(De)ception: A Review

by Dax-Devlon Ross

A Dazzling Disappointment

(Spoilier Alert: If you haven’t seen Inception this may ruin the movie for you.)

It didn’t make sense. I was supposed to not just like Inception; I was supposed to thoroughly enjoy it. I was supposed to be stimulated and rejuvenated. I was supposed to be reminded what film can do. When I first saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s opus I had the kind of reaction that’s normally reserved for the NBA Finals. Instead, I left the Battery Park Stadium Cinema in Lower Manhattan pissed off. The movie had irked me and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My home girl loved it. I had no choice but to rain on her parade.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“It was really good,” she asked.

“I wish I could agree,” I said. And I did. I really, really did want to like this movie. But like just wasn’t the word to describe my pissed-offness.

Inception ticked me off somehow. The last movie to do that was Shutter Island. I couldn’t stand Shutter Island’s pretentiousness. Every scene was suffused with so much self-importance – long shots, rain, rain and more rain, mysterious characters, darkness – that I had to remove myself from the theater before I threw something at the screen.

Things started well. The opening scene drew me right in. I was easily enthralled by the concept of dream thieves, even more so by the notion of dream architects and, later still, by the idea of dreams within dreams. That one part of the mind is capable of creating levels of dreams that another part of the mind can’t even recognize as dreams is, not to be redundant, mind boggling.

But then the movie did something I didn’t expect: it became a movie. The whole putting the team of rogue experts together trope disappointed me. I felt like I was watching the sci-fi remake of Ocean’s Eleven minus the charm, wit, humor or sex appeal. My first major letdown moment was seeing Indian-American actor Dileep Rao play pretty much the exact same role in Inception that he played in last year’s Drag Me To Hell: the mysterious well-intentioned apothecary. It was a small thing, but it nonetheless stood out to me that the only person of color in this entire film (and believe me, my critique of the film is not about this!) is the medicine man with an obvious link to the occult.(By the way: Drag Me To Hell was pretty good.)

Pop Quiz: Is this Rao in Drag Me to Hell or Inception?

Whatever. Not a big deal. I was willing to move on. But I couldn’t get past the Hans Zimmer score or the undertones of The Matrix. The score was overpowering to the point of distraction. It used to be that I didn’t mind Hollywood scores. And in their right place and time, The Dark Knight, for example, which Zimmer also scored, it works. But with Inception, a film that clearly strives to balance blockbuster and intellectual ambitions, it felt out of place. Here’s this incredible idea and visual spectacle being swallowed by an orchestra. As for the traces of The Matrix, we can start with the heroin den scene with all of the people hooked up to dream inducing machines and finish with the endless stream of subconscious projections inside Cillian Murphy’s dreams. Think a gazillion Agent Smiths (or, for that matter,  Storm Troopers) and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The movie continued downhill from there. We discover the heist plot: a wealthy businessman fearful of his financial future wants to implant the idea to break up a rival’s company inside the brain of the rival’s son and heir. Let me say it more clearly so you can understand why I rolled my eyes the rest of the film. There’s this rich guy who’s afraid of going out of business so he wants to hire Dicaprio to go inside some other rich guy’s head and make him believe he don’t want to own the world’s most powerful energy company.

So, you’ve got this brilliant concept – shared dreams — and you put it in the service of this pedestrian (yes, I used it) plot. That’s like eating lobster on a napkin. Like drinking a well aged spirit out of a paper cup. Some plots simply don’t deserve some concepts.

Now, I know there was a lot more going on. There was a love story. There was a family story. There was a story of guilt and loss. And maybe that stuff would have redeemed the film if I’d believed in any of it. I didn’t believe in the love story between Dicaprio and Marion Cotillard. I didn’t believe in Dicaprio’s desperate need to get back to his kids. I didn’t understand Ellen Page’s role at all.  (It bothers me that I’m so harsh right now. I genuinely don’t want to tear this film a new one; it just needs to be said because too many people are, as they say, drinking the kool-aide.)

My contempt was still with me Saturday morning and Sunday morning so I decided to watch  Nolan’s breakthrough film from Memento for the first time in nine years.

Guy Pierce in Memento (2000)

Here’s what I took away from my viewing experience

  1. Nolan is obsessed with the vulnerability of the human mind and our defenselessness in the face of manipulative outside forces that are aware of our vulnerability.
  2. Nolan’s heroes are always afflicted men who’ve been irretrievably damaged by the loss of the women in their lives. They become survivors when they accept the permanence of their damage and decide to make the most of their situation.
  3. In Nolan’s view reality itself may be a construction and, by extension, a choice. We survive by choosing to create our own reality rather than stick to the one handed to us.
  4. Memento was weird. The Dark Knight was weird. Inception wasn’t weird enough. In fact, weirder would’ve helped.
  5. Memento was ground breaking filmmaking. Inception is a mainstream summer blockbuster with a clever idea.  That’s it.
  6. Guy Pierce has some genuinely funny moments in Memento. Remember the scene when he knocks down the hotel room door and realizes after the fact it was the wrong room. He looks down at the poor guy he’s accidentally knocked unconscious, apologizes and runs away. That’s funny. The movie is full of these awkwardly funny moments. They serve a purpose. They offset the seriousness of his condition. Pierce’s humor humanizes his character, gives it an added layer of dimensionality, of reality. He reminds us of what we already know: funny moments in life don’t stop happening just because life and death are on the line. Inception takes itself way too seriously. I didn’t even think about laughing. Not once.
  7. Memento is complex. Inception is convoluted
  8. There’s no musical score in Memento. That’s a good thing.

I know I’m a voice in the wilderness. Most people are going to love this film. I wish I could too.