Sunday, 1 August 2010

Inception (spoilers immanent)

Do you remember that sometime last year I said I’d being doing more movie reviews in the next year? Hasn’t really happened has it? Well now it just might. I certainly have a plan to see The Expendables when it comes out and reviewing it – probably in order to rip it to pieces, because it looks pretty damn awful. Anyway this week is a far better film (even though I haven’t even seen The Expendables yet I can say this for sure). Christopher Nolan has a habit of making truly brilliant films – The Prestige, Memento (apparently; I’ve not seen it), Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, so I was looking forward to seeing Inception. I was not disappointed at all. Because the film only came out last week I will keep spoilers out of the first half of this review, then put a nice big spoiler tag when the spoilers arrive so that the slow ones can go off and see the film without knowing what’s going to happen.

Anyway Inception is, in short, about going into people’s dreams. Actually it’s about a guy trying to reconcile his guilt. Actually it’s about films and film making. Actually it’s about all three and some others. Whatever it’s about, the delivery is perfect; the setting is wonderfully thought out, yet it doesn’t dominate the film – it’s simply there, so the viewer finds out about it very organically. The plot is really exciting, very clever and wonderfully paced – largely due to the masterful writing. Again the plot doesn’t really dominate the film, it simply acts as it should; as a vehicle for the rest of the story. That is to say it acts as a vehicle though which the characters can develop, chiefly among them, the protagonist. Cobb (his name) is a truly wonderful character and the film takes a lot of time to characterise him appropriately. Indeed Cobb and his internal conflict is the main focus of the film. As all main characters should, Cobb develops throughout the film, demonstrably changing as a result of the events of the plot. The film is as much about him as it is about the story, which is exactly how it should be. The supporting characters perhaps suffer from not being characterised in anywhere near as much detail; nevertheless they’re very interesting characters who serve as an appropriate foil for Cobb, particularly the lead female – Ariadne, who is incredibly strong, but in a very subtle and intelligent way. On top of all these layers is a deep and subtly allegory for the very process of film making and how it is, in many ways, recreating a dream.

As you can probably tell, I really like this film, however it is not perfect. It may seem like I’m trying to have my cake and eat it (what with my obsession with characters as the epicentre of any good story), but I think in many ways Inception focuses too much on the characters at the expense of a really interesting angle which is barely explored – the moral questions over what Cobb and co are doing. Going into people’s dreams has obvious ethical ramifications (especially given what they do there), as do the reasons for them doing it. However these are all but ignored in Inception, which is a bit of a shame because it could have made an already superb film even better. Likewise the supporting characters are somewhat neglected in favour of Cobb. It would have been nice to understand their history and motivations, rather than having to assume that they have their reasons without knowing what they are.

Having though long and hard over this film, this is pretty much the only things I can think of which could have made it better. It’s fantastically acted, superbly written, beautifully filmed, amazingly clever, uniquely original and all round genius. It will blow your mind. The fact that there was a collective groan of anguish as the film finished (those who have seen it will know why) just shows that this film does it’s job perfectly; it draws the audience in and makes us desperately want to know what happens and want there to be a ‘happily ever after’ ending. If you’ve not already seen it go and do so, for the rest of this blog contains many spoilers as I delve a little deeper into the film.


Firstly the ethical issue which is underdeveloped during the film. Cobb and co are breaking into Fisher’s mind and inserting an idea deep into his subconscious. Not only are they planning on lying to him, but they are planning on lying to his subconscious, thus making it seem that the idea has come from himself. This is the most ultimate form of deception and is dishonest in the extreme. The ethical implications of forcible changing someone’s entire personality without them even being aware of it are huge, yet they remain largely elephant in the room for the duration. It is mentioned in the film that Inception is unethical, but this is never really explored. Cobb and the team never question whether or not what they’re doing is the right thing. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of Inception is that there is no real conflict within the team. Despite a number of edgy, interesting personalities with conflicting motives, there is very little animosity between them. Sure there was a mutual dislike between Arthur and Eames, but this only really involved a few clever jibes, and comic moments, rather than any real drama.

