I'll do the stuff I can talk about without spoiling anything first and then I'll get into some more specific things below the fold.
I should say at the outset that I enjoyed the movie. I found it absorbing and engaging. The bit where the kid from 3rd Rock is scrabbling around on the walls is the tops. I especially liked when the movie would cut to him in the van on the next level up, muted smile like a baby, his arms sort of drifting up like one of those wacky wailing arm flailing inflatable tube men. Leo isn't distracting, and I like how weird his head shape is starting to look as he gets older. (Kind of like mine, come to think of it.) There are some pretty good shots. I wasn't sorry I spent the money or the time.
But it did, in part because of its strengths, help me figure out why I don't generally get along with big budget movies very well, and also big budget action in particular.
The thing about dreams is that they're repetitive. Some people have complained about the lack of sex in the film, and I'm somewhat sympathetic to that, though I would focus on the absence of shame and embarrassment -- probably not everybody dreams about sex as much as we do, you minx ya. But I'm absolutely willing to spend some time in a dream with somebody who is totally asexual and just really interested in architecture and guns, which is sort of how it works out in Inception. But because Christopher Nolan can essentially spend as much money as he wants he never has to repeat himself. As such, the film never develops a proper obsession. As such, it never really feels like a dream. All this cool stuff happens when Ellen Paige (Juno) is figuring out the rules of the dream world and you think, "Okay, sweet, these visual themes will define the movie," but generally it never comes up again.
It's little things. Why do we never see the same extra twice? I read somewhere the human mind has room for something like a hundred fifty people. We can care about, empathize, and generally keep up with about that amount of people. This may explain why I get antsy and clear my Facebook out every time it gets too far over a hundred. Anyway, I figure my dreams probably have like fifty faces in them on any one night at the most. We should be seeing the same people over and over in the movie, maybe with different hairstyles and big moles and missing limbs and stuff. And the same should be true of the sets -- they should all be built from the same seven elements, or whatever. One tube of toothpaste should keep showing up. One particular gun. One kind of tank with a really distinct shape or whatever.
And perhaps to the extent that you want your fiction to feel like a dream, this becomes a problem for high budget movies in general. When someone is doing something on a limited budget they have to use the same sets, they have to use the same props, they have to use extras from the same actor's family, over and over. There develops therefore a sort of vocabulary, and the placement of the different nouns and verbs of the film within different scenes and between scenes, and through them, takes on an emotional significance. When we watch a high budget film we are seeing the perfect, polished output of several hundred overlapping minds, and this can be a pleasant experience -- it's nice to boggle and goggle from time to time. But what I like better than this is the weird beauty that comes from limitation. The best part of Waiting for Godot, at least the production I've seen, is when they need the moon to rise and instead of building a moon and painting it and hanging it on a wire and pulley system and hiring a guy to operate the wire and pulley system and hoisting it up and then everybody in the audience says "Hey, the moon," they just turn on the spotlight, which they had lying around anyway, and make it climb the wall, which isn't usually where it belongs. And then the audience thinks, simultaneously, "That's a spotlight," and, "That's the moon." For me that moment is what art's about, most of the time. Inception never has to do that. Every time, they build the moon. Same for Lord of the Rings, which I enjoyed the first time but will never willingly sit through again. The King Kong remake works because the actors sort of play this role -- the special effects are as expensive as they need to be, but the actors' performances are sort of wonderfully rickety. Jack Black has to say that ridiculous line at the end and he has to sell it even though he isn't the right person and he can't possibly sell that godawful line, and that makes it pretty good.
There is, relatedly, such a thing as high budget fiction. Isn't there? This is fiction that has been polished to the extent that the mind can find no purchase; fiction that never uses the same word twice. Some readers delight in reading writers who always have just the right word, but I have an enduring affection for writers who often use the wrong word because it's closer at hand, or more beautiful than getting it right. When someone doesn't give himself all the time in the world to write a sentence, when he forces himself to use what's available to him then, he often gets the best, most surprising results. (This is not to say that I dislike revision -- only that I believe in revision that respects the original impulse, especially where it seems mystifying, embarrassing, or impolitic.) For a concrete example of this, look at (contributor) Blake Butler. If you've read a few things by Blake you have a working knowledge of his vocabulary. It changes from story to story of course but there are words you can count on. They show up again and again. They get better the more often he uses them. The repetition is what makes it. Or here is a quote about Peter Markus from a review by Paste Magazine:
Peter Markus is obsessed with a few words: brother, river, mud, lighthouse, fish, moon and star. From this sacred vocabulary springs a body of work—three books of stories and now a novel—that is sometimes confounding, often beautiful, starkly spare and totally unique. Bob, or Man on Boat is an authentically avant-garde work, refreshingly absent of any trace of pretension or irony. It is pure incantation and fable: prayer by any other name.
