Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Movie review: Inception

This is a review of the movie Inception. It contains plot spoilers. If things like this can ruin your movie experience and you haven't seen the movie yet and intend to, please don't read any further.

I saw the movie Inception on Simcoe Day and my feelings about it are mixed, and, I confess, on the whole, negative. I'll start off by saying it's a tour de force, visually pleasing and even stunning without ever being over the top. It's well-acted and I had no problems with the cast (although I have to wonder why the inestimable Michael Cane appears for all of two minutes in the movie, only to essentially vanish utterly afterward... a cameo? Did Christopher Nolan owe someone a favour?). It's intricate and complicated and requires that you pay attention; despite that, it did not seem overly long, as such movies often do. It features a highly intriguing plot device: new technology that enables people to share a mutual dreamscape. But for me, the movie suffers from a forced premise and a moral vacuousness I found disturbing.

Roger Ebert calls it "a breathtaking juggling act", which I find apt because that's exactly how I was characterizing the plot to myself as I left the theatre. If that kind of thing in and of itself impresses you, this is definitely a movie for you. But I need more: I need for the plot devices and suspension of disbelief to hold together or I tend to bail. And in this "juggling act", I was seeing too many strings. A lot of the juggling was really yo-yo work masquerading as juggling. What I mean is, there was too much special pleading in the movie. I'll come back to this. But I've seen movies like this before that manage their precepts much more adroitly and don't require special pleading to move forward. It's been achieved by Guy Ritchie nigh-flawlessly in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and somewhat more sloppily in Snatch, and with a terrifyingly nightmarish reality by Scott Raimi in A Simple Plan. Inception falls short of those high water marks.

In some senses, it tells something of the same story as The Matrix, inasmuch as it's about making choices about what kind of reality you want to subscribe to and how dreams and waking states can influence each other in complicated ways, and to which it compares favourably because it does so in ways that aim higher than getting 12-year-old boys to croon "coooool!" from the front row; it's a far more mature and believable exploration of the idea. In other ways, it tells something of the same story as Brainstorm, in that it examines the ramifications of technologies that enable humanity to finally open and manipulate the black box of personality and experience. But here Inception compares unfavourably, because Brainstorm follows a narrative that's far more natural, believable, human, and—most distinctively of all—has a moral centre utterly lacking in Inception.

Special pleading

In discussions I've had with theists on the nature of things, I've become aware of a flawed process of logic often used in religious matters called special pleading. Essentially it's aimed at insisting that certain rules or preconditions crucial to other logical arguments can be ignored in cases where someone needs them not to apply. For example:

Theist: Where did everything come from, if God didn't create it? It couldn’t just have created itself.

Atheist: Well, then, where did God come from? Did he just create himself? If not, who created him? And who created that creator? And so on...?

Theist: God's different; he's just always existed.

Atheist: Why couldn't the universe just always have existed in some form then, and never required a creator?

Theist: Because everything that exists has a beginning.

Atheist: Well, you say God exists. Therefore, doesn't he have a beginning?

Theist: I told you; God's just always existed.

