Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Movie Day Reviews: Inception

(This entire review is filled with spoilers for Inception. Not that anyone would understand the spoilers without having seen the film anyway, it's so complex.)

I have a love/hate relationship with Christopher Nolan.

I love his films. They're smartly written, well-crafted with an attention to detail, and generally quite intense. I'd count Memento and The Dark Knight as some of my all-time favorite films. Yet I'm unsure about the morality his films portray, especially in relationship to truth.

Inception is Nolan's latest masterpiece, a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle of a film about entering people's dreams in order to steal or plant ideas in their mind. It's been said already elsewhere, but Inception is a metaphor for itself--its ideas and complex storyline stick in your mind long after you've left the theater. It is a movie that requires thoughtful engagement; you can't really shut your brain off for this one. And beyond all the intellectual and technical underpinnings, it's just a really cool action film.

However, Inception isn't flawless. Critics have noted the emotionless tone, the lack of secondary character development, and the overt "telling" instead of "showing" the rules of Nolan's dream worlds. I'm honestly not bothered by any of that. I'm bothered by the underlying message that a false ideal is more valuable or meaningful than the truth. I'm bothered that Nolan's films lack true heroes.

(Huge spoiler alerts for the rest of the post!) Let's go through Nolan's filmography and analyze the character of the protagonist.

In Memento, we find out in the end that Leonard has chosen to create a lie for himself to make himself happy. to give his life meaning and purpose, to ignore the truth that he is the Sammy Jenkins of his tragic tale, he purposely writes down the wrong license plate number in order to keep searching for his wife's killer. Yet this misguided act results in the deaths of innocent people, people who had nothing to do with his wife's death. The protagonist is a self-manipulating serial killer.

In Insomnia, detective Dormer is being investigated by internal affairs for planting evidence, a crime he actually committed. He accidentally shoots and kills his partner who was going to testify against him, forcing him to make a deal with the serial killer who witnessed the murder. Dormer's guilty-conscious sends him on a downward spiral, ending with a fatal confrontation with the murderer and a lack of catharsis. The protagonist is a guilt-ridden manipulator who would rather die than face judgment for his actions.

In Batman Begins, Batman chooses to let Ra's al Ghul die in the train crash, saying "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you." In The Dark Knight, Batman lies to cover up for the Harvey Dent murders, creating a false hero out of Dent and hiding the truth from the people of Gotham. The protagonist, whether I want to admit it or not, has built a vigilante system of justice around keeping the dark truth hidden from the people of Gotham.

In The Prestige, there is no real justice for either Angier or Borden. Angier is entirely motivated by rivalry and revenge, resulting in his death at the hands of Borden. Borden is willing to lead a double life (literally) in order to be the best magician of the two. Both morally operate on "the ends justify the means" regardless of who gets hurt in the process. It's difficult to tell if there is a protagonist here at all.

Finally, in Inception, the idea planted in the mind Cillian Murphy's character is a positive one--"your dad really did care about you and love you." It's a lie, justified only by Cobb being reunited with his children. Yet with the final scene of the spinning top, we're unsure whether the reunion is real or simply another dream. If it is a dream--one constructed by Ariadne, who alone knew of Cobb's inner motives and desires, and who alone could have constructed an ideal reality in the mind--then the film's final conclusion is simple: a happy lie is better than the painful truth. If it is real, then it's a reality built upon acts of manipulation.

To be honest, I want to like every aspect of Nolan's films. I appreciate their complexity and willingness to avoid easy answers to moral dilemmas. I think the scripts are some of the best written in the past decade. And Nolan's cadre of regular actors--Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy--are all incredible. I've wondered if ol' Chris shares the same views of reality and truth as his protagonists, or if he is simply presenting a character making a difficult decision, leaving the audience to decide for themselves if they would have done the same. But when it comes down to it, I'm not sure that I can fully embrace the underlying philosophy of Nolan's worlds. He seems to be asking the ultimate metaphysical question--what is really real?--and answering with "whatever you can convince yourself is true." We don't live in a world like that. Our Truth is real, is knowable, is love.

The question I'm asking myself is, do I have to subscribe/approve of a film's worldview in order for it to be considered worthwhile art? I surely hope not. I can think of countless examples of films that both point to the creative-redemptive truth of God while also adhering to a non-Christian worldview. (I can also think of plenty of overtly "Christian" films that make me cringe with their lack of creative depth.)

Inception is an ambitious film filled with awe-inducing visuals and one of the most complex-yet-coherent scripts I've seen since...well...Memento. Do I agree with the conclusion that fantasy trumps truth? I don't. I can't. But I appreciate that a summer blockbuster is forcing audiences to ask themselves deep spiritual questions about what is really real. That's an idea worth planting in all our minds.


  1. You definitely hit on the major theme of Nolan's works. I too liked Inception for it's cleverness and originality (emphasized by the competition this summer: a rash of 80's remakes).

    However, the thing that grated on me more than the postmodern relativism is the morality. The main character subscribes to a 'ends justify means' mentality which in this case leads to the downfall of one of the world's largest companies-- a move sure to impact millions of employees' lives negatively. Additionally, Cobb shows himself willing to trick his comrades and friends into risking their sanity (though after all the grave talk, Seiko seemed perfectly lucid after 50 years in limbo-land).

    The ends do not justify the means, and doing something horrible to achieve something admirable shows a dearth of character in my esteem.

  2. Derek, great thoughts! If we compare the ends and means--the reunion of a family vs. the destruction of a family, plus a company, plus the manipulation--it doesn't seem worth it. I wonder if Arthur or Eames were getting paid too; what was their motivation for helping Cobb, the guy they always seemed frustrated with?

    But I have to admit, I felt tears coming to my eyes when Cobb hugs his kids in the final scene.

  3. Joel, as usual, great thoughts. That is the consistency of Nolan, the protagonist walking the grey line throughout and eventually crossing it to the dark side of morality. It leaves the viewer in a precarious position.

    It bothered me more in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight than in Inception. I'm not sure why?

    I never got into Memento, Insomnia or The Prestige, but I see the theme carried throughout.

    Inception was an intelligent, original, action film. The development of characters and the lack of emotion didn't bother me. I did feel the interaction between Cobb and his wife, which most reviewers commented on as being shallow.

    I do see your concerns and the message it sends as valid. But like you, I was moved when he embraced his kids.

    It contained the elements of my favorite films all in one, and for me, this puts it near the top of my all time favorites!

  4. Chris, it felt like my review of Nolan's films was overly negative, but I would consider him one of my favorite directors. He hasn't made a bad film yet, in my opinion. And that's saying a lot. As much as I don't agree with some of the underlying philosophy, I have to admit, "Inception" is the best film I've seen in 2010 thus far.

  5. No, I understood where you were coming from. You enjoyed the film but with a discerning eye see the trouble with it as well.

    Which is why I enjoy your reviews!

    I must say that I also found the score of Inception to be way cool!