Inception’s Deception

I didn’t like Inception.  There, I’ve said it.  And I realize that this sets me apart from the vast swaths of people who raved about the movie, who were enamored of its conceptualization and effects.  But I am as convinced now as I was when I walked out of the theatre that the effects and concept of Inception were nothing more than a flashy veneer on a frail and impoverished film.

To begin, and to be fair, there are lots of nice things we can say about Inception.  The effects were stellar.  The design was imaginative.  The execution of effects and design was both seamless and slick.  The cast was superb—DiCaprio and Watanabe are actors I truly enjoy watching perform.  And the concept itself was imaginative and innovative—people who sleuth through the dreams of others to gather information.  I was excited, given all these factors, when I walked into the theater.  I was bored and frustrated when I left.

[Be warned, spoilers ahead.]

Why was I bored? Well, I was bored with Inception because I felt that the movie completely lacked jeopardy.  The climax of the film is three sets of actions that have to occur at the same moment within three separate dream realities (the dream, within a dream, within a dream).  We watch as a van careens toward the water.  We watch as a group of people float in an elevator shaft.  We watch as a group infiltrates a sealed compound.  And what happened for me, while watching these three things unfold (in degrees of slow motion), was that suddenly I stopped caring about what happened for the characters.  Suddenly, I felt like I was observing a watch unwind, rather than a story unfold.  And an unwinding watch, though interesting in its complexity, is not a very good story.  Because I knew what was going to happen all the tension of the film drained from it in a flash.  It was as if the movie attained a critical mass of complexity and, as an aftereffect of its own climax, suddenly lost the tension it so desperately needed to keep its audience enrapt.  It was like watching a Rube Goldberg machine that had gone on for about one-and-a-half hours too long.  Mind you, now, a Rube Goldberg machine is utterly fascinating to watch, but after a couple of hours even the most avid fan of them is going to grow weary.  And in weariness the viewer is going to lose interest in the novelty of the thing and start waiting for it to end.  How fascinating the mechanics are is largely irrelevant.  Consider, as an example, other movies that fall into the same trap, such as Transformers 2, which was certainly ‘interesting’ to watch, but nobody thought it was a good movie.  Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 were ‘interesting’ to watch, but nobody thought those were good movies either.  A preponderance of effects do not make a movie good, and this is because the more a film focuses on effects and complexity—that is, the more like a watch or a Rube Goldberg machine it becomes—the more the story seems to suffer along with it.

If you are bristling in your seat right now, reading this, muttering to yourself something like: “But the story was awesome!” then I have to ask you this.  What was the story of Inception? A group of men are hired to invade the dreams of a young man to convince him to break up his father’s financial empire.  Did you care, at any point, if they succeeded? Did it matter in any way whether or not the story was accomplished? Did you really care if DiCaprio escaped or not? Or was the story merely an excuse to share the idea of ‘inception’? The latter question hints at the truth, because there was no meaningful story in Inception—just a great deal of smoke and mirrors.  Did it look cool? Of course.  Did it matter or, more importantly, was it meaningful? Not at all.

This brings me to why I was frustrated with Inception, and this criticism is (to me) far more serious.  Most of the people who exited the theatre and raved about Inception sung very similar songs about what they liked—they thought the movie was ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’; people talked about how they went to see it more than once, maybe twice more, in order to ‘get’ it.  Ask them further what they liked about it, saying something like, “What made it such a good movie to you?” and they would respond by saying, “It was about dreams“—with special emphasis on the word ‘dreams’ as if it signified deeper ramifications of meaning than could be imagined, and as if to say that it was about ‘dreams’ was an answer to the question of the intelligence of the film itself.

I suspect, in fact, that a significant portion of the popularity of Inception is based upon its self-styled intelligence.  It presents itself as a smart movie, and then creates the impression that ‘smart’ people will ‘get’ the movie.  If you want to feel smart—to join the elite, smart-club—then you need to see Inception.  If you saw it and didn’t get it, you need to go and see it again.  The problem, if there is one, isn’t with the movie, but with you as the viewer.

