Inception review

5 November 2017

Genre:SciFi Action/Adventure
Runtime:148 min

Inception is a 2010 film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, which enjoyed both critical and commercial success. It deals with Dom Cobb, a super-thief whose profession is to steal intellectual secrets from people's minds, mostly for corporate espionage. This is done by infiltrating the mind while the victim is dreaming. The opposite task, that of planting new ideas into victims' minds (a.k.a. 'inception'), is considered impossible, but it is precisely this that Cobb is hired to perform in a proverbial 'one last job' that he desperately needs for personal reasons.

For this purpose, Cobb assembles a team of experts (and one complete newbie, in perennial need of expository dialogue) and concocts a plan involving several layers of dreams within dreams, which will allow him to implant the necessary new thoughts unobtrusively into the victim's mind.

The expected havoc ensues: Cobb's own subconscious is dragged in through layer after layer of dream, allowing his self-doubts, guilt and other self-defeating attitudes to manifest themselves as physical adversaries that thwart the team at every turn. Furthermore, even though the team is (mostly) experienced in this art of the dream-heist and are aware that they, themselves, must at all times remember what is real and what is fantasy, and even though for this very purpose they carry on their bodies (and the mental projections thereof) objects, known as 'totems', that enable them to differentiate the two, as the dream cascade deepens, the barriers begin to collapse and the team is at increasing peril of being forever lost inside their self-induced dream-state.

The film is notable for its expansive visuals, its self-referencing musical score, its central premise involving a cascade of dreams within dreams, and the fact that the ideas, as given in the plot summary above, really do sound quite intriguing.

However, it is equally notable for its extremely expositional-dialogue-heavy style, its staggering internal inconsistencies, its violation of the rules of logic and physics as we know them, its lazily-written, generic action scenes, and its last-second twist that is so easy to see coming, even from the first few minutes of the film, as well as for its protracted, overly revisited, superfluous scenes that add nothing but clutter to the plot, and its astonishing lack of imagination when dealing with dreams, arguably the material that calls for the greatest free reign of the writer's imagination.

All of which brings me to the story of why I started this review site, anyway. It begins with Christopher Nolan, for whom so many of the shortcomings listed above are now director's trademarks.

I first heard of Nolan with his second film, Memento, which I still consider to be an excellent film and his finest work todate. (It was based on a short story by his younger brother Jonathan, who is nowadays better known for his TV shows Westworld and Person of Interest.) Many of Nolan's trademarks, such as the crumbling of the protagonist's and the viewer's sense of truth, the plot-heaviness, the parallel narratives and the last-second twist are apparent already in Memento, but the unchecked self-indulgent narratives only began with his next film, Insomnia.

I didn't think much of Insomnia, but his follow-up Batman Begins is rightfully considered the best of the Batman franchise's cinematic reboots. Batman Begins began what was to become the Dark Knight trilogy. What also began with Batman Begins and the Dark Knight trilogy is the Nolan brand.

This, you have to remember, was 2005. The Internet was young. "Fake news" had not yet been invented. Personalised marketing was in its infancy. But Nolan was a pioneer in what, today, we would call viral marketing. His tactics included extremely focused soundbites that would be repeated in every review of his films, an unprecedented focus on the building of the director himself as the brand, rather than his films, and the use of technological media.

I personally believe, based on statistical (and therefore necessarily circumstantial) evidence, that his campaigns included both the generation of written reviews and the massive direction of messaging by targeted 'likes' and 'dislikes', as well as some less savoury means which we'll get to shortly. From what I see, these tactics are now all standard in every tent-pole release.

What I think remains non-standard is that Nolan designs his marketing campaigns from the time of his films' preproduction. It is standard in Hollywood to green-light films based on market research, but from the moment that a film is green-lit most directors let the marketing department rest until post-production. Nolan, on the other hand, is known, for example, for baulking at the casting of Marion Cotillard in Inception in conjunction with the use of the song "Non, je ne Regrette rien" in the soundtrack, because only a couple of years earlier Cotillard won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Édith Piaf in the film La Vie en Rose: this was simply not one of the talking points Nolan wanted his film's release to generate. Specifically for Inception the marketing messaging was very simple:

  1. "Christopher Nolan" → "Genius"
  2. "Inception" → "Near perfect film" & "Insanely Brilliant"

These messages were repeated verbatim in interviews, then in a great many reviews, both professional and the IMDb semi-anonymous kind, and were ultimately picked up and became viral.

