If there’s a problem with Christopher Nolan — and I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that there IS a problem with Christopher Nolan — it’s perhaps that, with all his impressive gifts for visualisation, he doesn’t always make the best choices in what to visualise and how to visualise it. My Nolan Problem dates back to his over-cutty, bowdlerized remake of INSOMNIA, and came back to bite me with the incoherent set-piece fights in BATMAN BEGINS (which I mulled over here). I liked THE PRESTIGE a good deal, but had a nagging feeling that the last shot could have crystallized the story a whole lot better if we’d seen clearly the contents of lots and lots of big jars. Instead of a great “Ah-hah!” we get a big “Ah-hah… I think.” But maybe he likes that — the end of the new one could be described as aiming for just that feeling.
Anyhow, I liked THE DARK KNIGHT fine, for what it was — “Big movies have got to get better,” said Soderbergh, before making OCEAN’S 11 thru 13, increasingly proving his own point without solving the problem — and Nolan is closer to attaining this improvement than most of his contemporaries. The problems with TDK are perhaps inherent to the comic book action thriller, which is to say they’re not problems at all for the audience that digs those movies… I like my action sequences to advance the plot, personally…
My INCEPTION Problem has a little to do with clarity — I see no reason why the set-up of the equipment used for dream invasions couldn’t make it pictorially quite clear just WHO is invading and just WHO is being invaded, which would help in the early setting up of the rules. But then I did quite like having to struggle occasionally to follow the story, which is an unfamiliar sensation in modern cinema.
I find the title slightly comical, but here I have to digress and explain why. A few friends were talking movies, and they came up with what seemed at the time like a pretty good thriller idea, set on an oil tanker in the North Sea. One of them suddeny became very excited: “Oh, oh! I know what it should be called! The perfect title!” Drum roll. His friends lean forward in suspense. “CONTAINMENT,” he says.
To me, INCEPTION is like CONTAINMENT — it comes on quite strong as a word sound, but it doesn’t follow through on the level of meaning. It’s not an exciting word.
But my REAL Problem With Inception — which essentially I enjoyed, I have to say — is that the rules set up in the training sequence seem to allow for some fantastic visuals that you couldn’t get in another movie: folding Paris, for instance. And the scary, paranoid threat of all the extras turning hostile when you do things like that. And that isn’t followed through in the action climax, or not to a satisfactory level. The Escher staircase and its variants are very nice, but shouldn’t there be something even bigger than the Paris roll-up? And the way everything explodes when a dream collapses — shouldn’t that have been repeated? Instead we get some well-staged action sequences with guns and explosives. The problem here is that those kind of sequences could occur in any movie — Nolan could have saved the snow attack for a BATMAN movie and we’d be none the wiser.
(My dinner companion of Wednesday night shrewdly points out that this big shoot-em-up seems inspired by Anthony Mann’s THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, but there’s nothing to compare to the wordless, music-less, hushed advance through the snow in that movie, which is sheer poetry.)
So while I enjoyed Joseph Gordon Levitt fighting on the ceiling like a two-fisted Fred Astaire, I wanted more of that kind of thing. A really interesting story world is summoned up here, but the pay-off is overly intercut action sequences (shades of Lucas) which don’t sufficiently exploit the unique qualities of that vision.
Still — the pluses are a really strong supporting cast for Leonardo DiCaprio (who’s not having much luck with the ladies lately) — the very lovely Ellen Page gives it warmth, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao (most compulsively, amusingly watchable Hollywood new discovery of this century?) give it humour, Watanable and Postlethwaite and Caine and Berenger give it class, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives it that indefinable Joseph Gordon-Levitt Feeling — some fantastic environments, including of course the crumbling city (give me a crumbling city and I’m a happy fellow) and the full-blooded, if derivative, bombast of Hans Zimmer’s score.