My deep concern here has to do with the belief, seemingly so prevalent, that intelligent things are also confusing; that people who watched Inception were confused, and deduced not that Inception was confusing, but rather that the film was more intelligent than they were; that if only they watched it again they would be better able to understand it.  But this is clearly a flawed epistemology, because we each know that the best, and most intelligent, teachers are not the people who confuse all their students, but the people who instruct their students best.  And in the same way, intelligence in any media—be it cinema, literary, musical, theatrical—is in no way coequal with being confusing.  Quite the opposite, the most intelligent art of all communicates easily to a broad range of people and on a broad range of levels.

Let me put this another way: if a movie were truly brilliant, you would ‘get’ it on the first run through.  Then you would want to watch it again, not because it was unclear the first time, but because by watching again you would see and appreciate things you hadn’t seen before—you would pick up nuance, and parallels, and depth, and a host of brilliant things that were there already.  I believe firmly that a second watching in film should never be necessary to understand a film, while it may be completely warranted to better appreciate a film.  And in the end, the viewer who returns to Inception for a second viewing may appreciate the Rube Goldberg—design, execution, and whatnot else—but ultimately what he is returning chiefly to find, what the cultural impulse it teaching him to return for, that is, understanding, is a thing he will never attain.  Ultimately, when it comes to Inception there was nothing to understand at all.

This, then, is the deception of Inception, because in its complexity, the movie created the impression that it was doing something very intelligent, that there was something ‘worth understanding’ about it.  But this is the trick of the magician, who diverts your eyes to one place while he does something with the coin somewhere else. And Inception diverted our attention in its Goldbergian complexity; it diverted our attention by making us think that its subject matter of ‘dreams’ was somehow meaningful—an implication without basis.  And then, just to top things off, Inception concluded with an ambiguous ending that makes us leave the theatre asking: “Did DiCaprio escape, or not?” But this final flair of the magician was like the flash of light and smoke we watch while the magician escapes with our money; by making us muse about the ending (what amounts to an act of authorial laziness), we’re no longer thinking about what didn’t just happen in the film.  The deception is complete.

In the end, the need—the cultural impulse—to view Inception more than once in order to ‘get’ it doesn’t signal that it was a good movie, but rather that it had communicated poorly.  If you were confused, it wasn’t because Inception was smart, but because it was a bad movie.  And as a last word it is terribly important that I tell you that I don’t think all films need to be meaningful to be entertaining—far from it.  But when a movie markets itself as both intelligent and meaningful, then it better have meaning to back up its claims.  After all, if you go to a film which has been billed as an action movie, but it turns out to be mostly romantic comedy, you’ll be frustrated.  Inception’s payments on the promises it makes are utterly flimsy and, in the end, as meaningless as most dreams.

9 comments on “Inception’s Deception

  1. AVH says:

    I appreciated the entire article except for the last sentence. :) I have not seen the movie Inception because I value the dream world as a place to encounter God, and would feel angry to see the sacred space misrepresented.

  2. jmichaelrios says:

    I think I understand you, Adria. But I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive the rhetorical and personal conceit of the final sentence, since the overwhelming majority of my dreams are both flimsy and meaningless.

  3. Ben says:

    Hi Jeremy,
    First, let me say that while I thought the movie was awesome, I don’t really care if you like the movie or not.

    However, and with all due respect, I don’t think you got it. Inception wasn’t principally about “group of men…hired to invade the dreams of a young man to convince him to break up his father’s financial empire” or about dreams Those where the framework in which the writer and director tried to ask more probing questions about the value of reality, how we construe it, and what gives it meaning. The writer/director tried to explore issues of guilt and love, the attachment of a father for his children, the relationship between a father and son, and other aspects of human relationships and deep-seated (one might say subconscious) needs.

    Also, your comment about the “authorial laziness” because he left us guessing at the end is entirely unwarranted. Why does being non-lazy necessitate that things are tied up in a neat little package? The ending was in keeping with the theme throughout that tried to question how we construe and give meaning to our reality.

