The Contrarian is a new series in which we will spit upon wrongly well-loved classics and fiercely defend panned disasters. We may seem like we’re just being contrarian, but we will fight you on these.
Never has a film ostensibly about dreams been a less fanciful trip than Inception, a dour action-thriller that plays better as a G.I. Joe fantasy episode than the thoughtful sci-fi heist it pretends to be. Its high-concept conceit—that one can enter the dreams of another, manipulating their thoughts—is surely an imaginative one, yet somehow dealt with in the most unimaginative way possible. To think of, say, Michel Gondry’s take on the material, it’s a wild and colorful ride through the abstracted world of the subconscious. In pseudo-intellectual writer-director Christopher Nolan’s take, it’s interesting more in that it suggests Nolan has never dreamed in his life.
In a way, Nolan’s solemn, almost bored disregard of the fancifulness of dreams should have been expected. The Dark Knight, for the impressively indelible mark it made on superhero movies, did so because it stripped the genre of its inherently colorful nature. As a genre filmmaker, Nolan has little interest in enjoying genre conventions—only in desaturating them, smoothing down the aggressive beachside cliffs he CGI-collapses with absurd frequency.
As he revealed a bit too readily (and perhaps accidentally) in The Prestige, Nolan is an illusionist, claiming himself a magician but never so magical as he first seems. He’s most thoroughly an entertainer, and every new viewing of his trick pulls the curtain back on its flaws; its obvious wires; the way he rushes you through his own rules quickly enough that you easily miss how much they’re in his favor.
Inception follows Nolan’s usual mold of unsmiling bullshit. And like The Prestige, it reveals far too much about himself and his methods, concerning an ever suit-wearing man (Leonardo DiCaprio, as Cobb) who plants an absurd idea in someone else’s mind, even if it has no sane place there.
Ellen Page co-stars as Ariadne, the Architect, explicitly there to build mazes that keep a subject there and busy long enough. “How could I include enough detail to make them think it’s reality,” she asks. And Nolan answers with his increasingly nonsensical, convoluted narratives. With the way Cobb incessantly explains the mechanisms to Ariadne, the film’s largest ruse may be that she’s the audience surrogate; in fact, the audience members are rather the film’s dream “projections,” anonymous nobodies ready to revolt as soon as they finally wake up to how contrived a world they’re trapped in.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur is the Point Man, in charge of overseeing the plan—Nolan as producer, envisioning himself as a much slicker guy than he is, and not as cool-looking as he thinks in his little bespoke outfits. Ken Watanabe plays Saito, the financiers Nolan has to deal with in getting this far-fetched yet short-sighted vision executed. And, finally, Cobb is Nolan as would-be emotionalist. Like DiCaprio’s protagonist, he cannot dream nor truly feel. If he could, he’d know how weird dreams, and how deep feelings, actually are. Instead, he regards flashback images as drama, and sees slowly rotating hallways as bizarre by dream standards.
But it’s Tom Hardy’s Eames who gives the most telling line. “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” he says, pulling a grenade launcher out to trump Arthur’s smaller firearm. Is that seriously what this filmmaker thinks is dreaming bigger?
In Nolan’s mind, it would seem that far-out ideas call a sleeping boy out of his dream. Unaware to the director, the most alarming disparity in Inception‘s dreams is just how painfully normal they are. (He’s apparently never heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s dream of a hamburger that ate him.) “When we’re asleep, our mind can do almost anything,” Cobb says, before unveiling the dull REM fantasies of someone who’s only seen a couple Bond movies and Heat.
Inception is less a movie than a foreign board game where more than half the time is spent reading the instructions and watching some YouTube tutorials, just for the actual gameplay to end in pointlessly argumentative ambiguity. It’s a heist movie without consequence or logic, where no one has to think their way out when they can instead talk their way out with logistical nonsense.
Even in its final 20 minutes, Inception has Cobb still explicitly describing more rules of the film, explaining his way out of this dreary world wherein dreams are all brutalist nightmares featuring stark architecture, white men in clean suits, and plenty of guns but somehow not a conjured-up lightsaber to be seen.
“He has no imagination,” Eames at one point says of Arthur. But as screenwriter, those who live in ominously vacant glass houses should not shoot bullets, Christopher Nolan.