For the last few years I keep finding myself on the other side of the “great” movie debate. It started with Scorsese's Gangs of New York, and has since included Chicago, Lost in Translation, Big Fish, Passion of the Christ, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds, Avatar, and more than a few others. The list now includes Christopher Nolan's Inception.
Let me start out by saying that Inception is an exceptionally well-crafted work. It's certainly the most polished film I've seen this year. I'm hardly surprised that the typical audience response was one of quasi-bewilderment, but that's more a function of the brain-dead modern movie audience than anything Nolan can be called out on the carpet for. In fact, the structure and intricacy on the plot is a marvel of storytelling. It isn't confusing, but rather complex ....a distinction people seem incapable of making these days.
There's been endless and overwhelmingly positive commentary, analysis, critical deconstructions and reviews about Inception. It's a film that will clean up at Academy Awards next year (early prediction... 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director). I understand and quite agree that Inception is worthy of all this positive press and critical acclaim.
But its greatness is limited. In a master-technician's hands, even the most mundane yarn can be spun into a grand adventure. There have always been great technical directors, (and Nolan certainly ranks among the cream of the crop), but very few who could also deliver powerful, challenging and emotionally-compelling narratives at the same time. Spielberg belongs to the first group while Kubrick resides in the second, to cite but two well-known directors. I suppose it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the modern-day film audience can seemingly no longer differentiate between the two categories. Event movies (the Avatars, Batmans and Inceptions) are so prevalent and all-consuming (at least from the media's, and by extension the audience's, perspective), that “big” and “great” have melded into meaning the same thing in most people's minds.
It's been said that Inception is just a heist movie... and no one expects a heist movie to be anything but entertaining. While that might be true to a certain extent, I'm tempted to draw attention to the 1955 film Rififi, a heist film that the final 15 minutes of is both more compelling and emotionally powerful than anything in Inception AND takes place in a near-dream state that actually feels like one, unlike say...Inception. To suggest that a genre film can't be expected to rise to the challenge of also being emotionally-profound and moving is simply to understate the power and possibilities of cinema. In the right hands it can (and should be) both.
My problem with Inception is fairly straightforward. Buried beneath the incredible visuals, endless action scenes, labyrinth plotting and familiar Hollywood faces is a mediocre story that doesn't resonate at any fundamental human level. Even fans of the film seem to agree with that. I'd like to posit that that's also the reason no one takes anything away from Inception. I'd forgotten everything that happened 10 minutes after it was over. That isn't to say that I wasn't engaged while it was on, because I was thoroughly engrossed. What it didn't do was leave anything with me, which I must admit was disappointing. I return to my earlier contention that Shutter Island, with the same thematic underpinnings and even the same lead actor, delivered on an emotional level where Inception did not.
A final point. With the ability to create, populate and consciously interact in any dream world you can conjure up, who wouldn't be neck-deep in thousands of magic tits? Is it just me? Only Americans would populate such a blank dream-slate with modern weaponry and giant snow forts to attack with teams of gun-blazing synchronized-skiers. I hate to admit it, but my dream world would likely make Caligula blush and wouldn't include any fucking snowmobiles either.... well, a naked, oiled-Christina-battle (Ricci vs. Aguilera, to the death) on a pink ski-doo perhaps, but that's the subject of an entirely different post ...and ongoing discussions with my therapist.