the persistance of memory
INCEPTION SPOILERS AHEAD.
If you were a nerd like me, you probably remember a bloody but not very good fighting game called BloodStorm which was around in the early 90's. (It was the sequel to the even-worse-but-more-ubiquitous Time Killers, and got a mention in The Simpsons episode "Marge Be Not Proud. Anyways.) The producers had packed the game with secret shit, especially for an arcade game: upwards of 5 secret characters, hidden codes to switch weapons and fighters, interactive backgrounds, etc. All of this was supposed to increase replay value, but because the game was kind of bad, it never really caught on and nobody bothered to find the secrets.
Every year in high school, I had to do an independent study project. Junior year, my friends and I made a laughably bad suspense/thriller/woulda-been-a-horror-movie-with-more-time-and-a-budget called "Guilt." The script was bad, the acting was bad, the special fx were cool for 1998 (he looks in the mirror -- and SEES THE GIRL HE KILLED!). For what it's worth, I composed an entirely original score on a bootleg midi music program called MusicTime, and it remains one of my more proud moments of my life. It was really good!
Anyways, the premise was that this dude and his girlfriend get robbed at gunpoint while having a romantic walk through the park. He tries to play tough guy and in the struggle, his girl is shot and killed. The dude survives but then his guilt is manifested physically as her ghost and starts terrorizing him. It all ends in a ridiculous scene where he's teleported back to the moment they were robbed, and he kills the robber WHO IS, FOR SOME REASON, ACTUALLY HIS DEAD EX-GIRLFRIEND.
Inception, like Bloodstorm, was packed with hints about what really happened, but wasn't compelling enough to make me care about what really happened, and hinged on a central plot point which mimicked the awful movie I made in high school.
The first half was cool. It did a great job of establishing a complex premise and featured some surprisingly good acting from Lil Ellen Page. The Morocco scenes effectively laid out the higher stakes of the Fischer job. And the job itself was fun. Good zero-gravity fight scenes, nice "what do we do now" moments with the elevator kick, Yusef being generally hilarious. And despite being filled with agents with high-powered weaponry but worse aim than Stormtroopers, the snow fortress was good popcorn cheez. And I found the movie so disappointing because there was so much to like, but also so much that bothered me.
First and foremost, why are people thinking so much about what happens in the movie? I consider myself an inquisitive, intellectual person but I didn't come out of Inception with the barrel of questions that everyone else did. Everything seemed wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end, especially if (as rumored) Mal's totem falls after the credits.
I saw the hints that Dom might still be dreaming. It occurred to me when he saw Mal in "real life" in the Moroccan basement, and when the alley seemed to shrink when he was running from Cobol. But there weren't enough of them for me to think anything other than dude was just losing his grip on reality from too much shared dreaming. (Also I read Susan Orlean's article on donkeys in Morocco, which explicitly mentions the tight spaces built into the old city in Fez, which isn't where they were, but still!)
Compare and contrast with Primer, a simple and beautiful movie about the messiness of time travel. It devolves into a series of wtf moments that literally had me and eight friends sitting in the theater for 20 minutes trying to figure out what happened after the lights came up. I couldn't spoil that movie for you because I still don't know what happened. But that was the point of the movie.
For Inception, the uncertainties about what's really going on take a back seat to an action-packed, simple "will they or won't they succeed? just kidding, of course they will" plot which dominates the viewer's attention. Dom's sanity or lack thereof is a recurring theme in the exposition, and but once the explosions start, it seems like its primary function is to throw wrenches in the team's plans. End of story. When we follow Dom home at the end of the movie, it feels tacked on.
Which brings me to my second point, that Nolan did a terrible job of establishing emotional stakes. I have a lot of trouble caring about dudes living or dying when the end result is pretty routine corporate sabotage. That's all we're working for! It's not the freedom of humanity (whatup Keanu!) or the fate of the planet or to catch a criminal mastermind. It's whether or not one big ass energy company can compete with a bigger ass energy company. Who the fuck cares? Saito still had enough paper to buy a damn airline on a whim. His problems are not ones I give a shit about. The only character we're really urged to care about is Dom, and whether Mal will ever stop haunting his dream life and if he will ever see his kids again. So we come full circle.
In writing this, I realize that the frivolity of the rest of the plot might be yet another hint that all of this is in his mind and he's still in a basement in Morocco. That this is a movie about Dom Cobb losing his grip on reality after having tampered too much with his understanding thereof. But that's a bridge too far for me, after spending an hour+ watching an elaborate James Bond flick in which Dom Cobb's problems fuck everything up for everyone.
Did anyone else sense an unsettling Ayn Randian-streak? Reverence of architects, great respect for power, self-made men, emphasis on building something yourself instead of inheriting it, trust in corporate parents (seriously, how the fuck did Saito end up being a good guy?) ... no sir, I don't like it. Just sayin.
SIDE NOTE 2:
If you buy into this "just a business traveler's dream" theory, you really need to reconsider why the hell you are going to movies in the first place.