Incept this: movies can be smart, and so can audiences ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Incept this: movies can be smart, and so can audiences

My rating:

I totally loved The Dark Knight. Screw anyone who didn't; I thought it deserved every critical rave it got, as well as every one of the $1 billion-plus dollars it earned at the box office. And that's the really amazing thing, that such a dark and uncompromising film could also turn out to be so universally popular. The lion's share of the credit has to go to writer-director Christopher Nolan; although his brother Jonathan and David Goyer contributed to the screenplay, it was Nolan's direction that took a typically dark Batman story (typical, in that the comics had been doing it for decades) and faithfully - and very effectively - translated it into film. A film that I'd gladly give 5 stars to.

Inception gets 4-½ stars from me. But goddamn, who's counting?

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an "extractor", a corporate spy who utilises futuristic technology to enter people's dreams and steal secrets from their subconscious. He is hired by a very wealthy and powerful man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform a wholly different job - that of inception, planting an idea into another person's subconscious in such a way as to make them believe the idea was their own. Most people think this is impossible, but Cobb accepts and begins assembling his team: point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and newcomer and "dream architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page). Their mark is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a billion-dollar corporate empire and Saito's business rival. But Cobb's subconscious is haunted by traumatic memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose manifestations threaten to wreak havoc with an already difficult job.

I feel it best to posit a warning for those intending to watch this movie: be prepared for people talking in the cinema. I've seen it twice now (and yes, that does put it in rare company), and both times there was someone in my audience who kept explaining the movie to their companions. Are you an inattentive viewer? When you go to the movies, do you think nothing of munching noisily on snacks, carrying a conversation with your friend or on the phone, or stepping out for a pee/cigarette/leg-stretching break? If you are, then do not watch this movie. This is a film that requires concentration. It demands your fullest attention. It necessitates you to continually think about what you're being shown and told. Which, by the way, is the proper way to watch a film, although films that reward this kind of mental investment are rare. And Inception's rewards are myriad and immensely rewarding. (Also, if you are that kind of viewer, screw you, and stay the hell away from any cinema I go to. And if instead you are the kind of viewer who likes to show off how smart you are during the movie, screw you too.)

But as complex as it is, and it is a very complex movie, it's still pretty accessible - provided you are able to pay attention. It lays out all the rules of the dreamworld(s) in elegant ways - expositional dialogue worked into scenes in which the plot continues moving forward, and/or there's something interesting happening on screen. The first time Cobb takes Ariadne on a tour of the dreamscape is the most obviously explaining-things-to-the-audience scene, and that's the one with the spectacularly trailer-and-poster-worthy scene of an entire city folding back on itself. It's only after the midway point of the film, in which the heist finally begins, that all these rules are demonstrated - and broken - in deliciously twisty ways. But while I'm still puzzling out all the details of its mind-bogglingly meticulous plot, the basic storyline remains clear and engaging throughout.

Because I guarantee you this: it all makes sense. Trust me. I know movies that tried to get all deep and complicated and failed to make sense, but this isn't one of them. It never lost me - in fact, I was constantly open-mouthed in awe throughout the film. Yes, Avatar did that to me too with its amazing visuals; Inception did it to me with both amazing visuals and amazing ideas. The dream-Paris scene had me awestruck even before the folding-over, because of Cobb's running explanation of how dream-sharing works. And then there are the legitimately awesome scenes, such as the hotel hallway fight scene, first with its constantly-shifting gravity, and then with zero gravity. Whoo. That. Was. An. Awesome scene, and I can guarantee you've never seen anything like it before. It's stuff like this that qualifies Nolan into the hall of all-time great film directors; he can make an effective blockbuster film, with plenty of action and spectacle and special effects, and still base it on fascinating ideas and genuine human drama.

And yes, there is genuine human drama in this film. I've heard Nolan criticized as being an emotionally cold director, but I don't think that's true; the emotions in his films are dark, not cold. Cobb reconciling with his memory of Mal is front and center in the story, but only a little to the periphery is the subplot of Fischer reconciling with the memory of his father. This is executed with as much care and attention as the former, and neither would've worked as well without some terrific acting. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy are faultlessly convincing, even if Murphy gets the somewhat thankless role of the mark - and even if DiCaprio, perhaps coincidentally, does a redux of his traumatised widower performance from Shutter Island (a film that is, perhaps coincidentally, similar to this one in more than one way). The rest of the cast are all charismatic performers who imbue their supporting roles with as much flair as they are allowed, but the standout is Marion Cotillard. Whoo, she is terrific - hers is the most emotionally complex role, and she not only pulls it off, she looks smokin' hot while doing it. No film with a performance like hers in it can be accused of being emotionally cold.

