Movie Review: Inception – Or Why This Movie Is Pretty Good, But It’s Not Deep

Editor’s note: So there’s been a lot of reviews and chatter about Inception, I’m sure. Mine isn’t the first, and it certainly isn’t the last. But one thing I think I differ on most is that Inception didn’t impress me much. Not to say I didn’t like the film, but, well, let’s just say I had more cinematic fulfillment out of Toy Story 3 this year than Inception (and this post is about why). My friend Quinton says I reveal too many spoilers in my comments about the movie, so I’m going to attempt to write a spoiler-free review about why Inception was a good movie, but not a great movie, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

I cannot say the same for the comments. But you should really watch this movie already anyway, sheesh.

A snob who writes for a living? Anyone who knows me understands why he is my hero.

A snob who writes for a living? Anyone who knows me understands why he is my hero.

My favorite character in the Pixar film Ratatouille is Anton Ego. This is for various reasons, but the biggest reason is because I am an elitist snob when it comes to movies. I’m not going to lie. A lot of people think I don’t like movies because I tend to be a Grumpy Gus about most movies. Also, the first time my wife and I ever paid for a movie ticket was just last month when we paid for Toy Story 3 under “extreme” (not really that extreme) circumstances. Since we started dating, I think we’ve seen maybe five movies in the theaters in the past three years, and all but once, someone else paid for us. But it’s not that I don’t love movies. It’s because, first of all, movies are expensive, but perhaps more importantly, it’s because I like stories like Anton likes food: I love them. And if I don’t like it, I don’t swallow. And most of the time, I don’t swallow.

Either way, my friend paid for my wife and I to go see Inception with him as a birthday gift. It’s a good movie. Let me get this across in the very beginning. Inception is a good movie. Many people will like this movie. It’s got a lot of great action, it’s tense, and the plot is far from simplistic. I’m sure it’ll have plenty of twists that will throw people for a loop and it passed the basic test of whether a movie is worth my time: My friend and wife and I discussed it afterwards. Granted, the discussion wasn’t long, but it was there.

But out of the movies I’ve seen thus far, I’ve liked Toy Story 3 better. And there’s a very significant reason (this is my thesis in a nutshell). Inception is incredibly plot-based. Toy Story 3, however, was very character-driven.

Inception also has a lot of this. Oh, and shooting. Lots of shooting.

Inception also has a lot of this. Oh, and shooting. Lots of shooting.

Inception is a very complicated plot about a man who is trying to get back to his family and takes on an incredibly dangerous job to do so. What does he do? He’s what people call an “extractor”; he enters peoples’ dreams to access their subconscious and, thus, their secrets, for other people. This last job he’s going to do, however, is not to extract. The job is to plant an idea into someone’s head – or, the titular term, inception. This, we find out, is very difficult to do. It takes a lot of planning and the plan must be executed and synchronized flawlessly. Otherwise, the group is truly fubar.

Thus, this heist movie is flipped inside out. It’s like a reverse Oceans 11 – instead of stealing something, they’re getting past tons of security to put something in that doesn’t belong there. Except in dreams. So it’s all very psychological. Sort of.

I didn’t know anything about this movie when I went in. I hadn’t even seen the trailer yet. So as they began to explain what they were going to do, I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t think they could pull it off. But actually, they did! And to this, I give Nolan a high five (with explosions in the background). The movie is action packed, it’s tense, it’s suspenseful. It’s, well, a summer flick. And it’s a darn good one too.

This man has dark secrets. He will get over them in roughly ten minutes even though it's implied that he's struggled with them for years. The catalyst? Juno.

This man has dark secrets. He will get over them in roughly ten minutes even though it's implied that he's struggled with them for years. The catalyst? Juno.

But there was no…what do people call it? No depth. No connection, really. It’s revealed that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character harbors a deep, dark secret. He’s psychologically kind of messed up. Something happened in the past. We’re bombarded by questions even in the very beginning. Who is the mysterious woman who sabotages all of his plans? Why can’t he go home and see his kids? What’s going on? (You’ll ask the third question a lot). They reveal that Leonardo DiCaprio will absolutely have to face off with his darkest fear – it’s one of the earliest Chekov’s Guns in the piece. I relished when this moment would come. When will he face off with this psychological angst? When will we see this amazing growth of character?

