Inception: Quantum Dreaming or Just Another Summer Action Movie?

Inception. It’s an action thriller about people sleeping. Really.

A filmmaker’s greatest challenge is getting the audience to suspend its disbelief. After about 30 minutes of Inception, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan, I had suspended disbelief. Not easily, but I did. But then another 30 minutes later, I had to do it again. And 45 minutes on, once again. By the time Inception finished, I was exhausted. I had suspended disbelief so often I wasn’t sure where I was for real. Which maybe is what Nolan was after. I just don’t think he wanted me to get there that way.

Nolan’s film starts with an intriguing premise – Cobb played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a master thief – an extractor of information from people’s subconscious. His MO is to enter people’s dreams and take what they know. Like any good thief, he has his team and they join him in the victim’s dream. (Yes. It gets crowded). Cobb’s clients are corporations who have found his technique ideal for stealing industrial secrets. No disbelief needed on the motivation anyway.

As we go deeper into the story and its “dream science”, Nolan could take a lesson from vampires. They are simple: no sunlight, wooden stakes kill, blood sucking keeps them alive. Inception cries out for this type of simplistic view of the dream state to enable the plot to move along and the characters to engage the audience. Instead we get a couple mini-classes in how dreams work (and you better pay attention), architecting the dream worlds, and the risks to the thieves if certain dream “events” take place. To paraphrase Frank Costanza, “Suspension now! Suspension now!”

Even if a bumpy mattress hinders sleep, redemption for Inception was still possible but alas the visualization of the dream states is completely underwhelming. Two-thirds of it is standard fare from various action movies including Bourne and Bond, to name a couple. Specifically, when the van containing our sleeping thieves careens through city streets being chased by assorted villains it seems quite real, even though it’s actually a dream of the real gang who are safely aboard a jumbo jet (Suspension now!). Meanwhile the van’s occupants are participating in yet another dream, one level down. Or up. I’m not sure. When cities move and buildings crumble, you get a hint of the pseudo-reality that is real dreaming but it never quite envelops the story and characters in what could have been true cinema magic. The only sequence where the dream’s detached reality is captured is a fight between Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a bad guy. It takes place one or two dream levels down (maybe an elevator floor read-out would have helped) but the body movements over walls, ceilings, and floor with no fixed up or down shows the potential of what might have been.

The story builds tension through Cobb being retained – not for an extraction – but for an inception. This opposite move involves planting a thought in the dreamer’s subconscious that will motivate the dreamer when he wakes. It’s never been done before or so the gang believes. The only previous time it was tried is Cobb’s dark secret. This plot element helps bring some real emotion to an otherwise ordinary reverse of the Ocean’s Eleven idea without the star power.

Our actors struggle, I think, to bring life to a pretty ordinary script. It veers between the aforementioned dream mumbo-jumbo and the banalities and buddy talk of any one of hundreds of action movies. DiCaprio delivers his unique intensity to the part while inadvertently echoing his role in Shutter Island. Ellen Page seems out of place as a dream savant but it was worth trying. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is curiously flat. Tom Hardy as Eames hints at good things but then slowly devolves into a typical action flick second-banana.

As a big fan of back-stories, I have to say that maybe that’s what sinks Inception. The film’s “dream logic” is probably well worked out by the filmmaker. And to give Nolan credit, it was an ambitious plan to film a story that has reality vs. unreality at its core. But presenting the rules for a state of mind that is known for no rules gets the brain in a twist and the audience confused. The visual presentation then needs to be pretty
rigorous to let the audience know whether they are in the real world or one of the multi-levels of the dream world. As Ariadne says late in the movie “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” If she doesn’t know, can the audience be far behind?

Minority Report

My significant other describes this movie more succinctly “What a mess”. Her standard
requirements for a clean plot that progresses very briskly with some engaging characters
were not met. Looking for redeeming qualities is not something she spends time on. For
people of a similar disposition, consider this a benign walkaway alert. — Curt

SCORE: 1.5 stars

  • I felt Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a terrific job, going into this I was worried he wasn’t going to be able to pull it off, but I was proved wrong and enjoyed his performance and his ass kicking. I say bring on the Riddler.

  • The Man

    I guess we had to get the hater opinion, thanks Armond White. Is this curt from row three? Nolan thinks he’s so clever doesn’t he? I’m glad you took him and the people who loved this film down a peg. Even if you use bullshit to do it.

  • Aaron

    I had no problem following this film because every piece of dialogue in the movie is exposition. That’s my biggest gripe. It’s 2 1/2 hours of being told what’s going on and how it works. Oh, that and the completely miscast Ellen Paige. She drives me batty. Why is Hollywood in so in love with her?!!

  • Colin

    May want to use a different indicator for your wife’s curt insights: Something Awful has been using the “Minority Report” sub-review for quite some time…

  • The only thing I might agree on with this assessment is the miscast in Ellen Page. I can see why they would cast her for the role of a creative young architecture student. But I just didn’t buy into her as that character.