(At the time that Cotillard received her awards it was much too late to back out from her casting in Inception, so Nolan tried, instead, to remove "Non, je ne Regrette rien" from the film's soundtrack. It survived solely because Hans Zimmer, Nolan's composer, demonstrated to him that the film's main (and by now iconic) musical motif resembles a slowed-down rendition of "Non, je ne Regrette rien". Playing with the film's main plot device, of the various dream levels working at separate subjective time speeds, Zimmer successfully argued to Nolan that the use of "Non, je ne Regrette rien" underscores Nolan's messages of "genius" and "insanely brilliant".)

At the time I wrote my IMDb review for Inception, over 2000 reviews had already been posted on the site, and these reviews, in total, have received more than a million 'found helpful' or 'found not helpful' votes, with the top-rated reviews necessarily skewing high in the number of votes received.

Here it's worth to make a short vignette to the statistics that drive the website.

I love IMDb. It's my single-source-of-truth for vast quantities of factual information about films, casts, crews and how they connect with each other. It used to be solely this, then mostly this. Nowadays, it's of course a fully functioning commercial website, peddling movie advertisements in both obvious and slightly less obvious ways. (As an example, the site's homepage includes straight-up ads, short features mostly showcasing character actors, galleries and featurettes discussing genres and motifs, box office tops, galleries showcasing the films of a celebrity whose birthday it presently is, industry news, a showcase of latest stills and posters, a list of stars celebrating a birthday and a poll -- and for some reason at the time of writing every single one of these relates directly to, you guessed it, the latest Marvel comic book adaptation.) IMDb does all this, but remains with all of its continuously-updated factual information about films, and I still visit it when I'm after those facts.

Now, IMDb also includes film reviews written by site visitors, and these are ranked by how helpful they are, as ranked by 'helpful' and 'not helpful' votes, also by site visitors. How to rank properly is not a trivial task, as you wouldn't want to push to the end of the list a review just because the first reviewer marked it as unhelpful. Deciding what the true helpfulness estimate is for a given review, given the available data, is a problem in statistics, specifically in point estimation. There is no single best way to do it, and all ways have their cons. IMDb, specifically, chose a method that is not any of the many standard solutions. The main negative of their method is that it gives a significant advantage, much more significant than anything standard, to reviews that have many (hundreds of) votes compared to those that have less votes. This creates a self-reinforcing effect, wherein those reviews that are among the top 10 (and therefore appear on the first page of reviews and are picked from most frequently to appear on the film's homepage) are also those that receive the most votes, and therefore remain in the top 10, increasing their distance from other reviews. In general, if you came in first, it's very difficult to throw you out of the top 10.

IMDb, incidentally, uses a similar method for its movie ranking, causing the most popular films (the Hollywood tent-poles) to be artificially ranked higher than all other films.

I wrote my review for Inception because the top 10 reviews appeared to me to be clearly paid-for reviews, repeating verbatim Nolan's marketing message, 90% of the remaining reviews were, to one degree or another, repeating the same viral message, whereas the remaining reviews voiced stark disbelief at this mass delusion, pointing out that the film is not genius but rather extremely flawed and that this is a case of The Emperor's New Clothes.

What ensued was an electronic shouting match between two groups, each raving that the other is stupid. One claimed the other lacked critical thinking, the other claimed the first lacked the intelligence to appreciate true genius.

I didn't want to be yet another voice in this shouting match. Instead of just writing what I thought of the film, I wanted to give people a list of bullet points regarding things that happened in the film, for them to decide for themselves how genius, or even excusable, they are.

As mentioned, I wrote my review for Inception at a time when it was already competing against 2000+ other reviews and a million 'helpful'/'not helpful' votes, and as mentioned, this is an IMDb death kiss to a review. (And it gets worse for a review which, like mine, was tagged as containing spoilers.)

