Inception is a dream heist movie that stops just short of being fantastic

Last night I saw Inception (working title: What Are We Going to Do With All This Money We Made From The Dark Knight?). Actually, that kind of undersells it — leaving the theater, I didn’t feel so much that I’d seen a movie, as I’d been beaten about the head and neck with a movie.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it; I thought it was very good and engaging. It’s just very dense. You get the sense that they wanted to make damn sure everybody in the audience got his ten bucks worth, so they crammed eight different movies into one. At least one scene in the movie has a character asking, “Why should I have to choose” between fantasy and reality. Inception asks why should it have to choose just one type of movie.

At its core, it’s a high-concept heist movie, like The Prestige. On top of an already complicated heist movie, it adds spy thriller, murder mystery, psychological drama, fantasy, and the Weapon of Choice video. That means a ton of exposition — the first hour at least is spent explaining the rules of “dream-sharing” (and then later explaining why those rules are now broken). I’d heard about the premise going in, so I was watching carefully from the beginning to make sure I could follow what was a dream and what wasn’t. As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered, since the movie goes to incredible lengths to make sure everyone’s clear on what’s going on.

It’s remarkable that it succeeds, considering how much is going on, but in the end that over-explanation is my biggest problem with Inception. Almost all of the imagination and spectacle is undercut by a character commenting on and explaining what’s happening. The most egregious example: fairly early on, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is explaining to Ellen Page’s character how to build M.C. Escher-like loops into a dream world to create paradoxes. Later, during one of the many climaxes, this inevitably comes back at a crucial moment, Gordon-Levitt’s character looks at it, and says “Paradox!”

Obviously, he didn’t need to comment on it (at least without going all the way with it and shouting, “Now THAT’s what I call a PARADOX, bitch!”) But I’d say the movie should’ve gone even further: cut out the whole first scene introducing the concept, or at least mention it without showing it. Then at the crucial point of the action, show the impossible staircase. By this point, the audience has already bought in to the concept of a dream world, so it would’ve been a satisfying surprise to see something fantastic thrown in at an unexpected moment, without all that setup.

That same feeling of spectacle that stops just short of being mind-blowing is one that carries through the rest of the movie. Christopher Nolan’s built up a reputation for favoring practical effects instead of over-relying on CGI. Normally, I’m all for it — Avatar, the Harry Potter movies, and the Star Wars prequels all demonstrate what happens when your movie gets so far removed from reality that nothing is impressive anymore; it all just blends together as a big lump of featureless computer graphics. But with Inception, it means that you end up appreciating the movie on an intellectual level instead of having a pure gut response to it.

Technically, the movie’s flawless throughout, with none of the effects — even the CG ones — drawing attention to themselves as gimmicks. And there’s an extended (very extended) zero-gravity sequence in particular that’s pretty spectacular. But I spent most of the sequence watching it from three levels back: this is a scene with actors on a rotating set performing a choreographed fight to represent agents in a hotel fighting in a dream that’s inside another dream that’s taking place inside a van falling off a bridge. For a movie with this much fantastic stuff on screen, the genuine gut-level “Wow!” moments were few and far between.

Although I’ve done little but complain about the movie, I still think it’s justified to say that Inception is virtuoso filmmaking. It’s all meticulously plotted and planned out and edited, and even more impressive: it keeps up the pacing even over two and a half hours. But it still felt more clever than genuine to me, a little cold and calculated. (For the record, I’ve gotten the same feeling from all of Christopher Nolan’s movies, where I feel like I’ve appreciated them on an intellectual level more than actually enjoyed them. That even includes The Dark Knight, which I still say is his best movie, but I don’t like as much as everyone else seems to. So I could very definitely be in the minority).

Inception finally loosens up at the end, no longer answering questions but asking them, like “Does it really even matter what’s fantasy and what’s reality?” and leaving itself to an extremely well-done ambiguous ending. I just wish that there’d been more of that sense of ambiguity throughout.