‘Inception’: Not Actually That Complicated

Posted: July 29, 2010 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

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.

(Likewise, Memento‘s reverse-narrative is meant to give the audience an idea of what it’s like to be as confused as Leonard. And as for The Prestige…well, keep reading.)

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.

If you’re a viewer, and you’re confused by this…I’m sorry. I try really hard to sympathize, but, if this was where you got confused, it means you weren’t paying attention during the first hour.

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.)

  1. braak says:

    I don’t approve of anyone not understanding this movie. It’s ambiguous, in that the resolution of the dream-levels is purposefully left unanswered, but it’s not fucking complicated. What do you mean, Owen Gleibermann, you “didn’t get it”? Are you a moron?

    Idiots. Punk suckers everywhere, Holland.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    I could have saved myself so many words if I’d just written “Punk suckers everywhere.”

  3. Owen Gliebermann didn’t get O Brother Where Art Thou? either, and for that I’ve never forgiven him.

  4. if youve spent your life watching Sandra Bullock movies then you’re prolly not primed to follow a bit of basic narrative gymnastics. Sadly most people saw the Blind Side.

  5. sebastian says:

    The only thing I didn’t fully understand were the kicks. If you’re in a deeper dream level than you won’t awake from a kick on a higher dream level, but Arthur should have awoke in the van when it went off the bridge because he was awake on the next level down, right?

  6. braak says:

    Well, you don’t have to ride the kick, though, right? That’s why the kick can happy in the snowy world, but nobody takes it back up to the next level. I think the kick is more like a window of opportunity.

  7. Amanda says:

    Thaaaaaaaaaaaank you for posting this. I was really getting sick of all the obtuse whiny people who literally have been calling this film ridiculous, boring, narcissistic, garbage. Just like the idea behind the Token, the entire story/logic behind this film is simplistic and elegant, yet so profound. It’s like a cake: the foundation is strong and simple, but the sugary fancy pretty icing layered on top is what makes it seem deceptively complex- but underneath, it’s really not that hard to put together- JUST ACTUALLY TRY AND USE YOUR BRAIN, FOCUS, YES, YOU DO NEED TO PAY ATTENTION. Society has become too used to Jason Statham movies (my apologies to any fans).

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    @Amanda – yeah, let’s not say things about Statham movies we can’t take back! (I do really love most Statham movies – but I feel like not enough people have sat through “Revolver,” the Guy Ritchie/Statham movie that actually does have some “What the hell just went on here?!” parallels to “Inception” – so everyone go watch THAT movie now and we’ll come back and talk!)

    Maybe people are just conditioned to not paying a lot of attention to movies that are released in the summer, because by and large, they don’t HAVE to.

    I know I was paying a lot more attention to the first hour of the film than I might usually do for a summer movie for a few reasons:
    – I know by now that Nolan hasn’t let me down yet, so I was more interested in ogling the storytelling mechanics
    – The trailers alone made me aware that by the second half there’d be a lot of crazy stuff I’d have to set my brain a-workin’ at, so it was in my best interests to study the first half closely, and
    – It is a kind of heist movie. I paid the same amount of attention to the Ocean’s 11 movies for this same reason: because they’re built for the audience to watch for the “A-ha!” moments that are easy to spot later (this is the reason the last acts of “Leverage” episodes bug me – you don’t need to show me the flashback to how they did it, I GOT IT ALREADY).

    So yeah, I am a bit disappointed in movie viewers who didn’t pick up on at least one of these perfectly good reasons to pay a little more attention than usual.

  9. sebastian says:

    braak, that makes sense that you don’t have to ride the kick out of the dream. I thought that the reason the kick of the car going off the bridge only caused an avalanche in the snow world was because the kick in the motel room didn’t happen, so the car kick couldn’t ride all the way down to the snow level.

  10. braak says:

    @Holland: I think Owen Gleibermann is just trying to create an artificial connection with what he presumes to be the bulk of his readers by..not PRETENDING, exactly, but purposefully not trying to understand it. He’s like, “Inception, so hard, man? Amirite? Amirite?” like everyone is going to be his buddy now that he’s revealed himself to be an idiot.

    @sebastian: I’m not a hundred percent sure, to be honest; I’d probably have to watch it again, and maybe take notes. But I’m fairly confident that, whether or not it’s totally apparent in the movie, Nolan probably has some kind of mechanic in mind that explains it.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    @Braak – This is possible. And he may have succeeded, but I will never know, since I’ve learned not to read EW comments anymore, since they are by and large some of the most fucked-up, hateful, misinformed commenters I’ve ever read. They’re all yours, Gleiberman.

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Haven’t seen this yet, but the word “spoiler” rouses no panic in me—-I’ll still see a movie if I have some interest in an aspect of its storyline or its construction.

    “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.”

    While I can’t yet speak for how “the movie works pretty hard to clarify exactly what’s going on”, I agree that many critics are now evaluating film with the auto-pilot response that an audience will either “get it” or not, with authority on what the majority of viewers look for in a film-going experience. That’s not really criticism, though, more like an evaluation of how a product performs. I think valuable film criticism requires a removal from that kind of role—movie critic as product tester—and that a critic evaluate an artist’s work on the artist’s terms, accepting the logic and language an artist establishes before deconstructing their work, since perspective is what distinguishes one artist from another. Too often, you read critics raving on about why they liked or didn’t like a movie or pieces of it, but that’s just personal opinion, not formal criticism or critical evaluation (the difference betwen a film critic and a Cinema-Diva, is that a film critic explains themself). And despite what Hollywood producers and financers would love to believe, a movie isn’t a homogeonous product, like bathroom scrub, where all bathroom-scrub-makers can achieve success if they reach a universal apex of production organization, construction and performance. I don’t appreciate the “miss it” or “see it” type of critical response that has resulted from this “scrap-it or sell-it” type of thinking; tell me, instead, what ideas you felt the artist was trying to communicate and describe the pallette and language they were using as a means of expressing those ideas; then/i> tell me why you thought the film was or wasn’t a success.

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