The story: A man named Bob sits on a boat, fishing. Another man, Bob’s son Bob, watches him and fishes, too. That’s about all that happens.
Like Gertrude Stein, Markus uses an elementary lexicon and recursive prose to make the mundane strange. 'Look at Bob’s hands. His knuckles are rivers. The skin on Bob’s hands, fish scale covered, they look like they’ve been dipped in stars.'
Some would call that repetition an error. Those people probably like high budget movies the best. But if you want a really beautiful and dreamlike experience -- if you, like Tracy and I, thought the biggest problem with Inception was that the seams needed to show, then you are my kind of reader. The cycle of perception and creation emphasized by Cobb within the film is not represented in the film. But the act of dreaming and perceiving one's own dream and continuing to dream is precisely the act of writing fiction.
I guess what I'm saying is the best way to watch Inception is to read a novel instead.
Relatedly, my problem with high budget action films: the guns only miss when the writer and director want them to. I watched this awful movie the other night where a guy sniped three dudes literally hundreds of yards away with one round each from a little uzi sort of machine gun. They were up on these big towers and it looked windy out, but he did it. Awful, awful film, but at least the rules were consistent: the main characters could shoot anything from anywhere. The rule in Inception is that the bullets miss until it's time to advance the story, at which point they hit. It's like the way that watching anime gets old when you figure out the hero will triumph over any + all obstacles when he really wants to. You stop caring about how he gets there. He'll do it, even if it makes no sense, unless the creators decide they don't want him to do it this time, in which case he won't. Internal logic is specifically forbidden. And this is, again, the problem of the high budget movie: since literally anything can happen next, for all it matters to the budget and the time and energy of the hundreds of worker bees on the product, it matters less and less what actually does happen. Some big budget movies can escape this problem (No Country for Old Men had as much money as it needed, but it followed its own rules to the end, and the same goes for Children of Men, which should be but never quite becomes a Rube Goldberg machine because you can tell how bad that guy's feet are hurting every step [main problem: he dies at thematically convenient/redemptive moment]). Batman: The Dark Knight becomes sort of like Metal Machine Music eventually because you realize Batman could be punching anyone at any time and Joker can plan anything ten years in advance. They needed rules.
Now for the spoilery bits. Yes, there's more.
I think there is a "reality" in the movie and that the main characters are in it in the end. The top is clearly about to fall over (why should the dream simulate its beginning to fall but then forget to end it?). The reason we don't see it happen is that Cobb himself can't bear to follow through: he prefers not to know, and at the same time, he'll always wonder.
The best argument I've seen that it's all a dream is from Kevin Drum, who points out that Saito has extremely unrealistic power + resources, but to me that's more or less the same as pointing out that it works like a Hollywood movie. Which of course it does. The idea that Cobb created the heist wholecloth is too unsatisfying for me to accept, because of what's discussed above. Where's the repetition, the redundancy? How does the heist in any way relate to his underlying conflict? It doesn't. This is actually a problem with the movie in general: even if it's not Cobb's dream, the main plot ought to relate a little more closely to the "heart" of the film, I think.
Also, it's really disappointing to come down from the "antibody" projections to trained soldier projections -- it's way more fun having the paranoid fantasy of everyone in a room staring at you than the power fantasy of shooting some dudes who are shooting at you. Generally this should have worked less like an action movie and more like a horror movie. I love the bits where 3rd Rock kid is floating around in the hotel because those fights have desperation and genuine urgency. He's cool about it, he's a pro, but you can tell he's scared for his life. No one in those gunfights is genuinely scared for anything. It looks for a while like Mal and the train will provide the horror, which would have been great, but Mal at her worst is just another soldier in camo. Dull. You think you're going to see them running around in these terrifying labyrinths but it ends up being a lot of driving and skiing. Who cares?
But I did like it! Honestly. I'm just having one of those "I wouldda done it better" things. You know how it goes. Jealousy, is all.
What did you think?