Inception, Christopher Nolan's "existential heist film," pulled in more than $60 million at the box office this past weekend, easily taking the top spot over The Sorcerer's Apprentice and several holdovers from previous weeks. It also received high praise from most critics, including Cinematical's own Todd Gilchrist. I, however, fall into the other side of the critical spectrum. Like film geeks, movie-obsessed bloggers some movie critics, and casual fans, Inception topped the list of my most-anticipated films of the summer, based on Nolan's decade-long track record of combining style, substance, and more recently, spectacle (from Batman Begins through The Dark Knight two years ago). For me, though, Nolan managed to deliver on style and spectacle, but failed to deliver on substance.
I define substance as (1) narrative or story structure, (2) subtext or themes, and (3) interpretative complexity. For the purposes of this article, I want to set aside (2) and (3) and focus on (1), narrative or story structure. First, however, a few words about interpretative complexity which Nolan intentionally created through contradictory or ambiguous clues, leaving the ending, the final shot, intentionally open for interpretation, for a variety of meetings, some, but not all mutually exclusive. Since our own Peter Hall has already skillfully examined six different interpretations, I won't revisit them here (read his article for thoughtful exploration of that specific issue).
[Note: Spoiler warning is in full effect.] My interest in Inception has little (actually nothing) do to with the various interpretations that began showing up on message boards and comment sections before Inception hit theaters. What Inception means on an interpretative level has little appeal for me. I've seen (and read) similar interpretations before in other contexts. We're back where The Matrix and, to a lesser extent, the Matrix sequels left us almost a decade ago: in revisiting a topic introductory courses in philosophy discuss: the nature of reality, how we, individually and collectively, define reality, how we determine, via intuition, reason, or, a set of pre-agreed rules, define and draw distinctions between the real and the unreal, dreaming and wakefulness.
Instead I want to focus on story structure. If, like me (and others), you agree that mainstream films and novels follow fundamental rules about story, structure, and character arcs, then Inception fails on a narrative level. It doesn't moot or cancel out Inception's themes and subtext or interpretative complexity (and ambiguity), but it makes them less meaningful.
1. If character is conflict (and vice versa), Inception has almost none. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles with the grief and guilt over the loss of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). She haunts him, she disrupts his attempts to extract corporate secrets from his subjects (a.k.a., marks). Mal's not the villain, she's not the enemy; Cobb's subconscious is. What Inception needed, however, was a "real" villain, an external antagonist to mirror Cobb's inner turmoil and throw obstacles in the way of his goals. Instead, Nolan gave us murky corporate espionage and the object of the title: implanting a three-dream deep idea (as in dream-inside-a-dream-inside-a-dream) into the mind of the mark, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the wealthy heir to a multinational energy corporation.
2. Characters without inner lives or self-motivated goals make for dull, unengaging characters. Cobb's team is differentiated primarily by their physical differences and their roles within the Mission Impossible team. For example, Nolan leaves Arthur's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pre-film relationship with Cobb unexplored. Ariadne functions as walking/talking exposition device and de factor psychotherapist for Cobb. Eames (Tom Hardy) functions as muscle. Cobb's trip to Mombasa functions primarily to give Cobb a chance to engage in conventional action heroics (i.e., a foot chase). Cobb hires Eames as a forger, for his ability to imitate the mark's friends or family inside the dreamscape, but he uses that ability once. Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist, provides some minor exposition, then spends most of the second half driving a van in super-slow motion over the side of a bridge (time moves slower the deeper you go into the subconscious). The need to leave one character behind at each dream level as an "anchor" for the others decides the number of team members. Eames effectively takes what should have been Cobb's role inside the third level (the alpine level), but again, he's an all-important anchor. Saito (Ken Watanabe) has exactly one function once they're inside the dreamscape: the fourth level rescue.
3. Stakes. It's always about personal and emotional stakes. We know Cobb's stakes: they're emotional and psychological, they're personal (mental healing and getting back to his children in the states), but the members of his team don't have any stakes of their own. Nolan deserves credit for adding the three-level dreaming structure to the genre, but his attempt to get away from the "you die in your dream, you die in the real world" cliché we've seen countless times before (i.e., unreconstructed dream space, a.k.a., secular limbo), makes it impossible to care about anyone except Cobb. That might be fine with some, maybe most, moviegoers and film reviewers/critics, but not for anyone who wants a deep (or deeper) emotional connection with Nolan's characters.
4. Virtual henchmen vs. real henchmen (the latter are always better than the former). Once inside the first-level dream, virtual henchmen, projections from Fischer's subconscious, appear and attack Cobb and his team. The virtual henchmen attack at the second and third level dreams as well. Superficially, it's a clever idea, but since they're not as "real" as Cobb and his team, inconsequential. Nolan could have upped the stakes by having a second team of extractors/protectors entering the shared dream space via new technology unavailable to Cobb. What we needed, again, was an active villain working against Cobb and his team, adding, like he did with The Dark Knight, characters with multiple, conflicting agendas. Instead, it's just Cobb versus his subconscious, an idea I'm sure someone in the comments will relate to one or several interpretations of Inception as Cobb's dream.
5. What about all those dream labyrinths Ariadne built? In the one-hour, exposition-heavy walk-and-talk session that follows, Cobb hires Ariadne, a twenty-something student, to be his Architect (echoes of Matrix: Reloaded and Matrix: Revolutions). Ariadne possesses untapped talent to create and manipulate dream worlds. Cobb also tells Ariadne (a name, due to its awkwardness, we only hear spoken once or twice) that shared dreams must be imagined and built as mazes. Ariadne promptly shows off her imaginative skills inside the dreamscape, literally bending a city to her will, but, with the exception of staircase walkthrough with Arthur (later paid off in the hotel fight scene), the maze idea ends up as all set-up, no pay-off. Somehow, somewhere in the second half, Cobb's team could (or should) have found themselves lost in one of Ariadne's multi-layered mazes without a guide, forced to find their way out with henchmen in close pursuit.
6. While we're at it, what about all those totems? Cobb explains to Ariadne that everyone who participates in shared dreaming has a totem, a personal object that allows them to tell the difference between dreaming and waking states. If she's going to participate in shared dreaming, Ariadne needs one too. Cobb's totem is a metal top. If it continues to spin without falling over, he's still inside a dream. If it topples over like an ordinary top would, he's back in the real world. It's meaning and relevance to Cobb are revealed late in the film, undermining the usefulness of the totem to Cobb and, just (if not more) importantly, to moviegoers trying to figure out Inception's conundrums. Ariadne's totem turns out to be a weighted chess piece. It's seen once and only once, its personal significance unexplained. Ariadne never uses it, but that could point back to the interpretation of Inception as a two-and-a-half hour dream (Cobb's or someone else's).
Ultimately, Nolan deserves credit for attempting to bring substance to a studio-funded blockbuster, but either due to his limitations as a writer or, more likely, the compromises needed to get studio approval for a $160 million budget (all that redundant exposition, a problem that undermined The Matrix eleven years ago). In the marketplace of ideas, however, ambition and effort aren't enough: results are. Five years from now, someone watching Inception will have little interest in the studio-based constraints (if any) Nolan faced, the ambition needed to make something on the scale of Inception, or the various interpretative theories discussed and revisited over that interval, but on what he delivered onscreen.
Feel free to discuss what, if any, story-related problems you had with Inception and how you'd fix them in the comments below.