Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Inception; what the Matrix wants to be when it grows up

Inception had all kinds of people jumping out of their skins when it hadn't even opened, because Christopher Nolan has built up a pretty solid body of work, delivering tense action-heavy films that require a bit of thought from the audience. And then he makes a movie which is all about dreams. The pre-release reviews were delirious and initial blog reactions were calling it the third best film ever made, so inevitably once the thing was actually pulling in money, the backlash fired up its engines and people started with the usual thing of "Well, all you sheople are obviously enjoying yourselves but we more thoughtful folks don't quite see what the fuss is about."

I decided to take some time out from my relentless commitment to Albanian language documentaries about underwater goat herding and check out this kerrazee new phenomenon before the critics ruined the fun for everyone. And Inception's a pretty good movie, but inevitably it's not the best film ever made. Not even, in Homer Simpson's wonderful phrase, the best film ever made, SO FAR.

What's surprising is that it's straightforward. It's got a freaky main idea - that you can intervene in other people's dreams - and Nolan's got form on making movies with tricky plot structures and loads of flashbacks that undercut the viewer's certainties, so you'd naturally expect Inception to be tricky in its presentation. Instead it's almost matter of fact. He gets the idea of nested dreams out of the way briskly and for that point on plays it very straight. A while ago I watched The Prestige with someone who is smarter than me and better at recognising people and remembering their names and we had to keep pausing the film for me to explain what had just happened. The same person had no problem at all following the plot of Inception because Nolan seems to have decided that the idea was weird enough that if he tried making it complicated he'd lose the audience completely. And, depending on your read on the final scene, you might argue that he kept it straight so that the big twist at the end would be more of a shocker.

I have to say that the big twist at the end - and I'm part of the bloc that thinks it IS a big twist at the end, not a happy ending - isn't that much of twist. With what we're shown in the first half an hour, there's really only place the movie can go. Arguably, it isn't even a twist; it's the inevitable working out of the logic of the dream.

Still, it's an interesting ride getting there. Di Caprio is fine, although I've always felt that there's only so much you can do as an actor with "tightly wound" before you get into diminishing returns. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon Levitt as sidekicks are much more interesting and rounded characters because they're not trying to be bags of nerves; they're playing guys getting a job of work done. Tom Hardy in particular is great fun. Ellen Page somehow doesn't get enough to do, which is a shame because she's the kind of actress who can sell a smart line and this is a movie which has a lot of smart lines needing to be sold. Marion Cotillard continues to amaze me with how much she can get done with very little. She was the heart of the two best scenes in Public Enemies almost without saying a word, and with very little screen time or dialogue she is still one of the most hypnotic elements of the film.

Yeah, you say, but what explodes? Well, the stunts are pretty impressive, although not always the ones you saw in the trailers. The big setpiece dream worlds are clever and convincing, but the movie works best with the small scale moments; there's a long scene where Joseph Gordon Levitt has to work in zero gravity to move the rest of the cast from a hotel room to a lift - it all makes perfect sense in context - which is just hypnotic. There's nothing spectacular to it; it's just a guy moving a complicated bundle down a corridor and getting into a fist fight along the way, but it's got a wonderful ... there's no better word ... dreaminess to it. Worlds folding up and falling down are all very well, but the corridor scene is what people are going to remember. There's a lot of other fun bits of business; the moment when a train appears for absolutely NO good reason in the middle of a car chase is expertly judged; just enough thunder at just the right moment.

After a while, though you start to realise that what Inception's really doing is showing the Matrix how to do it right. The Matrix was a wonderful movie in so many ways - I still occasionally stick the DVD into the player just to watch the lobby shootout and Morpheus's rescue because it's awesome in a trashy way - but it doesn't hold up when you stop watching it, because you realise that none of the "science" makes any sense. Apparently the original plan was that the humans were all linked up as distributed processing nodes, which made sense in terms of what the movie was about, but the suits said that this was too hard to understand and insisted that the humans had to be hooked up as organic batteries. Which didn't make any sense at all, and once you started to pick that part of the background apart, the whole thing just melted. Inception doesn't bother for one second trying to explain how interfering with dreams would actually work - at one interpretation it isn't even pretending it's possible to begin with; it just puts people to work doing it, makes the people themselves interesting and then sticks to a few simple rules. Result, a completely satisfying film about people trying to solve problems. And I think that part of the reason it works is that Leo and his partners don't have the fate of the whole world resting on their shoulders; they're just trying to save their own worlds, and that's quite enough pressure to be getting on with. A lesson there for people who want to make a spectacle; keep it simple.

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