaled with the rather sad story about the relationship between the heir and his overbearing father and his various states of relationship with Tom Berenger’s attorney character. Then there’s the story of Tom wanting to go back to the USA which is the over-arching motivation, but is not the same story as Tom resolving his issues; this is because there’s another story of Ken Watanabe’s Saito character who initiates the central action but gets lost in the Dream State 4 limbo.
Now, the question is, wouldn’t just one of these story fragments properly fleshed out, have made a more compelling film given the setting, the material, the effects, the ideas and so on?
The text is very rich, but it is at the expense of digging deeply and this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film. It’s not bad, it’s just that it doesn’t go to the deep end of the emotional story. Maybe they’re redundant in the director’s mind, but they are the story fragments he‘s giving us to consider.
My “Hang A Minute” Moment
I’ve had a couple of days to think about the premise and how it plays out in this film and it bothers me that the great obstacle is the difficulty of implanting an idea into somebody’s head, an idea they didn’t have by themselves. If it were so hard, then I find it impossible to understand why anybody would put up a budget for an advertising campaign because that’s exactly what advertisers do: They plant an idea in your head – “I want that” – where it didn’t exist before.
If we think about Freud’s theory about desire, then at least we know that a person could probably be persuaded through their desire much more readily than even they themselves think.
In fact it brought to mind an old conversation I had, which involved trying to define propaganda. “Propaganda,” it was argued by pharmakeus’ brother, “is giving people ideas they wouldn’t ordinarily have by themselves”.
It’s actually a pretty good working definition when you think about it, but it also raises the question why they had to work so hard to plant an idea 4 dream realities down, when all they had to be was persuasive in perhaps one of the dream states.
Sometimes a film’s metaphorical retelling gets signaled to the audience by the author. Maybe it was really cool in the writing that the character played by Ellen Page was called Ariadne, given the labyrinthine plot, but in playing, it comes over as too obvious. If Tom Cobb is Theseus and what we are watching is the labyrinth of Minos re-played, I failed to see an obvious Minotaur.
I know analysing films through archetypes is always an interesting angle, but it seems when the same ideas are reverse engineered into a film, they seem forced. I don’t know if I’ve ever met any girl called Ariadne in real life, so the name just pops out at you, and then you are forced to wonder if the references to the maze and the labyrinth are going to lead to the minotaur. Now, it could be argued that they do encounter the minotaur in the guise of Tom’s ex-wife, but it seems a bit stretched. I’m filling in that detail because the film maker didn’t spell it out with the same plain-ness as he did with the other two parts of the myth.
The other question that comes to mind is that if it is a remodeling of the minotaur labyrinth myth, then why were all the other story elements so necessary. It seems like the film was overloaded with red-herring and mcguffins when it should have had the story honed down. In turn, the Ariadne character was busy spending a lot of screen time doing the exposition work which seemed really forced.
That being said, I did also wonder what Jorge Luis Borges might have made of this film, so it wasn’t a gratuitous thing to have the myth played in.