Now that we have all seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception, let’s criticise the movie. My friends won’t like it. When you have enjoyed the film, why to criticise it, they say. Yes, I enjoyed the experience. I loved the movie. And, I think, this is the reason enough to criticise it. As someone said every film worth seeing is worth discussing. Hence, the discussion.
First, a hypothetical question: As you visit the different levels of the dream world Nolan has opened before us, you cannot help but wonder what the film would have looked like if it was directed by someone else, someone with a real flair for dreams, like Federico Felini (Eight-and-a-half, Juliet of the Spirits), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris, Mirrors), Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Mystic Mountain), David Lynch (all his films), or even Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, even a confused film like Dr Parnassus) and Tim Burton (Beetlejuice?)...
You cannot answer this question. But one thing is certain, it would have been more haphazard, more chaotic and more bursting with energy, like a dream proper, without a beginning and an ending (As Dom Cobb says himself, you can never remember the beginning of a dream.)
The dreamworld Nolan mounts, on the other hand, is marked by clinical precision. It is governed by rules of logic and mathematics, not imagination. Imagination may not be Nolan’s strong point, but logic certainly is. He’s precise about the steps, the flow of the story, sometime (probably most of the time) at the expense of emotion. Look at his breakout film Memento: Someone who knows and understand minute by minute plot details could write this script. And it was brilliant beyond doubt. That was then; now you know for Nolan, films are puzzles, like those Chinese boxes, like those jigsaws, which at the end, must fit neatly, even in a dream. (Remember The Prestige, and Michael Caine’s character explaining the three stages of a magic trick?) Nolan is interested in the stages, no more, no less. Thus, in the end, Inception turns out to be an exercise in precision and logic, rather than simple storytelling.
Question two: Are dream and memory same? Mr Freud, where are you? I think not. Memory is at the least based on something tangible, something that was once experienced. The original experience may not be the same as the memory, memory has the power to manipulate the experience, but the core is still something that was once real. Dream, on the other hand, is a memory created by the mind. It does not have any bearing to reality in any way. Dreams may be inspired by memory, but memories can transcend into dream. In Inception, Cobb thinking about his children (he cannot, does not, remember their faces) is a memory, not a dream. In a dream, Cobb can always conjure up the faces. I think, somewhere in the mumbo jumbo of going into the subconscious, deeper and deeper, and creating the architecture of these, Inception fails to recognise the difference between dream and memory. Secrets do not lie in the dreams, they lie in the memory... Okay, okay, all these are psychoanalytical hotchpotch, and we are talking about a blockbuster, for dream’s sake.
Critics have complained that there’s not much of a story in Inception; everything is a ploy to get into the CGI and action set-pieces, which are definitely world class, the city folding itself, the gravity-defying fights, and the van forever falling off the bridge, but there’s story too, and there are layers of it. What happens in the first 15 minutes, with Cobb trying to steal Saito’s secret is played two-fold and in reverse in case of Robert Fisher. Very Good. And, what Cobb and the team is trying to do with Mr Fisher is foiled by Cobb’s memory of what he did to his wife Mal. Great. And then something happened. Action took over. In the fascination to play the stages of going deeper into subconscious, Inception lost track of the narrative and its emotional exuberance. Mal, Cobb’s long lost wife, who appears uninvited and always at the wrong time, was supposed to be the central motif of the film, and Marion Colitard looks ravishing whenever she appears in screen, to bring home the idea that in dream world you cannot plan everything. But, at the end, she remained a wronged woman, and lost forever.
And, I am not even discussing the twist ending, a cliff-hanger, which at best was unnecessary, and at worse meaningless.
Question. What is more important, the players or the playground? In the world of Inception, it’s the playground that hogs the limelight; it’s a shame really when you had the such talented actors on board, including Michael Caine in a thankless role. Nobody gets the chance to show their talent, though you have to give to Nolan, all the characters, including Ken Watanabe’s Saito get equal screen time. The character of Ariadne is introduced just to be the audience point-of-view, so that she can ask the right question at the right time and give the screenwrite chance come up with some psycho mumbo jumbo. “Whose subconscious are we going in anyway?” Do we really care? Everyone’s seem to be the same.
Is Inception a masterpiece? In a blockbuster universe, yes, it is, the way Avatar is a masterpiece. For more, let’s wait for another 10 years. Nonetheless, it’s a fun ride in the theatre, but nit-picking about it is certainly more fun.