Inception: Why it’s not as awesome as you think (or as awful)

There seems to be something of a war going on over Christopher Nolan’s latest film Inception. On one side you’ve got the online critics (like Laremy Legel from Film.com), who seem to be in a competition to get a quote on the DVD box, and the print critics (like Andrew O’Hehir from Salon) who seem to be using the movie as an excuse to unload all their bottled up vitriol on the undereducated internet plebs.

If you haven’t seen Inception, it’s about a team of thieves who steal ideas from people’s dreams. They decide to attempt a supposedly impossible feat – planting an idea. It’s really cool to watch but it had major consistency issues and that’s all I can say to you right now without giving away the plot. If you want to keep reading, go see the movie. I’ll wait.

Back? Well, just to be safe, I’m going to give this warning (cover your ears).

CAUTION! THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS! DO NOT CLICK ‘READ MORE’ UNLESS YOU ARE OK WITH BEING EXPOSED TO SPOILERS!!!!

For those of you who have seen Inception and were confused by it, you may be interested to know that this is not your fault.

I suspect that the hype created by the internet reviewers (who have a much faster turnaround than the print critics and can therefore get their opinions out first) has seduced a lot of people into thinking Inception is going to change their lives. When they see it and are less than inspired to create a cult surrounding its worship, they chalk it up to some failure on their part and join their friends in clamoring that it’s the best movie EVAAR!

Inception is not the best movie ever. It’s not even well written (which is one of the most popular claims in the blogsphere) because movie critics who are not screenwriters often mix up the concepts of “good idea” and “good writing.” Inception was a good idea – it was imaginative and original. It was not well written – the script should have been polished further before filming, because it established a set of world rules and then failed to follow them.

However, it’s not the worst movie ever, either, and it certainly wasn’t “shorn of imagination.” I suspect many late coming critics are claiming that it is just so their reviews won’t be lost among the ones churned out by the gushing masses.

Both the successes and the failures of Inception can be attributed to Christopher Nolan, since he not only directed Inception but wrote it too.

Inception – The Failures

Dom receiving a kick from Inception

Movies don’t have to reflect reality. They can exist in worlds where it is possible to bend Paris over on itself or die without consequences, but if they’re going to use laws of existence other than our own real world ones, they must use them consistently.

In Inception Christopher Nolan establishes early on that:

– if you are killed in a dream you simply wake up
– to wake up without dying your sleeping body must receive a “kick” (fall over) in the real world
– the “architect” designs the setting of the dream
– the “dreamer” (whoever goes under first) fills the dream with people that are projections of his or her subconscious

For most of the movie, Nolan follows his own rules. It’s only once they get into the layered dream where they’re attempting to plant an idea into Robert Fischer’s head that it all starts to fall apart and some people start getting confused. This confusion isn’t a failure of intelligence on their part, it’s a sign of good pattern recognition. The rules were being followed, until suddenly they weren’t.

Nolan establishes that in this layered dream if you die, you don’t wake up, because your real body is too heavily sedated. You drop into a pure-subconscious dream layer where you will be stuck and go crazy. That’s fair enough, it increases the stakes. That’s good writing.

Saito and Dom from Inception

Saito (Ken Wantanabe) dies in the third layer of the dream and drops into the coma layer as dictated by the new rule. Then a minute later, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) dies and instead of going to the coma layer, ends up in a fourth dream layer, which breaks the rule.

Nolan explains this away by saying Mal (Marion Cotillard), a projection of team leader Dom’s wife, has “kidnapped” him. Early on in the movie it was established that Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) felt so guilty over his wife’s death that he kept making unconscious projections of her in dreams that screwed things up. At no point was it ever suggested that projections could act independently of the consciousness they came from – i.e. that Mal could go to different layers of the dream without Dom.

Even if we accept this unexplained late-stage change in dream mechanics, Nolan makes more mistakes down in Level 4 of the dream involving the “kick” (the method used to wake up from a dream).

Early on Nolan establishes that the kick (or feeling of falling) has to be delivered to your sleeping body, not to your dream self in the dream. The planned structure of the simultaneous wake-up calls from the layered dream only partly reflects this:

Reality: Airplane – sitting in seats (no kick)
Layer 1: City – driving off a bridge in a van
Layer 2: Hotel – blowing up the floor and falling through
Layer 3: Ice Fortress – shouldn’t need a kick
Layer 4: Ruined City – unplanned, shouldn’t need kick

The first mistake is that there should be a kick at the reality level. This would have been easy to do, just have the pilot put the plane in a dive. Perhaps Nolan just forgot to mention that this was the case.