...at which point, the argument typically circles back and becomes a loop of theistic illogic. This is special pleading: rules don't apply because some aspect of the argument fails if they do. This kind of thing happens in a number of places in Inception.
Nolan spends the first quarter of the movie layering on The Rules of How Dreams and Extraction Work (in spirals I found almost comically similar to Capt. Kirk explaining the rules of "fizbin" to the gangsters in the Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action), and then uses, abuses, or ignores them as required by the plot. You know when they spend the first couple acts of the movie just laying out the ground rules, concept is being sacrificed for the sake of Keen Plot Stuff to Come Later. Instances of special pleading that bothered me were:
    • Saito's imaginary wound and that awful imaginary French song are factors all the way down, from dream level to dream level, but the disturbances in gravity due to an imaginary van falling backwards into imaginary water only factor in one other level, where it was clearly set up to allow for a lot of visually cool zero-G fighting. But where the zero-G fighting would have been inconvenient (try shooting that outside a snow fortress), the effect somehow failed to trickle down. Special pleading.
    • Projections of Cobb's mind kept showing up in other people's dreams, with no explanation. We're just expected to accept that they're there because he's on screen. Shouldn't they have been the freaked out bugbears of whosever dream they were actually in, instead? Special pleading.
    • If getting Fischer to accept a little idea whispered in his ear was such a big deal, why was it no big thing at all to get him to accept as a natural part of his own dream an entire mountainside and a snow fortress  designed by doe-eyed co-ed? (Fischer even blames himself at one point for not dreaming of a beach instead!) Why didn't that set off this carefully-honed dream bullshit detector we've been assured that everyone has, upon which the whole premise hangs? And if it didn't, why wouldn't Cobb have been able to walk up to Fischer in the first dream and just go, "Wooo, I'm the ghost of your conscience, sell your companies off, woooooo!!"? Special pleading.
    • Everyone runs around the second half of the movie under threat of madness caused by apparent decades in the "limbo" of Cobb's mind (why his mind, particularly, especially if the dreamer changes at each level?) because the drug required to pull this off conveniently precludes simple waking. And yet, when Saito "dies" and quite obviously does spend the equivalent of decades growing old in the limbo of Cobb's subconscious (which turns out to be a well-appointed house with oaken rooms beside a beach; not quite the hellish purgatory we'd been led to expect), he wakes up none the worse for wear on the plane and reaches for his phone instead of clawing his eyes out and screeching in unimaginable madness as we'd been assured he would, with a brain turned to mush and all. I guess it would have strained his credibility when he called up the State Department or whoever to have Cobb's record expunged and demanded to talk to the Chief High Pink Elephant. So, special pleading.
    • The bête noire of the movie, Cobb's (frankly detestable) wife Mal, is not really Mal at all. She's nothing more than a figment of his imagination manifesting on the one hand his yearning for what he's lost, and on the other his guilt for what he did (this seems to be the only morally redeeming thing about the character of Cobb whatsoever, by the way; not that he learns a single thing from it). And yet "she" (and remember, "she" is really "him") is surprised to learn that Cobb implanted the idea in her head that proved fatal. But as a part of his mind, and one generated at least in part by a sense of guilt out to torture him, this projection of Mal would know that. She knows everything else about his motivations and desires, and even minutiae like the layouts of mazes he plans. It makes no sense at all that she would not know something that looms so large in Cobb's mind as the root cause of her suicide, since it's his guilt for causing it that gives rise to "her" in the first place. Special pleading.
    • It's given to us that Fischer is highly aware of the process of dream extraction (think freight train). And yet, that the guy on the plane sitting right behind him, and whom he sees in the airport after the dream, is also the one he sees in his dream conspicuously guiding and manipulating him doesn't seem to be an issue, either to him or to Cobb himself. How dumb is Fischer? How much does Cobb trust his luck? Special pleading.

    The moral vacuum

    Inception is a movie utterly devoid of a moral compass. In a sense, it's a retelling of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers... where we're being asked to cheer for the Body Snatchers. At the heart of this movie is this: people gain the ability to hotwire and fundamentally change an aspect of the personality of another human being against his will, to their colossal benefit and against his own interests, and the movie rewards them for it.

    This is a monstrous idea. I wanted to see these people fail, suffer for attempting it, and learn from it. None of that happened. Jan Egelson got away with this kind of thing in A Shock to the System (starring Michael Cane, ironically) by making the protagonist a deeply sympathetic character; it was a rare instance of cheering for the bad guy because he wasn't really a bad guy. But the people in Inception have virtually no sympathy for others and essentially no deeper humanity about them, other than their own self-interests. Any reptile capable of speech could have carried this plot.
    • Early in the movie, Cobb, Arthur, and a man named Nash are working on Saito. It goes wrong, and they end up caught. But for some reason, Nash is hauled away to a fate unknown (but assumed to be death) while Cobb and Arthur are essentially free to walk away, supposedly thanks to Saito. (First of all, this strikes me as unlikely. Nash was just the guy who designed the mazes. Taking it out on him but not the masterminds is like bursting armed to the teeth into the offices of a newspaper that slandered you and blowing away the crossword puzzle guy, but tipping your hat the editor and publisher as they stroll out the door for a four-martini lunch.) Neither Cobb nor Arthur so much as raises an eyebrow about it, or even a tsk-tsk-tsk. I don't know about you, but if Saito were asking me for my singular skills, the first condition I would have made was, "Alright, but get on the phone right now and get our buddy off the hook." But no, not a word. They didn't even try. Even if the answer had been no, they were obliged as human beings to make some kind of effort, and they didn't. So right off the bat they started losing me. Why should I waste emotional capital investing it in these remorseless bloodsuckers?
    • Relatedly, when Ariande realized that Cobb had these demons that were a dire and direct threat to the team, two moral failings were revealed. First of all, that Cobb was, again, ready to put his friends through hell (remember, at the time, we were assured anyone who "died" in the dream was fated to torture unto madness in "limbo") in the hopes of getting what he wanted. Secondly, that Ariande, instead of being horrified and revealing this to the others so they could make an informed choice, kept it to herself and merely periodically badgered Cobb to tell them, like Ann Landers or some other agony aunt. Why would she do that? Why was respecting his right to privacy (the ultimate irony, given the nature of the movie) more important than the right to sanity of a half a dozen other, deliberately-deceived people?
    • It's also related to us that in real life, Cobb's wife Mal committed suicide to "wake up", believing even the real world to be a dream thanks to Cobb's interference with her fundamental character. Aware of how the dreaming world works, the logic of it would lead such a person to say to the other, "Alright, you don't believe it's a dream. That's fine; I'll simply jump off the ledge and wake myself up, and when I do, I'll just roll over and wake you up, too. See you in a minute...", and then jump. Mal would obviously know that. Instead, the movie tells us that, for no logical reason whatsoever, this soul vampire of a woman, thrice-pronounced sane, decides to frame the man she supposedly loves for murder, costing him his family and his freedom if he doesn't bend to her will and jump too. Why would a loving spouse mentally torture the other in the full knowledge that, if she's right, she'll be waking him up herself in ten seconds anyway? Again, the message is that the rights and considerations of others are utterly dispensable and you're right to use whatever means available to force others to do what you want.