So why aren't I giving it 5 stars? For one reason alone: I felt that it started to drag towards the end, and that the editing there could've been tighter. (Whereas The Dark Knight had me gripped from start to finish.) But having read a number of negative reviews, I'll gladly defend it against any other criticism. Emotionally cold? No freaking way. The action scenes were lackluster? No, they were unremarkable but perfectly competent, and anyway, the hotel hallway fight scene, so there. The dreamscapes were mundane, and not as bizarre as we all know dreams can be? They're meant to be mundane, because the whole point is to fool someone into thinking it's real (on one level at least), and anyway the film already establishes that the more fantastical the dream gets, the more the subject rejects it. Mainly, my answer to these complaints would be that you can't have it all. What this film sets out to do, it does extremely well already, and I think that more than forgives the things it doesn't pay as much attention to - which, again, are perfectly competent at least.

Sigh... I know, my review is terribly late; most of you reading this would've seen it already. This has not been an easy one to write, and I doubt I did a very good job of it; I've been so caught up in discussing the movie, online and with friends, that I haven't given this review the attention it deserves. So let me close by saying this about Inception: you will discuss it. You will talk about it, right after you step out of the cinema and perhaps even days after. You will think about it - about the intricacies of its plot, about the rules of its dreamworld(s), about the themes and the issues it raises, and especially about the ending. (Whoo. What an ending.) And that's the beauty of this film; it makes you think, from the very first scene till the very last shot and long after. It's a film that proves that thinking about a film can be a terrific pleasure. So get on the forums, have long mamak-session debates, and talk about it till the cows come home. Better yet, watch it again. Prove to Hollywood that audiences are smart enough to enjoy smart movies, and that you want more of them.

Expectations: Azhari Bloody Zain again


TMBF said...

Sigh. Here's more proof that I've written a poor review: I have something else I want to say about it that I forgot to add. I believe this may be the first film designed to be open to multiple interpretations that actually worked for me, which makes it practically a blockbuster arthouse film - and I've never been a fan of arthouse films. I believe Nolan deliberately crafted it in such a way that, whether you believe the top stopped spinning or not, both interpretations are valid. In fact, there are a great many interpretations of this film, whether as dramatization of Jungian archetypes, or a metaphor for filmmaking itself, and that all are valid and deliberate by Nolan. Whoo.

quickfire said...

"They're meant to be mundane, because the whole point is to fool someone into thinking it's real (on one level at least)..."

But you see, no matter how weird things get in real dreams, you never actually realize you're in one... until you wake up. The movie even tells us this at one point, but then goes on to (sorta) betray itself.

"... and anyway the film already establishes that the more fantastical the dream gets, the more the subject rejects it."

Yes, but there was no need for the film to establish this. It could have gone in a more interesting direction. At the very least it should not need to be this conservative when it comes to dreams.

But... you might have a point in saying we can't have it all. In the end I felt this was a slight missed opportunity, but it's still a damn unique film, and one I'll recommend it as whole-heartily as you have.

Thristhan said...

Wow, very detailed write up. Gonna go catch the movie this weekend :).

profwacko said...

I love the fact that this movie make us think hard, interpreted what the end means... the story, the great scene, i just love it. Watch it twice already and mayb ill watch it again to satisfy my mind and viewing needs.

Ken Wooi said...

still havent watched it =/

fadz said...

bro, check on what Nazim Masnawi had to say about this film:

Though I dont actually agree that this is an arthouse cinema, it is surely my kind of blockbuster (gee, i passed on Predators though u gave a good 4 stars, i dunno, Predators are just not my kind of tea i guess) summer..

deck said...

I'm curious what your personal interpretation is. In my opinion, this is one of the weakest of Nolan's films so far. It's just too much of cop out. I loved how tightly Memento and The Prestige were plotted (and no, I believe that there is absolutely no room for multiple interpretations in Memento). But it's like Nolan wants to have his cake and eat it too in Inception. He creates doubt on every level, not just in the last scene of whether or not Cobb is still in a dream, but I believe even on the level of whether or not the whole premise of extractors and dream entering technology exist. I think that even saying everything is a dream right from the beginning and DiCaprio is just an ordinary guy taking his kids to the beach and no dream technology exists etc. is a perfectly valid interpretation. I, for one, don't think that's clever. I think it's cheap.

McGarmott said...

I think it is clever. I've always been annoyed by ambiguous endings - Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet comes to mind - but this is the first time where the ambiguous ending felt appropriate and strangely poetic.

For Inception is, at its basest, a story about a man trying to get back to his kids. From that point of view, whether you decide for yourself that it is a dream or it is happening for real, it is still a happy ending. (Notice how he doesn't bother to watch out for the totem's conclusion. He doesn't need to anymore.)