Arthur in the zero-g fight from Inception

When things get more complicated, characters have to fly by the seat of their pants to fix things. For instance, when the van drives off the bridge, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who was left awake in Layer 2 while the rest of them went to sleep to go into Layer 3, missed his timing for the kick that was supposed to bring everyone back from Layer 3. However, even though they couldn’t be pulled out because they were asleep, he should have been because he was still awake.

Instead, Layer 2 goes to zero-gravity while the van is falling and Arthur has a few extra minutes (due to the time difference between dream layers) to run around rigging an elevator to create artificial gravity. The zero-g is another oversight, since zero-g gives you the feeling of continuous falling, and therefore the Layer 2 sleepers should have had the “falling” kick anyway and returned from Layer 3.

Even ignoring that and moving on to Layer 3, Eames (Tom Hardy) has to think fast to create a kick that will bring Dom, Robert, and Ariadne (Ellen Page) out of Level 4. He devises a plan to blow the floor of the ice fortress, which is fine.

However, they have to defibrillate Robert to bring him back to life before they deliver the kick, which wakes him up. If that’s all it took to bring Robert back from Level 4, why did Dom and Ariadne have to go after him in the first place?

Dom's top from Inception

And down in Level 4, Ariadne sees the lightning indicating Robert is being zapped and throws herself off a building to go back into Level 3 while Dom stays behind at the kitchen table intending to go into the coma level to bring back Saito. This is a mistake. The “falling” kick is delivered in the layer above, not the layer you’re in, so Ariadne throwing herself off the building should have caused her to dream-die and end up in the coma level with Saito while Dom, who did nothing, should have ridden the kick back to wakefulness. This mistake is easy enough to fix – just reverse their actions.

The inconsistencies don’t end there, either. Down in the Coma Level, Saito and Dom meet again, and Dom convinces Saito to kill himself to wake up back in reality. If all you had to do to get out of Coma Level was kill yourself (again), why was ending up there such a big deal?

Outside of the inconsistencies, I had more reasons not to be overly impressed with Nolan’s writing:

– The ending was set up as a “revelation” but was easy to see coming
– The ending was only slightly less cheap than “it was all a dream!” because the top was beginning to wobble when Nolan cut away
– Mal left a letter with her lawyer framing Dom for her murder, but how could there not have been any witnesses to them screaming at each other from opposite buildings in a busy city?
– Dom was worried about getting caught by immigration officers at the L.A. end of the flight from Sydney, but wouldn’t he have been caught getting on in Sydney and extradited anyway?
– With all Dom’s connections in the crime world, there was really no one who could forge him a new passport so he could go home?

Of course, having said all that, there’s still a lot about Inception to get excited about.

Inception – The Successes

Paris bending on itself from Inception

For one thing, a big budget movie based on a totally original idea actually got made. Granted, it probably only got made because it was Christopher Nolan’s idea and not Joe Obscure Screenwriter’s idea, but it got made nonetheless, scoring points for originality in a world where movies like Transformers 2 make millions of dollars.

The world Nolan created, where cities can be bent and built and subconscious projections can rip you to shreds like dream white blood cells if they feel like you’re changing too much is fascinating and exciting to watch. I doubt there was anyone who was bored by Inception, and not boredom = entertainment.

the Mr. Charles gambit from Inception

The plot, when it isn’t messing itself around, is intelligent and complex. The “Mr. Charles” gambit, where Dom poses as Robert’s own head of dream security in order to turn him against his own subconscious, was especially clever.

As I’ve said repeatedly, a few mistakes need not ruin your enjoyment of a film or keep you from loving it. I love Terminator Salvation, a film everyone and their dog ripped on and was far from perfect, but it just hooked me and drew me in. Inception has that hook for a lot of people too, and that’s probably the most important part of filmmaking.

My point is that Inception is deserving of both praise and criticism, just not to the excess that I’ve been seeing. Like it, love it, hate it, whatever, just form your own opinion. Don’t just ride whatever wave is coming your way.


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