When I wrote in my review of Inception that I thought it was the best film of the summer and possibly of 2010, I didn’t realize it’d strike a nerve with my friend and fellow critic Christian Toto. It did, and we started debating the merits of the film, the end result being this back and forth that I hope you’ll find interesting and entertaining. No spoilers, don’t worry!
Christian Toto: I wanted to love Inception as much as most critics. The summer movie season has been a big disappointment, so who better than the mind behind The Dark Knight to save the season? But Inception taxes our brain without delivering a story to engage our emotions. The film spends so much time explaining itself there’s precious little time to engage in character development or a lucid narrative.
Dave Taylor: I disagree, of course. I think that DiCaprio’s Cobb was an interesting, troubled man who had some extraordinary gifts (i.e. the ability to go into people’s dreams) and a complex, half-buried back story with his wife Mal, children and such. But I suggest that the lack of lucidity is consistent with the entire storyline and as Cobb says to Saito (Ken Watanabe), part of the self-referential nature of the film was that there were “half-remembered dreams”.
I will say that I think Ariadne (Ellen Page) brought up some interesting ethical dilemmas that were quickly glossed over in the film, but then again, I don’t expect a deep philosophical treatise or indie film from Chris Nolan, but a visually stunning action film that has more of a story than the usual banal dreck that we have to sit through. And I think he delivered with Inception.
Toto: Yes, the film’s lack of lucidity certainly was a constant. And I appreciate the enthusiasm and ambition of the project. But glorious action sequences ring hollow when we can’t get to know the people running from, or causing, the explosions. By the final half hour I felt disconnected from the main players, and all that kept me going was the promise of more razzle dazzle scenery.
I have issues with dreams in films to begin with … it’s too much of a blank canvas and filmmakers aren’t disciplined enough to show restraint. Nolan would have been better served by simplifying matters, still keeping the intricate dream material but distilling it down and letting the humanity of the characters shine though. It’s a testament to DiCaprio, Cotillard and co. that they register at all given dialog that served more as nonstop exposition than anything else.
Taylor: Hollywood has been suffering from the dumbing down of storylines for all too many years, Christian. How many times are we forced to endure a film where they go back and show us The Important Scenes as flashbacks, in case we’re too dim to realize?
Deckard and Rachael kiss in “Blade Runner”
Heck, the last few seconds of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was exactly that (though I think you’d already left the theater by then). I have to come clean, I’m not a huge fan of The Dark Knight and felt it was portentous and overly manipulative of the audience. It might be the subject matter — our subconscious — or the all-too-human dilemma of Cobb’s guilt over what transpired with his wife Mal, but I identified with Cobb and was quite curious how things would transpire as the film proceeded.
Let’s get a reference point here, though. Name a few films you think are superb action films and have a solid character exposition that lets you identify with and understand the motivations of the character, yet are sufficiently complex to sustain multiple viewings. I’ll offer one of my own favorites that I think perfectly captures these criteria: Blade Runner. Harrison Ford is superb as troubled ex-cop Deckard and we feel for him as he’s torn between saving probable replicant Rachael (Sean Young) and performing his job of identifying and eliminating all the “skin jobs” in this stunning Ridley Scott masterpiece.
Ripley pilots the Nostromo in “Alien”
Toto: Off the top of my head I’d say Aliens, a slam-bang action film with choice science fiction elements and a full-bodied performance by the lead character, Ripley. Not only is she thoroughly in command, she shows maternal feelings toward Newt and conflicting emotions regarding the humans in her company (Paul Reiser, take a bow). She registers as human throughout the melee, building on the character we first came to know in Alien.
I’m not looking for a full character study in a movie like Inception, but when the character elements are so fractured I feel little reason to root for a semblance of a happy ending.
Even The Dark Knight fits this criteria. Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is indirectly causing his clones to be killed, and his double life means it’s nearly impossible for him to pursue the girl of his dreams. And consider the great speech by Alfred mid-film about the steps needed to eradicate evil – and the methods men of conscience must take to do so.
I do love the fact that Nolan respects the audience and is willing to tax their brains in order to fully appreciate his story. I just wish the mental effort was worthwhile.
Taylor: Whether or not we agree on Inception’s merits, I will say that he’s going to get people talking about the film and its storyline in a way that few films have tapped the popular zeitgeist since perhaps Avatar.
Now wait, are we having this discussion, or is it all a dream…. ?