If, however, the audience member decides to pursue the matter further in order to derive a decisive conclusion, well, it's an exercise that is equivalent to the Penrose staircase eluded to by Arthur in the movie.

All this because Nolan (hypothetically) cut the last 5 seconds of that shot. Brilliant.

richdude said...

i've watch it last nite...u should give it 5 stars...and for the 1st time in my life, i ate my cinema's snack after the movie in my car...haha

TMBF said...

@fadz: Yes, I've read it. Great review, even though I don't agree with it.

@wankongyew: I don't think it's cheap either. Consider the ending of Total Recall, the one with Ah-nuld. It also casts doubt on what's real and what's not - did you think it was cheap as well?

deck said...

For one thing, Total Recall isn't exactly in the same league as Inception and I hold Nolan to a higher standard. For that reason, what would be acceptable in Total Recall (which is really to be expected anyway in the same cheap but ultimately necessary way that horror films always end with a shot that suggests that the defeated monster/ghost etc. might not be totally defeated after all) isn't acceptable in Inception.

For another, the doubt in Total Recall is binary. The doubt in Inception works on every level of the film. If the doubt in Inception is only about whether or not the last scenes take place in dreams or reality, I would be more inclined to forgive it. Though I still think ending with the spinning top is crass and heavy-handed. The shots of the children, the dream-like quality of the ending scenes and the knowing looks at the airport are all more than enough already.

chicnchomel said...

Personally prefered Shutter Island that this, but it's still a wickedly awesome movie.And Leonardo is one of the most underated actors out there.

Ahmad said...

Is there any point to figuring out the real story of “Inception”?
Actually there is. Do you want to think that Inception is a good movie or a great one? Do you care about having emotions about a film? Or about the characters in it?
To me, the best movies are the ones that make you FEEL something. Sadness, happiness, love, etc. If a movie can make you cry at the end because it was so damn good (like “Saving Private Ryan” did for me) then you know it’s really, really good.
I knew that Inception was a great movie and well done, but I personally really wanted to know EXACTLY what the movie was about (and a lot of it was unclear on the first viewing) and the biggest thing that kept bugging me is that no matter how I put the pieces together it just didn’t completely make sense to me. Something about Mal kept nagging at me as well as some of the concepts people were coming up with. Something was telling me that there was more to this story than trying to break into Fishcer’s mind, and I think I have finally “got it”.
The reward is that when you realize that it’s a LOVE story about a regular dude (Cobb) who’s wife (Mal) killed herself, it becomes an emotional movie, and not just a mental one.
When that idea hit me, and I realized that this was really a love story, and that the entire dream heist took place in Cobb’s head, then it really made me care about Cobb a whole lot more and it made the ending a really happy one instead of an ambiguous one.
The real story is absurdly simple: Cobb is just a businessman coming home from a trip who wants to get home to see his kids. After buying Robert Fischer Jr a drink to toast Robert’s late father (out of sympathy, not to drug him), Cobb fell asleep on the plane and dreamed the whole thing. All the other characters in the dream were just random people sitting in 1st class with Cobb, and Fischer became the focal point because Cobb was thinking about Fischer’s father’s death and his own wife’s death when he fell asleep. We learn about the circumstances of Mal’s death in the dream and about his love for her, and his guilt at not having been able to save her. She suffered from a mental illness, and even though Cobb taken her to see three psychiatrists who said that nothing was wrong with her, she ended up trashing their hotel room on their anniversary and threw herself off a building after talking some babble about getting on a train. It was the worst moment of his life, and her last words about the train are what are stuck in his head forever. Cobb’s whole struggle with Mal is about fighting between staying asleep and being with her in a dream or waking up and having her gone.
Cobb wakes up at the end of the flight, everyone in first class goes their separate ways (Eames isn’t even looking at Cobb at the end, he’s just some guy waiting for his bags). Cobb passes through immigration without a hitch and Cobb goes home and his kids are there, everything is normal. Grandpa picks him up at the airport and was watching the kids while Cobb was away because Cobb is a widower.
The top? It was just a keepsake that happened to be in his pocket which is why he spins it and casually walks away.
That’s it! Simple.
The “complex” version that everyone is arguing about and trying to figure out is that people are trying to make sense of the dream. Now, don’t get me wrong, the dream and story in it are totally amazing and I love it, because I love action movies and suspense movies, but ultimately the only 2 “main character” are Cobb and Mal.
The only thing I can say is try my version. Go back and watch the movie again in light of what you just read and see if it doesn’t kick the movie up to a whole new level.
Christopher Nolan deserves the Oscar for best picture. Period.

Amir_naufal said...

Nice one Ahmad..theres another version of the story that I really enjoy to hear...

Keep up with other theory coming. Im listening.