  • David

    Wow. I’ve never disagreed with every point someone said in a review (and their wife too–her comment seems to reflect more on her than the film). I had to keep looking up at the top of my screen to see if this was Film Junk. Forget this review. This is the must see of the summer.

  • Bryan

    Bollocks! Curt, why don’t you and your wife go watch a more conventional film such as “Grown-Ups” or “Twilight” and I’ll stick to bending my mind with “Inception”.

  • Curt – I agree we mostly remember weird dreams but I for one just awoke from a loooooong dream dealing with a alcoholic family member and an unfulfilled birthday promise, very real and very boring. I personally believe 90% of our dreams are working thru the vast amounts of information in our brains…

    I like your spirit and do agree that the lowest level, dreamscape created between Cobb and Maul was very cold, especially if it is a testament to their love…but I don’t think you really want what you are after. I think the look of the dreams are a reflection of Nolan’s taste but it also serves the storytelling, here’s a great quote from this month’s American Cinematographer: (DP Pfischer and Nolan)

    As with so many of their ventures, the touchstone for Nolan and Pfister was photographic realism. “The underlying idea is that dreams feel real while we are in them, which is actually a line in the film, ” says Nolan, “That was important to the photography and to every aspect of the film. We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism. We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being real world. So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real. There are times when the characters didn’t know what they’re seeing is a dream, so the visual difference between reality and dreams had to be seamless, except in specific places where we wanted to communicate that difference to the audience. Often the surrealism in the movie comes from the environment rather than the camerawork. By maintaining a realistic feel, we believed we could introduce a bizarre or unsettling feel very subtly when we wanted to, without taking the viewer out of the story.”

    I think the last part of that quote is important, you need to remember the audience also needs to not know what is a dream and what is not. If Nolan was overly surreal a level of enjoyment and engagement with the audience would be lost. Likewise, with such a complex story, visual confusion would make the film even more confusing to the majority of the audience. I think Nolan made the right choice, but I still agree with you that the lowest level could have been more surreal.

  • The thing is that Hollywood rarely gives to the the directors the opportunity to film free whatever they like.
    People who love movies in general must support those attempts and allow a portion selfindulgence here and there. It’s a bit schizophrenic to bitch about transformers2 and then bitch even more when a movie like Inception comes out..

  • Double_A

    I have to agree with rus_in_chicago on this. I heard similar criticism about the lost potentiel of the dream worlds but presenting them as surreal gets us Lovely Bones or worse Where Dreams May Come (shudder).
    I loved Inception because it’s a smart caper/heist film with some interesting thoughts ideas about how our mind accepts reality. I do agree the snow mobile chase/fight was underwhelming at best.
    The only suspension of belief I found I needed to accept was that humans can enter each other dreams – once you accept that I don’t see any issues with going further down the rabbit hole.

  • Primal

    “The only suspension of belief I found I needed to accept was that humans can enter each other dreams – once you accept that I don’t see any issues with going further down the rabbit hole.”

    My suspension of disbelief was successful here because they were subtle in showing that they doing a drug to get into the dreams. They were always putting something on their wrists/arms much like a needle and were shooting up. I believe it’s a special drug rather than some ruffie/sleeping pill because they always needed that briefcase which reminded me of a hookah. I missed any dialogue on what the drug was if there was any. I need to watch it again, hehe.

  • Darksiders

    Isn’t the George Costanza quote, “Serenity now!”???

  • Darksiders

    Also, I found this movie to be quite simple really. They told us everything you needed to know through dialogue so when it happened you were supposed to understand.

    Maybe people are just not used to ACTUALLY listening to the dialogue in a movie anymore??

  • Curt,

    I disagree with almost everything you said. The only thing that took me out a bit was the sudden introduction of the idea of limbo. It seemed like letting them wake up after death would have been inconvenient to the plot, so Nolan changed it halfway through, and introduced the “limbo” concept. Other than that one thing, I loved how the different levels effected the others, I love how you kept going back to check on what was going on in the other levels, seeing the van, the hotel, etc. It wasn’t a perfect movie, and I personally have never been a fan of ambiguous endings, but overall it was a great movie. Probably a three, or three and a half out of four stars.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    This Curt guy always comes across as a pretentious tool on the move club podcast.

    No change here!

  • Ben

    These comments about the dreams not being surreal enough are ridiculous and show an overall lack of understanding for what was going on in the movie.

    Did you miss the part where Cobb states that while dreaming, you think things are normal? Did you also miss the part where he states that the person doing the dreaming needs to go out of their way to keep the mark feeling like everything is normal?

    Sigh… critics…

  • Note: This was not written by Kurt from Row Three and The Movie Club Podcast. This is Sean’s Uncle Curt, who writes the Between Dimensions sci-fi column on Film Junk.

