Sunday, August 8, 2010

Inception - When Conceits Run Amok

After a few abortive starts I finally sat through a showing of Inception (spoilers below), the latest huge-budget logic puzzle adapted to film by Christopher Nolan. I credit Nolan and the others behind this film for casting Ellen Page in a moderately off-type role, and for casting in general; for the visual effects, which were compelling at times without seeming extraneous to the story; for the soundtrack; and for the way it lends itself to speculation and conversation.

Above all, in agreement with Mark Kermode, I appreciate the ways it gives the big budget treatment to a film aimed at non-stupid material, themes, and audiences: that it requires the viewer's full attention from end to end, that it trades in a handful of sophisticated ideas without pausing to supply the elementary school summary for every little twist, and that it represents new material, not an adaptation of a comic book, not a remake of an existing film, not part N of an existing film "franchise."

The news isn't all sunny. Maybe this is the not-a-big-fan-of-logic-puzzles in me speaking, but I found it less than spectacular. There are probably exceptions to this, but I find it very difficult to embrace films whose central conceit doesn't hold up, and the central conceit of Inception does not hold up. Let me list a few ways, and I promise to try to be brief:
  • In a world forged completely from a dreaming subject's unconscious projections, how can anything, let alone anything consequential, take place far afield of the dreaming subject's conscious projections? I am already pre-declining the purchase on the explanation, but I admit the possibility that this was explained along the way.

  • Once L-d-C's character broke his own rule not to call the dreaming subject's attention to the dreaming state, and leveraged this to gain the trust of the subject, why didn't the first team of consciousness-defending gun-toting projections vanish? Or stop fighting against, or indeed assist, L-d-C's team? If the dreamer is conflicted over whether to accept one team of defenders or another, is this the form such a conflict would be expected to take in the unconscious -- the teams shooting it out, one chasing and one being chased, with the dreaming subject enjoying the conversation and arguments of only one of these sides? Really?

  • By the way, why was the team of consciousness-defending projections so lame? Why were they, for starters, mortal? Why did their guns run out of bullets? Why weren't they dragons, vampires, Terminators, Jedis, clones of Bruce Lee, or advanced cybernetic dragon-vampires as skilled with light sabers as Bruce Lee would be? Dudes with pistols? Really? That's your go-to defense in dreamland?

    I think this is the time to let the world know that my subconscious defense team consists of fearless, verbally-abusive cartoon leprechauns. They know everything they need to know about weapons and tactics, and if they could die, they would willingly die in my defense, issuing hilarious, salty imprecations as they did. They were my enemies when I was a child, but we have since reconciled and now they fight for me. Bring your worst, bitches! You're not getting any of my billion-dollar secrets! (If I have any, could you please attack so I'll know to hunt around my own unconscious for them?)
  • Um, we are to believe that L-d-C gave his wife the idea that nothing is real and that dying leads only to waking up to reality? All his deep-seated shame resides in the inception-izing of that idea in her head? She wouldn't have encountered that along the way in this line of work? Sorry, no. That idea is central to everything they do. Going slightly crazy in the direction of losing sight of the dream-reality line is an obvious occupational hazard, and it takes the slightly-crazed state to make this idea lethal. Again, maybe I missed it -- was his guilt's source actually in having made her a little bit crazy? It seemed pretty clear to me that he located his guilt in having planted the dying-is-OK-because-nothing-is-real idea.

  • I find it hard to believe that the inception team didn't have a ready means of making a quick exit once the idea was planted. Why were things still in so much doubt after billionaire junior got the desired idea in his head and in the right way? Indeed, wouldn't you want to depart the dream state as soon after the inception as possible, to maximize the chances that the dreamer won't conjure up a bunch of other stuff that gets in the way of the idea and competes with it in the what-is-remembered-from-the-dream space?

  • This isn't quite a stretch of the conceit, but close enough: why do I care? Why do I care if one billionaire plants a business-favorable idea in the head of another? Granted, I care a little more if L-d-C's character overcomes his guilt or whatever, but really, isn't there a more compelling application of all this amazing sight and sound?

  • Is this really the way a savvy billionaire chooses to alter the behavior of a competitor? This might have been a movie in which a savvy billionaire maneuvers not through the mind of a competitor but through the halls of a legislature to win business-favorable anti-monopoly legislation. That would have been dull too, but truer to its dullness.
Notwithstanding the above, I plan to assign it three stars out of five on Netflix and IMDB -- good but not great.

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