Why Inception didn’t do it for me

by on August 11, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips

Inception Leonardo DiCaprio

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is extraordinarily creative, brilliantly executed and not even remotely emotionally engaging on any of its multiple dream levels.

From the moment I saw the first trailer, I thought, wow, what an imagination this guy Nolan has. I’ve gotta see this film. From the box office figures, it looks like I wasn’t the only one.

The film has been a huge hit, taking $22 million locally and $227 m in the States in its first 4 weeks in cinemas. And we should be delighted at its success because there is no question that this film – unusually among blockbusters – has a brain.

So intrigued have people been by Nolan’s dream labyrinth that they have been going to see it again and again and furiously debating their interpretations in online forums. By contrast, it’s probably fair to say that after Transformers 2 the internet wasn’t abuzz with, “At the end there, what was Michael Bay really trying to say?”

There’s no question Inception is a cerebral triumph. If you’re into movies as puzzles, you’re going to love it. And if you’re into movies as spectacle, you’re heading into the sort of dream territory where the moisture content is above average. Alas, this isn’t why I go to the movies. I go to be moved and, at this this most basic level, Inception is a massive disappointment.

I believe that the first obligation of the filmmaker, if they care at all about our emotional engagement, is to get us to climb on board with the protagonist. In the midst of all the film’s visual creativity and plotting virtuosity, Nolan overlooked his primary responsibility as a storyteller. I just didn’t connect with Cobb.

Nolan tried to get us to feel empathy for the character by making the hero’s primary motivation be to reunite with his family. Surely we’ve got to care about a character who does that, right? Well, no. We’re just going to see it as a cheap, manipulative plot device unless we believe in the fundamental authenticity of the hero. And I didn’t buy Leo’s character for a second – measured in whatever time continuum you care to nominate.

In the Character session of my 2 day Screenwriting Course on the weekend, I showed the clip from the first act of Thelma & Louise where Thelma is on the phone to Louise. She takes a bit of the chocolate bar and exercises self restraint to put it back in the fridge. She talks a little more and opens the fridge door to take another little bite before, in the spirit of Jenny Craig, she puts the bar back in the fridge again. But after she hangs up from Louise, and she contemplates the prospect of telling her deadshit of a husband that she’s going away for the weekend, she dispenses entirely with any pretence of self control and collects the Mars bar to finish that sucker off. Remind you of anyone?

I also showed the opening scene of Bridget Jones Diary where, on a Friday night, the heroine is in her PJs, drinking alone, watching Frasier and confirming that, no, she really doesn’t have any messages on her answering machine. By the time she’s finished supplying guitar, drums and vocal accompaniment on Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – and before the credits have finished rolling – we are totally on board with the character.

What is it in both these films that lets us connect with the character? It’s the authenticating detail. It’s the writer taking the time to shade the character with some tiny quirk of their behaviour that we can relate to that tells us that this character might be fictional but they are absolutely believable. They are us.

Unfortunately, with Inception, Nolan hasn’t bothered to supply us with these precious little details for Cobb. In fact, I thought James Cameron had underwritten Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar until I saw Leo DiCaprio in Inception. A perpetual crease in your forehead – and a gallon of Brylcreem – do not constitute characterisation.

You might feel it’s unreasonable of me to have this expectation with a film like Inception. But I would say that in a film where we are so unsure of what is real and what isn’t, it was even more important than usual that we have a rock-solid unbreakable belief in the fundamental authenticity of the central character.

After half an hour, I couldn’t give a toss. I turned to my wife, who was similarly disengaged, and gave her a look that said, “If we leave now we can have the Ring Burner and kumera fries at Burgerfuel and still get home in time to catch the end of the Titans-Eels game”. She declined, but only because she’s not a huge NRL fan.

Inception is a massive cinematic achievement and Christopher Nolan must be an extraordinarily talented individual to have pulled it off. Millions of people think that this is exactly what they’d love to get every time they go the multiplex. And good luck to you all. I just happen to think that movies are about much simpler pleasures. Like caring about characters. And being moved.

UPDATE:
Inception received Golden Globe nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film but nothing for Leo DiCaprio. No surprise there. If the actor doesn’t get any characterisation, what can they play?

FURTHER UPDATE:
Why Variety doesn’t think Inception will win Best Film: “Techical virtuosity aside, many viewers profess not to have cared whether Leonardo Di Caprio would get back to his kids or work out the problems with his wife. Best picture winners rarely lack rooting qualities, with “No Country for Old Men” the exception that proves the rule.”

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Harmon August 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I agree with you that most people go to the movies to be moved by the characters and that it is an important quality for most films but I don’t believe that it should be the only criteria for a great film.

Take 2001 A Space Odyssey, all the characters are little more than window dressing but it still, to this day, moves and inspires me.
2001 may be a rarity and not everyones cup of tea, but if someone were to say that it fails because it has none of the usual character development in it, that to me would be an unjustified and narrow criticism.

I see Inception in a similar way.
Even though there were many things in Inception that I didn’t like because of my programmed expectations, in the end it was very gratifying to see someone taking a risk and trying to see outside the box. How often does that happen in Hollywood ?

Certainly a beginner screenwriter needs to be aware that it would be unlikely for them to sell an ambitious script like Inception, but its not necessarily because its a bad script but because its to risky a script?

