At the movies, incomprehensible gibberish has become a way of life, but it usually takes time before it’s clear that a movie really stinks. Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest assault on rational coherence, wastes no time. It cuts straight to the chase that leads to the junkpile without passing go, although before it drags its sorry butt to a merciful finale, you’ll be desperately in need of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Writer-director Nolan is an elegant Hollywood hack from London whose movies are a colossal waste of time, money and I.Q. points. “Elegant” because his work always has a crisp use of color, shading and shadows, and “hack” because he always takes an expensive germ of an idea, reduces it to a series of cheap gimmicks and shreds it through a Cuisinart until it looks and sounds like every other incoherent empty B-movie made by people who haven’t got a clue about plot, character development or narrative trajectory. Like other Christopher Nolan head scratchers-the brainless Memento, the perilously inert Insomnia, the contrived illusionist thriller The Prestige, the idiotic Batman Begins and the mechanical, maniacally baffling and laughably overrated The Dark Knight-this latest deadly exercise in smart-aleck filmmaking without purpose from Mr. Nolan’s scrambled eggs for brains makes no sense whatsoever. Is it clear that I have consistently hated his movies without exception, and I have yet to see one of them that makes one lick of sense. It’s difficult to believe he didn’t also write, direct and produce the unthinkable Synecdoche, New York. But as usual, like bottom feeder Charlie Kaufman, Mr. Nolan’s reputation as an arrogant maverick draws a first-rate cast of players, none of whom have an inkling of what they’re doing or what this movie is about in the first place, and all of whom have been seen to better advantage elsewhere. Especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who remains one of the screen’s most gullible talents. After his recent debacle in Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s dopey insane-asylum bomb, one hoped for something more substantial from the easily misled Leo, not another deranged turkey like Inception. He should have stayed in bed.
I’d like to tell you just how bad Inception really is, but since it is barely even remotely lucid, no sane description is possible. Let’s see. It opens with crashing waves on a beach. In the middle of a July heat wave, I wanted to jump in, but the thrill didn’t last. Cut to the battered face of Leo, looking like a 14-year-old washed ashore facedown from a toy sailboat. He has come from another location conjured up in a dream, and is fond of muttering jabberwocky like “I am the most skilled extractor of dreams.” In other words, he can close his eyes, enter somebody else’s dreams with his pock-marked baby face and blow up China. The excellent Marion Cotillard, who has spiraled a long way down from her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf, growing a wart in the center of her forehead in the bargain, is the ghost of his ex-wife. Leo lives in a state of guilt for her death. He is also a thief, plowing his way through dark kitchens waving guns with silencers to relieve locked safes of their contents. Living in a continual dream state, he wants only to get home to his father (Michael Caine in a walk-on of fewer than a dozen lines) and two kids, but first he must, according to the production notes, “extract valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state when the mind is at its most vulnerable.” To this end, Mr. Nolan works in something about the world of corporate espionage that turns Leo into an international fugitive. Now, Leo and his team of special “extractors” must achieve “inception”-meaning that instead of stealing dreams, they must plant some. If you’re still awake, you’re one step ahead of me. I dozed off ages ago.
Policed around the globe by anonymous forces, Leo is aided by a pretty college student (Ellen Page from Juno) with a kinetic knowledge of dream therapy who acts as a “brain architect” (whatever that is); a loyal assistant (a big waste of charismatic Joseph-Gordon Levitt) who floats through space without gravity; a two-fisted barfly (Tom Hardy from Guy Ritchie’s abysmal RocknRolla); and assorted villains who sometimes double as saints (Tom Berenger, Cillian Murphy and Japan’s Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai). The script is gibberish: “We extracted every bit of information you had in there.” “This isn’t gonna work-wake him up!” “I’m not in your dream-you’re in mine!” Every new dream brings to life a new picture postcard. One minute they’re flying over Manhattan (“Our ride’s on the roof!”). The next, they’re heading for Buenos Aires by helicopter. In Mumbai, they join people sleeping on cots in a sort of opium den where the patients pay to wake up. “I’m getting off in Kyoto,” says Leo, leaving the bullet train, and I wanted to shout, “Take me with you-and the movie, too!” In Christopher Nolan movies, I never know whether he’s going to find an ending or not, but I never have any problem finding the exit.
Through the use of computer-generated effects, buildings fold like cardboard containers, cars drive upside down and the only way you can wake up within the dream is death. None of this prattling drivel 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. Since there’s nothing to act, the cast doesn’t even bother. It’s the easiest kind of movie to make, because all you have to do is strike poses and change expressions. It all culminates on skis in the middle of a blizzard, as Leo is pursued by machine-gun-equipped snowmobiles, but you don’t even know who’s driving them. I have no idea what the market is for this jabbering twaddle-probably people who fritter away their time playing video games, which I’m willing to bet pretty much describes Christopher Nolan. He labors over turning out arty horror films and sci-fi action thrillers with pretensions to alternate reality, but he’s clueless about how to deal with reality, honest emotions or relevant issues.
Inception is the kind of pretentious perplexity in which one or two reels could be mischievously transposed, or even projected backward, and nobody would know the difference. It’s pretty much what we’ve come to expect from summer movies in general and Christopher Nolan movies in particular, but I keep wondering: Can he do anything of more lasting value? He’s got vision, but creating jigsaw puzzles nobody can figure out and using actors as puppets who say idiotic things, dwarfed by sets like sliding Tinker Toys, doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment to me.
Running time 148 minutes
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe
1 Eyeball out of 4