    Also, while it is true that being intelligent and being confusing are not the same thing, it is not true that all intelligent concepts are clear and simple. The movie was not a pedagogue (which is the analogy you drew above) trying to teach us something. It was a complex representation of a complex set of themes in a complex framework of inception. Why does that need to be presented simply? Sometimes some people don’t get complex concepts and that does not necessarily mean that the representation of those concepts was flawed. I think that, in trying unsettle an easy (one might say positivistic) view of reality, the movie tried to be unsettling in the way it told the story.

    (There seems to be a polemical edge to your critique of the movie’s “self-styled intelligence.” You imply that those who thought the movie was good were the stupid ones since they were taken by the inception deception – but not those who didn’t “get it.” Isn’t this just participating in the same logic you were railing against in the first place? ‘I didn’t like it (or didn’t get it) therefore it was not good and those who do like it must be dumb’ as opposed to ‘I liked the movie (or “got it”) therefore those who don’t must be stupid’. Whether you like it or not, that doesn’t seem like a good way to spin the top, if you’ll excuse the reference.)

    So, yes the complexity was cool. Yes the effects were rad. But they were far from the point of the movie, in my mind.


    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hmmm… Allow me to respond paragraph by paragraph:

      1) You *do care if I like it or not, since you’ve just taken the time to write a response to my assessment of it. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just pointing out the reality.

      2) My description of the plot of Inception was, I believe, accurate. If I were to describe the plot of Star Wars to you, I would say, “A young man with the help of two robots rescues a princess and saves the galaxy.” That is a description of the plot. To say that Star Wars is ‘about’ coming of age, or the hero’s journey, is (while those things are assuredly present) to confuse our categories of assessment. And I think it’s terribly important to recognize that the plot of a movie can never be an ancillary vehicle for communicating something else entirely. You cannot dismiss the story and say, “But look what else was going on!” The story is the main thing. The something else is always a bonus. Consider, for a moment, The Matrix, which was a good example of a film where plot and purpose were well intertwined. Of course, as the sequels progressed, the plot died while the theories abounded. Hence, Matrix 2 and 3 sucked progressively more and more.

      While I agree that elements of guilt, love, fathers, sons, and the subconscious were present in Inception, I assert once again that I just didn’t care. And I didn’t care because the plot was empty. After all, when plot fails, why should I be in any way invested in the growth–or, rather, the filmed psychoanalysis–of the characters? Your argument here is tantamount to saying that Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was a good movie because it dealt with the nature of love, longing and commitment, and, further, that if you didn’t like it, then you just didn’t get it. The thematic subjects within a film do not make a great film.

      3) As to “authorial laziness,” I spent some time contemplating what words I wanted to use, and I stand by that assessment. I think it was the lazy act of second-rate writing. Ambiguity, used here in Inception, gives the false impression of significance, and enhances the sense that people have that they’ve been in the company of something intelligent. It is, perhaps, the intelligence of implication–a wink wink nudge nudge hinting at greater meaning. That’s why I think it’s lazy, because I don’t think there’s any real meaning to be had.

      It’s important that you know that I’m not opposed to ambiguity, or that I think all movies need to be tied into nice neat bows–far from it! A movie such as Total Recall leaves you guessing in a good way, i.e., the ending isn’t a deus ex machina technique to leave you guessing, but is an integral aspect to the plot of the film. Inception’s ending came out of the blue; the word I wanted to use for it but couldn’t fit in the review was that it was a ‘punt.’

      4) I agree that not all intelligent concepts are simple to communicate. I tell the people of my church to beware of simple answers to complex questions. But my response to Inception is primarily against the impression that it gives of its own intelligence, and to the otherwise intelligent people I know who felt, after watching the film, that something was wrong with them, rather than with the movie. I’m not sure whether the film was attempting to be a pedagogue or not, but people certainly watched it that way.

      You say, “Sometimes some people don’t get complex concepts and that does not necessarily mean that the representation of those concepts was flawed.” Here, I think I will (provisionally) disagree with you. Given otherwise average, intelligent people as one’s audience, the inability to communicate a concept effectively is primarily the problem of the communicator, not the audience. It is our business, (and perhaps specifically *our business, Ben, as bible scholars) to render consumable the concepts which we study. When we fail at that, it is not because we are intelligent, but because we are bad communicators.