It’s gone in a flash. It’s deep in the same way that The Notebook is a blueprint for a healthy relationship (Answer: It’s not; sorry Quinton :p). It’s superficial. They tell us, they don’t show. The actors tell us it’s happening. They tell us he confronts his past. Then, in about ten minutes, it’s over. You’ll know it when it happens. The movie spent so much of its energy and time (literally) in making an incredibly action-packed, graphic, tense plot pretzel and then unwinding it for us so perfectly, that the characters really have no time to evolve or grow.

Really, they don’t. Leonardo DiCaprio is angsty all the way through. Ellen Page’s character shows the most change, mostly from being a naive college student into a surprisingly hardened con-artist (or whatever you would call these people) who has, for some reason, an infatuation with Leonardo DiCaprio getting over himself. The rest of the secondary characters are stock and don’t change – the token minority, the guy who takes out tons of bad guys on his own, the tightwad, the brainy guy. They don’t change. They barely get any screen time as is.

More beautiful than Leonardo DiCaprio? You decide.

More beautiful than Leonardo DiCaprio? You decide.

Remember Oceans 11? Remember what made it so great? The plot was good, sure, but it was also proof that an action movie involving a complicated heist didn’t need to leave its characters on the wayside. It’s the interaction between George Clooney’s character and Brad Pitt’s character – the camaraderie, the friendship strained by Clooney’s desire to get the girl and Affleck’s concern that this romance will interfere with their plans. Then there was Matt Damon, the young kid who wants to impress the older mentors and so goes off doing some really risky, hotheaded stuff that almost jeopardizes the heist but he redeems himself in the end with his con-artist skills. We cared about these characters. We wanted them to succeed. The bad guy is a jerk, plain and simple. The con-men were cool – and we wanted them to win. We see them interact with each other, and even the secondary characters feel real and likable.

Inception doesn’t really do this. I liked the Asian guy, because, well, he was Asian. Leonardo DiCaprio broods a lot but other than that, he isn’t sympathetic except for the fact that oh he’s the protagonist and apparently we’re supposed to be automatically sympathetic to the protagonist. Ellen Page is a nice kid. That’s about it. Everyone else? We don’t get to know them that well. It’s kind of sad, because you see these flickers of depth, but then wait, there’s another explosion and we need to keep moving along the plot.

"Woody, have you noticed that we are inanimate plastic and cloth objects, but we show more emotion and reality than most actors?"

"Woody, have you noticed that we are inanimate plastic and cloth objects, but we show more emotion and reality than most actors?"

Toy Story 3 also had a plot – escape (have you ever noticed that every Toy Story movie is about escaping from an undesirable situation that the characters got into through their initial lack of trust?). But the characters grapple with something real – the march of time. They deal with real issues in their own ways. They need to come to terms with not only the constant change, for better or worse, that everyone needs to deal with in life, but also their own mortality. If you examine only plots, Toy Story 3 was horrible compared to Inception. There’s a couple plot holes and a huge deus ex machina in the end. But the characters make the movie compelling – the final scene in the dumpster (those of you who know what I’m talking about) almost moved me to tears. Obsolescence, death, abandonment, trying to move into the future while not forgetting the importance of past events and relationships, growing up – we experience this all the time, and we relate to it. That’s what made Toy Story 3 so touching.

In the end, it’s also what makes movies stick in our minds. Whenever I think of the final scene in the dumpster in Toy Story 3, I shiver. It’s intense, it’s dramatic, it’s poignant, even heartbreaking. And in the denouement of the story as they start to wind things down and wrap things up, we’re left with a final, bittersweet scene between a grownup Andy struggling to move on with his life.