    You can, however, read Kurt’s thoughts on Inception, along with the rest of the Row Three folks, here:

  • Dane

    Sorry, but I have a hard time accepting anyone’s opinion that says you had better “Pay attention”, as if it’s a bad thing. Of course you should pay attention! Otherwise it would be standard studio drivel that you can get up, take a piss, get a soda, and not miss anything important. This is the first movie I’ve seen in years where not a single person checked their phone to see what time it was. This film was about as engrossing as humanly possible. It was a masterpiece, and we should feel lucky to have been given a film of this quality. Christopher Nolan has cemented his place as the director of our generation and I have no qualms about comparing him to Spielberg, Kubrick, Scorcese or any other visionary. Let’s also remember that he wrote this story himself, how many other directors can say that?

  • “This is Sean’s Uncle Curt” WTF!!!! first the fake Nolan special, now some bogus family member!!! this site is like Inception SO MANY LEVELS!!!!

  • Jonny Ashley

    The dreams aren’t dreamy enough for you? Go watch Monkeybone or The Cell. I guess it’s just not your thing, fine. But I couldn’t disagree more.

  • A-Train

    I disagree with this review. I respectfully disagree. I could not disagree more. Ellen Page *IS* the audience, that’s why she is asking “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” We know, *IF* we’ve been paying attention.

  • timmy-boy

    you’re allowed to have your beef but one and half stars? really? one star illustrates that the filmmakers were able to make a coherent story and you gave them a half star above that? kill yourself. you’ve lost all credibility.

  • Pittmo

    Excuse me guv’nah, could you spare an editor?

    This movie is a wannabe Matrix that spends twice the time on setup with ½ the payoff. (I just wrote that and looked up the time of Matrix. The Matrix is only 12 minutes shorter). But the Matrix FLIES BY! This kinda drags along to get every little tiny fucking thing explained. There are some scenes that are the dopest shit I’ve seen in a long time:

    Ellen Page’s dream
    Train in the street
    Running through the city that looks like Tangiers
    And the hallway fight

    Other than that, you can go get popcorn. Oh wait a sec, you can’t because you have to listen to every fucking second of setup. If you don’t, you’re gonna be lost. And I mean fuck-this-GPS lost. You know when Morpheus explains to Neo everything you need to know about the Matrix in like 5 minutes? This takes 3 fucking hours. This director got all juiced because everybody jizzed over Batman, so he thought every word he wrote and every scene he shot should not be cut. I like this review: “(S)tories should show, not tell, and Nolan keeps telling us that he can’t tell this story.”
    Now I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It’s pretty good. It’s just that ONE HOUR of this coulda been cut out and it would have been an hour and a half of a good movie. Totally original idea (like Memento) so I gotta give it points.

    Gordon Levitt is awesome. On the flipside, I HATE ELLEN PAGE. I think she’s a dude. I hate the way she/he talks, walks, looks. She walks like a guy, talks like she’s smarter than everybody, and looks at everyone like “Oh, you’re in MY movie too?” She’s got that Juno/Hard Candy chick down pat because SHE IS THAT PERSON. Ugh. Kinda that Canadian that becomes famous attitude that Mike Meyers got (God Bless Michael J. Fox). AND when she raises her eyebrows..normal people have wrinkles right above their eyebrows-her wrinkles start waaaay up top and the rest is just smooth forehead. It’s a really weird thing to see. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    I wouldn’t have minded this movie so much if it had a smidge more humor. There is ONE funny line (of course by Gordon Levitt). Actually it wasn’t that funny, but the audience roared like they were begging for SOME kind of comic relief. You’ll know the line I’m talking about because other than that chuckle everything else is soooooo fucking somber.

    Oh yeah, there is one more funny thing-the huge mole dead center of Leo’s wife’s forehead. You didn’t need the machine to get inside her head. Just fling open the door on that thing and Incept anything you want in there.

  • I’m Kurt with a “K” not Curt with a “C”!

    I’m around the 3.5/4 range for the movie. I have a few minor reservations with the emotional arc and how Nolan and company do most of the heavy lifting for the audience (unlike say Mulholland Dr. or Primer) but it is probably the best ‘smart’ popcorn flicks to come along int he past 10 years or so.

    My review is also up at Twitch:

  • Jimbo

    Hey Sean,

    We were in third grade together, so can I now write a review for Inception, the most anticipated movie of the summer? I promise I’ll quote Seinfeld lines and get a second opinion from my wife just to sound legitimate! I watch the SyFy channel all day and I have a blog on which I post 3 times a month, so I’m more or less an expert on anything Science Fiction. Don’t consider this a gift to me, I just wanted to help out your little site here as I have an outstanding reputation at my local Blockbuster.


  • Sure, but only if you can prove we were really in third grade together.

  • The cast was outstanding