by Charlie Wachtel
When the theatrical trailer for the upcoming September thriller called Devil hit the screen at a Friday showing of Inception to a packed Burbank audience, it seemed as if everyone in the theater was engrossed and intrigued with the concept. That is until the following words hit the screen: FROM THE MIND OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN. And then everyone started laughing. I mean everyone. Shyamalan has tarnished his name so badly that it is now dangerous for him to associate his brand with his films. I hope that one day the same can be said for Christopher Nolan.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Inception.”
It’s easy to credit the American movie-going public with having the highest theatrical IQ of anyone in the world. Yet somehow whenever a Christopher Nolan movie hits theaters, that all seems to change. And then all of a sudden, routine movie-goers magically turn into amateur movie critics, declaring films like Inception to be the cinematic equivalent to the messiah. Professional critics themselves search for reasons to boldly resurrect Christopher Nolan in all his glory as of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading us through the dark annals of Michael Bay’s 21st Century Hollywood nightmare. “Hallelujah for Christopher Nolan! The most brilliant filmmaker in the history of worldwide cinema.”
More like the most brilliant illusionist. Chris Nolan’s movies (and this discussion can exclude Memento, which I think most can agree is a fantastic and sensible film) have strange power of turning theater-goers’ brains into mush, convincing them that what they have just seen is better than any imaginable vision of heaven. I bet this all sounds pretentious–and to some extent, I hope it does. Because taking the stance I’m taking maybe the only way to get people to see the same thing that I’m seeing. Which is that post-Memento Nolan is a talentless hack who pulls the same brainwashing gimmicks from film to film.
It is as if viewers are dreaming under a hypnotic Chris Nolan spell when they watch his movies, disabling the functionality of their brains once the credits start rolling. Equally baffled by this is David Edelstein of NY Magazine who writes – “truly [has] no idea what so many people are raving about,” claiming that “it’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece.” So many critics are in overwhelming agreement over the greatness of Inception that Roger Ebert questions whether or not anyone is allowed to disagree!
Working hard? Or hardly working?
Addressing Nolan’s struggles at making sense of his script, Movie Line critic Stephanie Zacharek admits that “Because Nolan can’t connect his visuals, he has to use words, and lots of them, to let us know what characters are doing and why we should care.” This is why 99% of the film serves an expository purpose. Zacharek further remarks that Nolan’s lifelong reliance on Hans Zimmer’s score as a means for anchoring our interest into what we’re seeing on-screen makes Nolan less fit for “directing” and better suited for “directing traffic.” No truer statement.
The musical cues tell us when we should feel anxious or afraid instead of allowing the visuals and emotions of the film to achieve this (which they’re incapable of doing). Hans Zimmer’s score (which, eyes-closed, pleases the ears) is so heavily relied upon by the incompetent Nolan that the entire film plays a 2.5 hour+ non-stop musical track. The track even plays during the exposition. It plays throughout everything. Remove this track and I promise you that each person steps out of the theater complaining how much of a bore Inception was.
Adds Zacharek, “If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we’ve entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn’t nearly the same thing.” From this I take the following: Special Effects and visual imagery now supersede quality stories with competent scripts and technically-sound directing. Avatar brought new meaning to this. The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and PT Anderson among others are continually working against this.
Inception is a great concept for a movie. But the movie itself serves as little more than a misinformed psychoanalytical instruction manual with little to no story or characters worth investing emotions in. Sure we find it cool. Some of the visuals are candy to the eyes. But I can’t help but think about how much of a rip Inception is off The Matrix. If I had to rename Inception, it would be “The Matrix (for dummies).” Have we no sense of recent film history to pick up on this? Every little thing that happens in Inception has to be explained. Nothing is left to the imagination. The whole reality vs. the dream world concept is recycled for the worse.
One false notion is that Inception is confusing because it’s “supposed to be”–it is a mind-bender after all. No! Inception is confusing because it makes absolutely no sense! Let’s stop giving the director credit for not doing his homework instead of making excuses for him. Nolan has done a poor job of creating his story and a poorer job of defining the boundaries of the story’s world. Rex Reed of the New York Observer agrees, adding that “[nothing] adds up to one iota of cogent or convincing logic. You never know who anyone is, what their goals are, who they work for, or what they’re doing.” These are things that must be addressed. Moviegoers habitually give credit to directors like Nolan for “blowing their minds” when in fact the sum never adds up to all of its parts.
Let’s talk the whole “Dream within a dream” nonsense. Dream-themed films such as The Matrix, Total Recall, Strange Days, Dreamscape, and even the original A Nightmare on Elm Street define the rules of their worlds well enough without relying too much on exposition. Having dreams within dreams within dreams is not a calculated strategy of Nolan’s, but rather a cop-out. The 2010 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street uses the same strategy. It’s technically acceptable to use this strategy so long as there is an indication that one dream has ended and the next one has begun.
The story-line is laughable and seems to only serve the hollow purpose of making the $160 million + summer psych-thriller into a run-of-the-mill Bourne Identity-like actioner. In the disastrous disaster flick 2012 we had something “on-the-line” to worry about: hello? the end of the world?” With Inception, the value of the story is so insignificant and the characters so flat that there’s nothing to invest in emotionally.
Casting-wise, Inception is an utter mess, reminding us that Ellen Page is still Juno and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is ultimately too boyish for the big screen to be the next leading man outside of an art film (Shia Lebouf is doing an ok job and he’s five years younger!) As much as we all embrace post-Titanic Leo DiCaprio, his typecast is becoming a nuisance at this stage of the game and he’s simply overexposed. Michael Caine’s presence in this movie is a complete joke and another reminder of Nolan’s recent Batman blunders. And listening to Ken Watanabe is like trying to guess the English translation of R2D2’s dialogue in Star Wars.
So no people. I will not see Inception an additional time to have my “mind blown” or to try and see if I actually “get it.” I get it completely and I hate it. I got The Book of Eli and I hated that as well. Films that we need to see more than once are more often than not failures from the get-go. Inception is no exception. If you care to see Memento more than once then I encourage it. The movie makes sense and the story is told purposefully and brilliantly. But come on now. It’s about time to start lambasting Chris Nolan and seeing the rest of his movies for what they are: garbage in disguise.
Charlie Wachtel is a Senior Writer & Founder of The Film Crusade.