      5) I’m not sure that I’m suggesting that those who liked the movie were dumb. They might be fooled, however, and to accuse someone of error is not the same as calling them stupid; one is criticism, the other is ad hominem, and I don’t believe I’ve engaged in any personal attacks here. If I have a polemical tone, it is in defense of all the people who felt like they just weren’t up to ‘getting’ Inception and had to watch it again.

      Thanks for the opportunity to clarify my thoughts, Ben :)

      • Ben says:

        Hey Jeremy,
        1) No, I don’t care if you like it. I care if you discount the possibility that others can find real merit in it because you don’t like it. For instance, I didn’t like Where The Wild Things Are, but that doesn’t mean that the movie was poorly made, had a bad plot, or that those who do like it were duped in some way.

        2) First, I don’t agree that the “story” as (especially as represented in some stripped-down plot scheme) is always everything. Take the existential classic Waiting for Godot. The plot is two guys wait talking about nonsense while nothing happens. And yet, the play is brilliant. Plot is *one* of the parts of a story, but it is not the whole thing. Second, stripping a plot down to the bare minimum and saying it wasn’t a good story ignores that the same plot can be told in a million ways that make certain tellings better and others worse. To my mind, your analysis of the plot of Star Wars has no more to commend it than your analysis of Inception. It is what is *done* with the plot that makes it interesting/moving/etc. Take a musical example, there are a limited number of tones, chords, and progressions (especially if you are to stay within generally western common-practice) but it is what one can do with the chords that differentiates Johann Sebastian Bach from Sebastian Bach (of 80’s hairband fame).

        (Incidentally, I think you could “analyze” the plot of Luke like this: a Jewish guy and some buddies take a road trip to Jerusalem. They fall out with some leaders there who kill him, but he comes back to life. With one elaboration that is the Gospel, with another it is a crappy zombie movie. The extra bits are crucial.)

        3) I just want to register my continued disagreement about authorial laziness. Just because you don’t think that “there is any meaning to be had” does not make the author lazy. Maybe you’re right, but to impugn the author’s effort because you don’t like it is a bit too much for me.

        4) The movie is not a sermon. It is not a treatise. It is not a teacher. It is (ostensibly) a piece of art. Art (written, performed, painted, sculpted, etc.) often take multiple viewings to “get it.” I understand that you don’t like smug people and that you don’t want people to feel less than others because they don’t get it. I applaud that. But perhaps the purpose art is not the same as the purpose of teaching on biblical studies. (I submit that it is not.) What if one of the things the author wanted to communicate was confusion, a sense of ambiguity, and an unsettling feeling on a given topic? I don’t see how that is out of the question for a piece of art (or other act of communication for that matter). Not everything is or should be didactic.

        5) Have I been fooled? What sort of reasons would I have to offer in my defense so that you wouldn’t consider me fooled?

        To sum up: you can like whatever movie you like. I like Inception. Jesus went on a road trip with his buddies.

        Thanks for the give-and-take, Jeremy. :-)


        • jmichaelrios says:

          I’m not sure how much further we’ll be able to take this discussion, but maybe there are a few things worth responding to.

          I stand by the assertion that story is the most significant evaluative factor in a film. Without it, films falter. To argue otherwise is like claiming that humans will be content to live with ideas independent of metanarrative.

          My minimalist assessment of the plot of Inception was meant (mostly) to communicate the main story arc. I still think it was accurate on that account, and I still think that, based on that story arc, I don’t give a hoot what happened in the movie.

          As to your plot summary of Luke, I rather liked it, and thought it would be an interesting story to read. And, in some senses, the Gospel really is a zombie story, but we digress.