During the final climactic cliffhanger of Inception, however, I didn’t care. I started suffering what I’ve started to call Armageddon syndrome (remember that movie?). The movie is plot driven – by now, I’ve realized that. So I don’t really care what happens to these characters. The cliffhanger feels contrived, cheap, forced, because the cliffhanger wasn’t the point of the movie. The point of the movie is explosions and a lot of gunfire and plot twists, not any type of development in the character. Do we need some kind of character conflict to get the plot rolling? Sure. But solving that conflict isn’t the point – pulling off the heist/blowing up the asteroid is. I don’t care if everybody dies in the process, really, because I don’t have any emotional connection to them at all. They could all die, for all I care (except for the Asian guy, because he’s cool and then I will be pissed).

And at the end of Inception, I smiled. I mean, the movie was enjoyable, after all. I shook off the access adrenaline, stretched my limbs, and walked out into the blinding sunlight. But nothing sticks. I think of the last scenes of Inception and I shrug. It’s a great action film, yes, and it even has the veneer of intellectual complexity. And the special effects are gorgeous! People will probably rave about the zero gravity fight scene and so forth and so on. But movies, especially with the advent of 3D, have started thinking that maybe a lot of flashy action and gunfire will distract us from what really makes stories great and worthwhile. It’s all about characters that we can relate to, man. That’s what makes a story move from good to great. So yes. If you watch Inception, you’ll have a lot of fun. But is the movie like, deep, man? No, it really isn’t.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Movie Review: Inception – Or Why This Movie Is Pretty Good, But It’s Not Deep

  1. Jamie

    You said Ben Affleck when you meant Brad Pitt. BIG difference. 😉

    I thought Inception was a great heist movie, with just the right balance of open-endedness to really allow the audience to insert their own interpretation. In my opinion, that makes for an incredibly fun movie. It’s like what Lost did for tv; it demands the audience participate.

    I agree about the flatness of characters, but a few people suggest that that is further evidence that the entire movie is a dream. The people are all just Cobb’s projections. Ariadne is so obsessed with Cobb’s past because he (or Mal) has projected her to force him deal with his issues. If I were voting, I’d say it wasn’t a dream, and the top at the end was about to fall over, but it’s fun that the movie leaves it just open enough that I have to admit I could be wrong.

    I don’t think the movie is Oscar-level good (except for the editing), but it is definitely the best movie I’ve seen all year. I loved Toy Story 3 too, but I’m starting to suspect Pixar of emotional manipulation. I should *not* be crying that much over toys. You do have to remember that Toy Story 3 had two entire movies to invest you in their characters, and that they have the potent weapon of nostalgia. I’m not saying Inception was anywhere near the same emotional level, but it was creating an entire new universe and introducing a large cast of potentially very interesting characters, all while primarily being a complicated heist story.

    • Ted

      Dang it, no spoilers!

      And yeah, I should change it. That is a huge difference.

      I think the argument that the flatness of the characters was intentional to show it was a dream is just to justify the flatness of the characters. As far as ambiguous endings go, this one definitely does not end all that ambiguously. I also vote that it’s not a dream.

      I was thinking about how Toy Story is a trilogy so there was more time to establish emotional investment in the characters, but I completely forgot to address it. I would argue that despite the fact that Toy Story 3 had time to establish characters before, and that the nostalgia definitely counted, a stranger to the franchise could walk in and the characters would still be pretty human, nuanced, and emotional. They don’t work as hard to establish that as say, the first Toy Story (for various reasons) but I still think the characters had more depth than the characters in Inception.

      As far as whether they are emotionally manipulative, I think the fact that they are toys is pretty inconsequential. Most of Pixar’s movies don’t actually deal with humans all that much. Finding Nemo was incredibly endearing, regardless of the fact that the main characters were fish (or other sea-oriented animals).

      • Jamie

        Oh yeah.. spoiler alert. Whoops, sorry. Feel free to edit or delete my comment. (But seriously, if people read a post about a movie and read the discussion in the comments, they forfeit the right to be offended over spoilers.)

  2. Ted

    Yeah I pretty much edited my intro to say the same thing. So you’re in the clear. They have been warned.

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