    Worst of all is what's being done to Fischer. He is changed against his will, and becomes the tool of the will of another. That the movie gives him a cookie in the form of a fake catharsis (that is, after all, itself simply the sugar coating on a form of suicide pill) does not excuse what's being done to him. He goes to sleep on the plane a free man, and wakes up loving Big Brother. And we're meant to applaud this as a skillful accomplishment.

    Consider this. The act that ruins Cobb's life, costs him his wife, his children their mother, and his wife her discernment and finally her very existence, is the very same one he chooses to get his freedom back. Forcing his will on a person he loved, to expedite getting what he wanted, destroyed her. And yet, he's ready, willing, and able to do it to someone else, again, as a shortcut to getting what he wants. Despite the death of the woman he loved, other people remain tools to achieve his desires, even unto slavery. Epiphany: none; moral and spiritual growth of protagonist: none. How is it possible not to despise this man, and his all-too-willing cohorts?

    What was done to Fischer was very much like deliberately passing someone a computer virus; the movie even points that out, but fails to follow that through to its moral conclusion: it exists simply as a means to explain the process to the audience, and in spite of it costing Mal her life, is never mapped out as territory that should not be trespassed, ever. Fischer's "Rosebud" moment with his father isn't even worthy of a comparison, because it's an illusion; it's nothing more than his own interpretation of a poisonous splinter pressed into his mind to fester; magic worked against his own free will. We have no idea what Fischer's father's opinion of him actually was, and neither does Fischer. Would the audience have been accepting of an outcome in which Fischer's conception of his father had, instead, compelled him to sell his companies off and then blow his brains out? Effectively, the results for the team would have been the same: Saito would have gotten what he wanted, Cobb would have gotten what he wanted, the other members would have gotten what they wanted (money, presumably). Again, Fischer was expendable; they didn't care what happened to him as long as he performed as programmed. The movie gives him a "happy" ending to assuage the consciences of the audience, and the protagonists (assuming they have any, which I doubt). In this, too, I think it lets us down.

    How is what was done to Fischer in any way different from locking a man in a room full of laughing gas, getting him to sign away everything he owns to you, and then leaving him there for the rest of his life? Why are we asked to endorse this, and cheer that people get away with it?

    I wanted them to fail. I wanted Fischer to smell a rat and have them arrested. I wanted Cobb to spend the rest of his life pining for the children whose mother his tinkering destroyed. I wanted Saito to wake up mad for daring to steal the mind of his legitimate competitor. I would have applauded the movie as a cautionary tale with an eye to the future if it had had the moral strength to do this. But no. The movie turns Fischer into a slave, and rewards his captors handsomely.

    To sum up

    In the end, overall, I was disappointed because the movie was a great concept hijacked by a James Bond movie. Instead of starting with an idea (a new ability to share a dreamscape) and seeing where it naturally leads, Nolan has taken that idea, married it to a preconceived end, and then hammered, sawed, and welded in into something awkward to suit that purpose. Extraneous characters and rules and exceptions to rules are larded on to fit the needs of an action flick—and not one that grew organically from the original concept, but was shoehorned in.

    It's worth seeing, but I don't think it's exceptional. But it could have been.


    Peter said...

