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.