Inception takes a long time get going and even longer to end. The core idea, that a group of mercenaries are invading peoples’ dreams in order to steal their secrets is solid and intriguing enough and for the first 45 minutes or so as the technique is explained and a new team member initiated into the process of building a dreamspace for the victim to inhabit the film looks immensely promising, but it squanders the promise by becoming that most tedious of all things, an action movie.
Contemporary action movies are not exciting for several reasons, the most significant of which is of course overkill, and Nolan is a master of overkill. I can’t be the only person who squirmed in exasperated boredom through the unbearably long finale to The Dark Knight and dozed off during various Spiderman, Bond and Bournes. There’s been a recent debate about the merits of Fast and Slow cinema (fast being the Hollywood model, slow the longueurs of Indy and Arthouse) which partially elides the degree to which they resemble each other, there may be more edits in 30 seconds of Nolan than there is in 30 minutes of Kore-eda but the effect is the same: impatience. Get on with it! Fast or slow the overwhelming problem is vacuity. Couldn’t this all have been done much more effectively shorn of about 50 minutes worth of uninvolving, high octane action? Aren’t these incredibly long takes here to avoid the director having to reveal that his story is paper thin? I’m no more prepared to give myself over to thirty minutes of a Turkish guy smoking pensively in his flat than I am a superhero battling his nemesis. There’s a similar feeling of lethargy and inertia to both models, an equivalent desperation. What do we do now? Let’s have another car chase! Let’s have a very long sequence of the taciturn central character walking across a tundra. Rapt fascination or rapturous reverie may be the goals but the actual state they induce is one of fidgety irritation and scepticism. Either neurotically busy or distractedly mystical the failure of almost all contemporary film, no matter how high-concept or “philosophical” is to have any really interesting ideas, any kind of argument. Dare we say any kind of politics?
Inception is a kind of amalgam of two other recent films, Scorceses’ wretchedly derivative and desperately overlong “Shutter Island” (a rip off of William Peter Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration” one of the boldest and strangest films of the Eighties, though not as good as his criminally overlooked “Exorcist 3” possibly the only film I’ve seen as many times as “Withnal and I”) and Charlie Kaufman’s bewildering “Synecdoche New York” along with “intelligent” globalization movies like “Babel” and “The International”. Both Inception and Synecdoche (and judging by the trailers the upcoming “The Adjustment Bureau”) are in hock to Borges, most notably the frankly awesome “The Lottery in Babylon”. Borges is instructive here in that he was sure enough in his ideas and, more importantly, in what was thrilling in ideas themselves not to have to pad his stuff out with back story, drama, character and journey. Inception’s problem is that it wants to have it all. What could have been a fascinatingly vertiginous trip into successively fantastic, impossible worlds, not to mention the limbo of the raw unconscious into which a couple of the central characters plunge ends up looking wholly like a series of action movies, one within the other, “reality” looks and feels like a “globalization” movie, jumping from Tokyo to Paris to Mombasa to Sydney with a team of basically decent technical geniuses who are forced to live outside the law, making sure there are lots of helicopter shots of cityscapes and exotic local colour. Level one dream is basically The Bourne Identity (by far the best of the Bourne films) rainy, grey, urban. Level two is the Matrix, zero gravity fistfights in a modernist hotel, level three, depressingly, turns out to be a Seventies Bond film while the raw Id is basically just a collapsing cityscape. After the first hour it’s quickly evident that, apart from having a conceptual structure so rapidly articulated that you just have to take the films’ switching between levels of reality on trust, they have no idea what to do with these interconnected levels, so effectively you have three uninvolving action movies playing out simultaneously. Three times the entertainment, right?
Above and beyond conceptually unconvincing devices used to thread together gimmicky action sequences (i.e., the fact that a dreamer in a falling car experiences zero gravity in his dreamworld) something that also drags the film down is Di Caprios “journey”. Similarly to Shutter Island, it’s all about Leo’s grief. He can’t let go of the memory of his dead wife, his feelings of guilt for having planted an idea in her mind. His wife has gone to comically ludicrous and convoluted ends to ensure that Leo will be implicated in her death and thus cannot return to America to see his angelic blond children. Hence lots of repetitive, banal emoting between the couple in Leo’s subconscious. “Stay with me”, I can’t this isn’t real”, “You promised”, “I’m sorry” and so on. Kaufman’s stuff works because its “humanist Po-mo” is laced with real despair and horror, the awfulness of existing at all is writ large, it’s also the case that Nolan’s vastly superior “Memento” was moving almost precisely because it had no redemption or escape for the central character. Both Synecdoche and Inception have moved on from these early works to suggest that somehow late capitalist culture with it’s shifting levels of mediation and hyper self-consciousness, breakdown of official history and meta–narratives, is in fact cognitively mappable and navigable: the polestar is love (this looks to be true of the upcoming The Adjustment Bureau to a nauseating degree) which takes on a quasi-religious character, here “a leap of faith”. In Inception Di Caprio’s motive for ensuring that the business empire of his target is eventually broken up and his monopoly on the world energy market is undermined is not political, it’s so he’ll be allowed to see his children again. We’re not invited to celebrate the blow struck against the Oligarchs, our feelgood is that Leo has resolved his “issues” and can hug his cute kids in his roomy house.
There is always the possibility of salvation, and salvation is always a personal matter. But one look outside the window will tell you salvation is collective, or it isn’t salvation at all.