‘Inception’: Not Actually That Complicated
OK: if you HAVEN’T seen Inception, Chris Nolan’s seventh consecutive Very Good Movie, just stop reading right now and go out and pay the eleven bucks because it’s actually really really worth that money and more.
And then come back here and read Braak’s thoughts at the above link.
(“But I’m at work!” you say. No no no! Any company that wouldn’t be okay with you catching a movie in the middle of the day is not a company worth working for, and you TELL THEM I SAID THAT when they call you up for disciplinary action. Because trust me, it’ll be funny.)
Aaaaanyway spoilers Spoilers SPOILERS but actually not really all that bad, assuming you’ve seen the trailer and know basically what the movie is about.
I just want to talk about this scene, shown at the top, really, and how it’s not that hard to grasp.
That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, fighting in a hotel hallway after gravity has gone a bit kerflouey.
The complaint some people lodge against Nolan’s Batman movies is that the fights are hard to visually track, since there are too many close-up shots and quick cuts. But that’s quite intentional – a fight with Batman should leave you not really knowing what the hell just happened, other than this big, black THING just beat the living shit out of you in record time. Nolan just filmed it so the audience feels that way too.
But this hallway fight scene is…well, it’s just elegant (and not just because Levitt’s Arthur character apparently has a penchant for casting his dreams in stylish, formal-dress settings). Most important: it’s mostly filmed from a wide shot, letting you see exactly how reality is tumbling (matching the falling van Arthur is actually – well not “actually” but don’t worry about that just now – sitting in), making gravity unreliable.
Which doesn’t really MATTER to Arthur, because his mission remains the same: keep the invaders from attacking his crew, while also figuring out a way to trigger the thing that will wake everyone up. Which, unfortunately, required gravity. Not something people would really have a failsafe plan-B for in case gravity went nuts on them.
So it behooves Nolan to film the sequence as clearly as possible so the audience understands exactly what’s going on here, and what the stakes are for Arthur.
Which brings me to my real point, something that came to my attention when re-reading Roger Ebert’s four-star review of the movie, where he says:
“Here is a movie immune to spoilers: If you knew how it ended, that would tell you nothing unless you knew how it got there. And telling you how it got there would produce bafflement.”
Meanwhile, the AV Club’s Scott Tobias puts it this way:
“It’s a metaphysical heist picture, staged in worlds on top of worlds like nothing since Synecdoche, New York, and executed with a minimum of hand-holding.”
Then there’s Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, with his “Am I The Only One Who Didn’t Get It?” post:
For approximately two out of every three minutes the movie was unfolding on screen, my honest experience is that it was vague, obtuse, scattershot, puzzling, confounding – and, finally, maddening.
And, due respect to all three critics, but that line of thinking might intimidate potential viewers worried about having to wrap their minds around a complicated narrative, when really, the movie works pretty hard to clarify exactly what’s going on.
This is all done in the first hour via the (always welcome) audience surrogate character (Ellen Page) to explain all the crazy shit to in a fairly straightforward way. Yes, the mysteries and complications all involve Cobb and the influence of his own subconscious on the mission. Sure. That is where the confusing stuff is, and that’s why, narratively speaking, Cobb and Arthur are explaining so much to Page’s character.
But that’s also why the mission itself is made as clear as possible. And yet, to make doubly sure the audience gets it, the film keeps cutting back and forth between three dream-realities/timeframes.
Again, in that first hour of exposition, the audience is informed from the get-go that:
- Time behaves differently in a dream than in reality
- There are going to be (ultimately) four dream-realities, each with differing time frames – the three they set up themselves, and then, finally, the worst-case-scenario Limbo-Realm where time expands to decades – the one that, as is pointed out many times, ONLY COBB has experienced
- Everyone is going to synchronize their subjective time-frames, so that when they’re called back to dream-reality A (the crash off the bridge), it will all be happening in the same OBJECTIVE time, even though their subjective senses of time are different.
And this is reinforced throughout the mission, both via dialogue – “How much time does Arthur have?” About three minutes. “How much do WE have?” About an hour – and by timing each dream-reality scene (Arthur in the hotel, and the rest of the bunch, deeper into the subconscious, in the snowy hillside setting) against their wake-up-call time (the seconds from when the van drives off the bridge to when it hits the water), which will jolt them awake.
And Nolan chooses the simplest method: constantly cutting back from the action to the sleeping crew in the van, as the van slooooooowly falls off the bridge into the river. That is the thing to set your brain’s watch to.
You, the audience. THAT is what you set your brain’s watch to.
It’s like watching a guy set up dominoes for a full hour, and then being surprised when he tips the first one over later. Seriously, Nolan works very hard to make the action clear without intruding on the pacing of the story itself.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of The Prestige: it utilizes a multi-layered flashback format without banging the viewer over the head with which flashback period they’re watching. At the beginning, it simply lays out: here’s where we’re at. Here’s one character thinking back. Then it shows the other character thinking back further into the past. And then it trusts the viewer to follow along because it’s actually not that complicated.
All of which is to say, if you’ve got a family member, friend , or neighbor, who doesn’t want to watch this movie because they think it’ll go over their heads or something, let them know that Chris Nolan is a director who Knows What He’s Doing, and even though he’s mucking about in some heady thematic areas, his primary objective is to tell an interesting story that will entertain and surprise audiences, and that includes them.
(And then when they come back you can laugh at their dumbfounded faces and watch them try to come to grips with what they’ve just seen HAHAHAHA.)