Indeed this ethical issue is compounded when you ask why they’re performing the Inception. At the start of the film it seems that Saito is hiring them to do his dirty work in bringing down Fisher’s faceless multinational company so that his faceless multinational company can to what faceless multinational companies do best in Hollywood – subjugate the masses. Clearly this is immoral; performing an immoral Inception on someone in the name strengthening one’s business and destroying someone else’s, probably destroying people’s livelihood in the process, is not an ethical reason to do something, even in the cut and thrust of the free market. Later on this concern was discounted by Saito says something about Fisher’s company being powerful enough to take over the energy industry completely, causing a world wide monopoly that must be stopped, but this was not really developed or mentioned ever again. I think that the film could again be improved by Cobb and co doubting whether their mission was really all that ethical.

This would have raised another interesting issue from Cobb’s point of view. He is clearly only doing this because he wants to get back home to see his kids. Wouldn’t there be doubt over doing something so clearly immoral in order to fulfil his own personal desires? And would this not be a really interesting internal conflict for Cobb to deal with? Indeed much of the character work done on Cobb is completely disconnected with the plot and is to do with him resolving actions which occurred previous to the event of the film. There is nothing wrong with this, but it would have been nice to see the plot integrated into the characterisation a little more, making the plot seem more integral to the film, rather than simply a vehicle for character exploration. Furthermore this raises the issue of motivation for the rest of the team – something which is not really explored anyway. We can see that Ariadne is doing what she’s doing partly out of a slightly nerdy curiosity with Architecture within dreams and partly out of a very human concern for Cobb’s physiological wellbeing. However as someone who is so clearly intelligent and caring I would expect her to bring up the ethical issues, yet she seems to accept Cobb’s mission without question. Obviously Saito would have no qualms and Arthur has been working with Cobb for a while, so he’s probably dull to the ethical issues. As long time professionals working with entering people’s dreams, the rest of the team may have been immune to conscious too, but I’m not sure this is entirely watertight – Inception is something new to them all and the purpose of their mission is not exactly ethical either, so it seems logical that one of them would have mentioned it.

The ending of the film has raised many questions over whether the entire film was actually all a dream created to perform Inception upon Cobb in order to remove the guilt he feels over the death (or similar) or Mel (or something like that anyway). I disagree with these theories. I believe that the end of the film is intentionally ambiguous – the dreamy way in which it is filmed, the fact that the children are wearing the same clothes as other times in the film, the fact that the top doesn’t stop spinning – but there is no reason to extrapolate this to other parts of the film. One scene people point to is when Cobb is being chased through the streets of a city in some poor country somewhere (I forget where), squeezes through a gap in two building and is conveniently picked up by the Saido.. This appears to be rather dream-like; you know how convenient things happen in dreams? And squeezing between two walls as they get closer to one another is common of anxiety dreams. People have linked this in with the concept of the film being an allegory for the filmmaking process – the film is a dream in the same was as making a film is something of a process of the imagination.

I disagree with this theory – Cobb squeezing in between two building is simply adding drama and tension to the chase scene, the arrival of the Japanese guy is one of the few examples of poor writing in the film; it does however serve to characterise the Japanese guy quite well, and gives him a reason to actually be there and be part of the inception, so we’ll forgive the film this. Just because the film is a really clever allegory doesn’t mean it’s not ‘real’. The concepts can still be transmitted even though the events are within the film’s reality. This is the beauty of storytelling – you can create your own reality and make it say what you want it to say. You can create an allegory for whatever you will out of your own imagination and as far as the story is concerned, the message is real. The very purpose of fiction is to create a world in which whatever the writer wants to happen can happen. In many ways fiction is simply giving an expression to our dreams and our imagination. Inception is no more a dream than any other story.

I think the reason why many think Inception is actually a dream created to perform Inception on Cobb is that the film focuses so much on his character. In many ways the Inception of Fisher is simply a vehicle to explore Cobb psyche and to resolve the guilt he feels over Mel’s death. From a storytelling perspective this is the case; the character development of Cobb supersedes the plot, but this does not mean that the whole thing is an elaborate deception. Cobb’s development as a character is the focal point of the film because Nolan realises that Character is more important than Plot. The only Inception that is going on is on a completely Meta level – in many ways Cobb is being Incepted, but that is because the plot of the film is constructed so that his character can be explored and eventually the major conflict in his personality can be resolved – the Inception is not happening within the film, but without. It’s something that should happen in every story. It doesn’t, but then that’s what makes Inception such a good film.

Anyway, I think that’s a suitably bizarre and bewilderingly pretentious note to end on. I will probably see the film again some time, so some more things may occur to me, probably not enough to dedicate another entry to do, but I may post a comment below elucidating my further thoughts. I’d love to hear yours as well so feel free to comment (who am I kidding, no-one comments on my blog).

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