Screenwriting Dogma is undoubtedly an important and helpful asset but I feel it should also be remembered that too much absolute adherence to it all the time can just as easily stifle the creative potentials of storytelling.

How did Nolan pull it off ?

Is cinema as an experience just as valid as cinema that can move us?
I think Avatar is also cinema as experience and as box office takings is ultimately what decides what commercial cinema is and isn’t, then cinema as an experience is a very valid approach.

Personnally I much prefer cinema that can move us, but I like both.

winston furlong August 12, 2010 at 12:08 am

It didn’t touch, move or inspire me. My partner and I, both Leonardo fans, were fidgety after half and hour, very bored after an hour and couldn’t care less after 90mins. And we were still only half way through the second act. We only stayed till the end in the hope there’d be something, a twist of some kind that would make the film half way worthwhile. Unfortunately no.

Inception was all motion and no e-motion. No laughs, no tears, nothing but incomprehensible plot, a pile of exposition (to try and make it comprehensible) and who-cares spectacle.

And then there is the suspension of disbelief thing. I wondered why Leonardo and his psycho-tech crew were going to all the trouble of infiltrating this rich dude’s dream to get him to do something he didn’t want to do. Why not the Godfather technique? Put a gun to the guy’s head and make him an offer he can’t refuse. Now that kind of film I totally get.

Winston

Sherry Zhou September 18, 2010 at 5:19 am

I agree completely. It’s often a frustrating discussion to have as Nolan used to be my favorite directors 10 years ago but had grown to become the Dan Brown of directing.

Unfortunately, the one-dimensional characters had became a common problem in Nolan’s recent movies: The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and now, Inception. It was so disappointing to see that upon receiving the news of Rachel’s death, neither Bruce Wayne or Harvey Dent seemed overly upset. The self-deceiving, obsessive and systematic Leonard from Memento was so much more authentic of a character.

Judith de Haan February 18, 2011 at 6:30 am

THANK YOU, Mr. Palmer, for articulating why I was bored witless watching this movie. Thank you.

Darius February 10, 2012 at 5:39 am

Maybe it’s my lack of experience or my age (I’m only 20) but I found myself attached to Leo in at least some way. I can agree that Nolan did not put much work into it but I suppose you can say he caught me in his not-so-wide net.

I don’t think I was rooting for Leo to get his kids back, that’s not what moved me in the end. It was that last shot with the spinning top that contains the emotion as far as I’m concerned and it only works once you’ve pondered and pondered the reality of the situation. On either my second or third viewing, I came pretty close to tears while I watched that top spin and shake on the table, convinced in my own mind that the man was still dreaming. That, in my opinion, is tragedy. The possibility that after his amazing physical journey to try to regain his sanity and his way of life, that he would end up failing and fooling himself for eternity is heart-wrenching.

Like I said, I don’t know much about screenwriting. I’m just working on something right now and I stumbled across this site looking to score some tips. Inception is one of my favorite movies of the past couple of years so I felt compelled to comment after all the bashing. I do know my emotions and where they’re coming from. With Incpetion, I found myself on the edge of my seat just to know when it was all said and done, whether or not it was even worth it.

Aaron Cook May 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm

I about cried at the end of this film because of how aesthetically captivating it is, and because I knew the final scene could only pan out as it does. However, there is something wrong with a screenplay that never pins the protagonist against such odds that he/she gives up almost completely. You can argue that we “see” this sort of failure in Dicaprio as he washes onto shore, or at any point in the layers of dreams where he “seems” against all odds, but we never actually “feel” that dismay, and without that dismay you cannot have the opposite; you cannot have the raw emotional victory whether internal or external. Unfortunately, without that dismay you can still have a resolution, but it goes unappreciated, in the spectacle that is modern cinema.

Curved Space December 29, 2012 at 10:12 am

It’s possible DiCaprio’s character was underwritten, but it’s also possible that what characterization may have been written in for him wasn’t enough to overcome his tendency to coast, and so had to be cut. After Gilbert Grape, has he had to actually act much? The Beach? The Aviator? Shutter Island? He’s a Face, one of those above-criticism stars. He may have good taste in stories and so can get a movie made (well, except for The Beach), but he doesn’t add much to them. Yes, the Inception family man inner story was gossamer-thin, and late-coming. But would Leo have been able to sell it if it had been thickened?

Will February 1, 2014 at 10:33 am

I loved Inception and saw it twice at the cinemas. I believe high-concept pictures let the concept take centre stage to the characters, where as low-concept is about the characters. It’s rare to have both – but possible – films such as Gladiator and Titanic.

The Inception trailer captivated me for the spectacle and the concept – it set off a part of my brain that thrives on wonder and imagination – and I went for that. I’m interested to know how powerful the film could have been if Nolan spent more time developing Cobb so we could connect to him.

Allen Palmer February 1, 2014 at 11:19 am

There is no reason why Character should take a back seat to Concept. It doesn’t in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or Groundhog Day. And it’s not because Inception has a lot of action and “doesn’t have time” for Character. Raiders has good characterisation. As does Star Wars. I actually happen right at this moment to be working on (or reworking) my Character lecture for the Cracking Story class next weekend. And, I say again … try something really radical … Character and Story (and Concept) in the one screenplay. It has been done. And it really tends to work.

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