    I've always been a fan of anti heroes. Taxi Driver is a good example of this. I'm not sure why you insist on a standard morality to be imposed on this film, Mr Primate. It's refreshing watching a film portray bad guys as bad guys and still rooting for them. What makes these bad guys so good is that they are so charismatic and, ultimately, human. Cobb is a man who has really lost his way.
    Another thing I love about Inception is that it's another fantastic case of Nolan taking a fresh and surprisingly realist approach to a genre film. In this instance, it's Nolan does cyberpunk. If you've ever read any William Gibson, you'll see in Inception the same kind of technology, anti hero characters and set ups. However, in the hands of Nolan, the cheesiness (that I confess to enjoy) of Gibson is given a contemporary and stylish overhaul.
    I didn't mind the obvious plot devices that didn't quite wash because, in the ultimate sleight of hand, a few of them can be answered by recourse to the fact that it's all been Cobb's inception, ie. he can go home (which he does). I might be wrong, but I thought his wife was bluffing about the "in the event of my death" letter to force his hand (ie. to jump with her). In that way, she used a more conventional inception on him and it is this that propels much of the narrative of the film and the motivations of everyone in it (ie. they need a water tight inception to get Cobb on that plane).
    I need to see it again - I watched it at IMAX at midnight on the day it was released and I was very tired because I work too hard.
    *I work to hard.*
    Someone needs to put an inception in my head that I need to work less.
    I'm definitely going to see it again.

    Lone Primate said...

    "I've always been a fan of anti heroes. Taxi Driver is a good example of this."

    It is, but for good reason. Travis was unquestionably psychotic, but he was redeemed by the tendency to bend his psychotic urges to rescuing Iris from remorseless predators. There was a very crude justice in his actions; legally, it can't be justified but what he did was essentially a selfless act aimed at saving an innocent from destruction at the hands of malicious people. The movie didn't shoehorn that in; it grew organically from the nature of Travis's life and circumstances. That's not the case in Inception.

    "I'm not sure why you insist on a standard morality to be imposed on this film"

    It's hard not to put a fine point on it, so I will. What these people did was a form of date rape; it was psychological rather than physical. If someone is used simply for the ends of other people, does the fact that the victim wakes up in the morning feeling refreshed and unaware that a rape took place excuse the act? I should certainly hope not.

    I would have been more comfortable with the movie, even if they'd gotten away with it, had the writers not worked so hard to put these wolves into sheep's clothing. This one just wants to be a daddy again. This one wants the save the world from an energy monopoly. This one just wants to build things she never could otherwise. This one helps people dream. This one got one last pat on the back from dad. What a saccharine puppet show designed to distract us from the reality that what we really have here is a relentless identity thief, a conscienceless corporate vampire (who apparently wouldn't blink at murder), an architect-cum-B&E artist willing to break into the minds of others and use them as the sand box for her castles, a drug peddler taking advantage of human suffering, and a man pursuing his natural business interests who has his personality hijacked and his career flown into a mountain for the benefit of others. What happens to Fischer is no different from what happens to Winston Smith in 1984, with the exception that Fischer isn't even aware the core of his individuality has been violated and destroyed. Most objectionable of all is that this is portrayed as an all-around good thing with no consequences. A far better movie would have been the one only passingly related: where Cobb does this to Mal, and their lives are shredded. That's the story Inception needed to tell, and in great detail. Instead it was simply used to provide scene after scene with an Evil Otto to chase all the humanoids into the next maze.

    "I might be wrong, but I thought his wife was bluffing about the "in the event of my death" letter to force his hand"

    There's nothing to indicate this in the movie, and a number of things that contraindicate it. Cob is unquestionably physically estranged from his children. The first thing he discusses with his father is the state of the US-France extradition process. Saito immediately reaches for his phone upon awaking to the successful cranial ass-rape of his competitor, presumably to clear Cobb's warrants, further breaking the law—but of course, all in a good cause because we all know Cobb is a good guy who would never kill his wife... just turn you into Bozo the Clown in your sleep if someone paid him enough money. Mal committed the same act as Cobb, just more clumsily: attempting to forcefully override his sense of reality, and so malicious was she that she was prepared to punish him with prison and the loss of his children if he dared to refuse to adopt her will as his own. The movie is rife with objectionable behavior of this kind, but treats every instance along the way as though it were the right of those who violate the integrity of others to do so.

    Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

    I didn't read beyond the first part because you warned that there would be spoilers. Everyone who I've heard talk about "Inception" says that it's good, so I'm definitely going to see it.

    De Caprio kind of leaves me cold but he's been in a lot of good movies, much like Travolta, whose movies I often like but who makes me want to yakk. :-)

    After I've seen the movie, then I'll come back and read your entire blog about it.