Inception (Nolan, 2010)
At some point in time every person sleeps, and at some point we all dream, but in this universal trait of humanity do we ever truly experience this sensation with any sort of uniformity? Is this uniformity even necessary in such a personal experience? What happens if our personal experiences, all of our repression, hopes, desires, and fears are not only open for others to witness but to directly manipulate to the point where we do not know if the process is even personal anymore? But, above all else, when we peel back all the layers of our dreams are we left with the purest essence of our thoughts or behind all the twists and turns - the layers and the puzzles - do we find a nothingness? Christopher Nolan's Inception literally delves into the dream world and starts working out these puzzles, taking us along for the ride as we hope to discover something, or rather anything, at the center.
Running throughout the film the script presents two recurring ideas: ideas can act as a cancer that grow and consume us, setting the stage for the titular act to take place, and dreams are elaborately constructed puzzles in which we willingly or unwillingly lose ourselves. And the entire film follows these ideas to their logical conclusions, adding in parlor tricks to cause the audience to further explore the puzzle in hopes of finding the definitive solution. Yet if we - as DiCaprio's Cobb does in the film - become too focused on this mystery, losing sight of the other elements that make up the film. And for much of the film Nolan's use of action and flash make for interesting spectacle to distract from the lack of substance behind the style.
But for each Joseph Gordon Levitt floating through layer two we also have Cobb explaining the previously unmentioned concept of Limbo, and then having Hardy and Levitt talk about it a few minutes later, and then Page doing so near the end of the film. The film is so loaded with exposition that the world and story have about as much breathing room as a man dangling from a noose constructed from the labyrinth the film displays.
And the deeper I venture into this maze I am able to find a few more conclusions, brief glimpses of answer and satisfaction amidst the entire transformation of cities and case scenes, but the farther in I go the more this creeping notion at the back of my mind becomes more and more prevalent: I am not watching people. By the end of the film we are, quite intentionally, left wondering just how much of the film is reality and how much is fabrication, but in this wonder compassion is absent no matter what conclusion is reached. I can understand the need to purposefully make many of the secondary characters two dimensional in order to make one specific interpretation work, but even if I overlook the lack of humanity on display from any of the secondary players then I should be able to feel incredible compassion, or at least understand the motivation, for Cobb.
Unfortunately Cobb is written in such a way that makes him neither sympathetic nor interesting, despite DiCaprio's best efforts to bring a level of humanity to the character. Cobb needs to get back to his children, to reconcile his past, by any means necessary, but we are never meant to know how honest he is in any of his actions (past, present, or future) until the film's conclusion, and for a specific interpretation to work even then we cannot be completely sure of what motivates the character.
Which reveals the film's most notable flaws. Nolan constructs a film that is so concerned with working as a maze that he fails to present any sort of overarching theme that ties the entire film together. Because the ending poses a very simple dualistic question to the viewer I am led to believe that the film is concerned with the nature of reality and perception, but even when considering if it connections to the meaning of perception the film does not necessarily relate it to any greater purpose. The film strives so hard to be a puzzle, to plant ideas in the viewer's head, that at some point each viewer is going to reach a satisfying conclusion, and then the film stops. I am not sure if I am finished with this film, if I have reached a comfortable conclusion, but I know that if I see it another time, or a few more times, eventually I will reach a point where I will have gotten to the end of the maze.
When I watch a film, when I enjoy a film, I am hooked by the theme, the promise that no matter how much I watch it I will continue to learn more about myself and my place to the world, that even when I reach a conclusion in a year, five years, fifty years I should be able to take what I have learned and discover more from the text. When I call a film, or any work of art, great I do so because it reveals a part of humanity, the film can never end. With Inception a promise of finality exists, found each time Cobb or one of his cronies gave a monologue explaining the intricacies of the world, or the repetition of these same rules time and time again in the film, in the most simplistic manner imaginable. Not only did I feel unfulfilled walking out of the theater, but as I draw closer to the end of the puzzle my sense of completeness will only lessen, and that thought depresses me.
Depressed. Unfulfilled. Hollow. Ultimately meaningless. These are the conclusions that I found in Inception; when the layers of dreams are peeled away, when the smoke has faded, when the mirrors have broken, the core of the film attempts to stand naked and nothing more than a shell remains. I have other problems with the film as well, such as an inconsistent use of shaky-cam mixed with fixed and quick cuts, and an imposing score that acts far too obviously and overtly in every scene. Yet the film has its share of positives including a phenomenal performance from Tom Hardy and some immensely intricate and engaging action sequences. But positives and negatives not only break down along with the film, they seem meaningless in comparison to the lack of any shred of humanity, any real theme or purpose. Like our dreams Inception is an escape that occasionally proves to be exciting and compelling, but eventually we are going to hit a kick, bringing back all the stark, harshly depressing realities.
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