          But this brings me to the only other point I really want to make. There is ambiguity that reflects a real inadequacy of human language to capture significant meaning (I propose here some of the ambiguity of the Gospel of John, as an example). And then there is ambiguity which allows the viewer/reader to insert whatever meaning he/she sees fit. It is the latter kind of meaning that I think Inception falls into. This is the meaning of allusion and hinting–it is vague because it lacks substance. In fact, all it lacks is the willingness of an audience to give it life. (And here I think your arguments, perhaps unwittingly, are very close to espousing a completely reader-based criticism.) It is the ambiguity of the conspiracy theory, which through a veil of complexity hoodwinks average people into believing that something significant is going on, and then providing them with an ‘inner ring’ experience of superior knowledge. This is the ambiguity that stands behind Nag Hammadi, and, to bring closure perhaps to the artistic comments, Nag Hammadi finds its artistic apex in The Da Vinci Code. That book perfectly exemplifies the trouble we face here: the divorce of meaning from content, ambiguity that implies significance, and complexity that distracts attention from facts. When you spoke with a Da Vinci Code reader, the person talked as if they had an inside angle on secret knowledge (which was ostensibly the purpose of the book). Challenge them on that knowledge, and they (like you) would claim, “But it’s just a book”–i.e., “It’s just a piece of art and you’re being unfair to critique it that way.” The double standard is unfortunate and frustrating.

          I suspect that existentialism falls into the same category–the belief that I have a secret knowledge which unlocks human experience. (I’ve seen Godot, by the way.) But whatever brilliance you attribute to it, you must also admit it espouses an utterly flawed conception of reality.

          Against these, it is famously said of the Gospel of John that it is fit for a “Child to wade in and an elephant to swim” (or some such statement). It is adequate for untrained minds, and deeper than the highest trained ones. Repeated readings glean deeper knowledge. I think I speak about this in my review.

          I don’t think the ending was good, useful, or constructive. I thought it was a lazy, boring, insulting, and cheap-shot way to end the film. But there we will have to agree to disagree.

          (I realize, looking back, that I have implied that you, by liking Inception, are no better than someone who ‘believed’ in The DaVinci Code. I should say that, while I found DaVinci meaningless, I also found it entertaining. My beef with both works is the implication that they are the harbingers of deeper significance.)

        • Ben says:

          Hey man,

          I agree that we won’t get much further, especially in blog format. These conversations are better had over a beer.

          I think your bringing in meta-narrative in support of your position is a bit overstated. Not all pieces of art or communication are meant to provide an entire meta-narrative. Rather, they fit within another meta-narrative implicit either in the writer’s mind or left open for the reader. In this way, there is nothing wrong with reader based criticism. It seems that you envision a single hermeneutic to be applied in the same way to the Bible and to Inception. I think that is unhelpfully limiting.

          Also, I wonder that your plot analysis was given with such confidence when it is only one possible analysis and one that happens to omit the real beginning and ending of the story. Namely: a man tries to get back to his children by means of his skill of infiltrating other’s dreams but he has to overcome his own subconscious guilt over his wife’s death to be successful. Because the real beginning of the story (not the movie itself, mind you) is found in the flash backs and begins with his experiences with his wife.

          Also, I think that the parallels you are drawing are unhelpful for the analysis. Why the Da Vinci Code or Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean? Why not Momento? Both use unusual stories to ask questions about reality and identity.

          I thought the Da Vinci Code was laughable. It was entertaining only at the most shallow level. I think that Inception was different.

          Finally, one last point on ambiguity and clarity. It might be helpful to think of it in terms of primary and secondary sources. As we discuss the movie, we are participating in analytic discussions of a shared object of inquiry. In this, our aim is to be clear and persuasive. If you don’t understand my argument, chances are I’ve failed. Most art, on the other hand, (and I think Inception falls in this category) is a primary source. It is doing its own thing. Our task as observers is to discern what exactly that is. The primary source may be confusing, multi-layered, and that can be part of the experience the creator of that primary source wanted to convey. I should also say that I don’t think that reader-response criticism is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a helpful tool to uncover aspects of a text as an act of communication.

          It’s fine if you don’t like it. The question is whether you can dislike something and still allow that others can have good reasons to like it. Those who disagree with you are not necessarily fooled. Different people respond to different types of stories. There is no need to find some critical problem with the arguments of those who like it.

          For what it’s worth, this has been fun.



  4. I’m a real movie lover, my husband and I have watched thousands of hours of films. But I cannot get passed the fact that this is just something i already experienced. It’s too much like a mixture of Dreamscape and Shutter Island. Seen it,…. I wanna see something else. Good thing we only rented.

  5. Oh, and i forgot the most important, crowd pleasing part…the FX, powerful moneymaker.


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