But not for my review. It resonated with people, and day after day it increased its standing in the site, until, unbelievably, one day it broke into the top 10.

By this time, mind you, it had already, necessarily, accumulated heaps of votes, so it was quite easy to see what portion of the reviewers thought it to be helpful, and if it wasn't for IMDb's skewed metrics it would have taken its place as review #3 or so. But 10th place isn't bad either, because it is, as mentioned, the top 10 that are the truly influential ones.

Which is why it was, for me, a break of trust in the system (a system whose rules are rigged, but which I thought I managed to beat nonetheless) when my review suddenly disappeared. There was no warning. I was not notified. I just went in one day to see how well it was doing, and found out it was gone.

Upon further investigation, I saw that my review was tagged as removed for not conforming to community standards. I e-mailed the IMDb staff to hear what standards I violated, but received no reply.

Then, one day months later, also without any notification or explanation, my review re-appeared.

Needless to say, while it was still, in terms of pure 'usefulness' ratio second to only two other reviews, the fact that it did not accumulate further votes for a time, while the top 10 did, pushed it back far into the 3rd page of reviews, where hardly anyone ever visits. This was a death-blow to the review's popularity.

But then it picked up again. People started voting for it, and it started climbing. It got as far as 11th place -- ostensibly just shy of the first page, but in fact having to cross a substantial chasm if it was to move any further up -- when it suddenly disappeared again.

I had a hunch why, and a quick check confirmed it: Mr. Nolan's next film was just being released. I think he was trying to preemptively get rid of any potential dissenting note.

Once again I wrote to the IMDb staff. Once again no reply. But this time the review stayed down.

I have since heard other, essentially identical tales, also about other sites (e.g., YouTube). Ultimately, a site whose main purpose is advertisement is not interested in your honest opinions; it is only interested in those opinions that help it sell.

It is for this reason that I stopped writing IMDb reviews. I have, over the years since, written many reviews of films and TV series I have watched and circulated these among my friends via e-mail, but never again on IMDb.

And it is ultimately for this reason that when I finally decided to move away from this e-mailed circulation towards a medium more easily shared and accessible, I decided to do it on my own, personal site.

Below you will find my original review for Inception, in its original, untouched form. I freely admit, from a vantage point of 7 years on, that it was wrong: it is completely one-sided and misses the many things that rightfully make the film talked-about to this very day. (Inception has become a meme for cascades of nested realities in the same way that The Matrix is a meme for virtual reality.) This was unfortunately intrinsic to the purpose the review tried to serve, as well as a factor of the word limit: this review ran, to the letter, to the maximum character limit allowed in IMDb reviews, leaving me no opportunity to do as I have done here, on my own website, and expand on the context and the larger picture.

So, without further ado, I present to you my most popular IMDb review ever.


Warning: This review is chock full of spoilers.

Dear Mr. Nolan,

Despite your viral marketing campaign, you are not a genius and your movie isn't "insanely brilliant".

According to your ad campaign, what you aimed for is a multi-layered movie where dream and reality intermix. In a sense, you got this right: you really did mix the two up.

A dream, you see, is an experience where rules are quirky and change according to whims. Here's an example: "When you get killed in a dream you wake up. No, wait. When you get killed in a dream you go into limbo and your brain turns into scrambled eggs. No, wait. Your brain turns into scrambled eggs, but then it rights itself back when you wake up. Or maybe it doesn't and you kill yourself. Or maybe limbo is just like any other dream sequence in the movie, so it's awfully hard to tell. Oh, never-mind. We'll just go with whatever is most convenient at the time."

Reality, on the other hand, is where rules are rigid and are known to all. Examples are "2 minutes here are equivalent to 20 minutes there", "when you get wet here it rains there", "when you fall here there's no gravity there (but, oddly, there is gravity one layer down)". Clearly, in your film, the two intermix. Consider the following dialog:

"We have to get there in 16 minutes." "But it was designed to take an hour to get there!" "You must find a more direct route."

You're in a dream for crying out loud! What's to stop you from being there right now? An "Ascending and Descending" staircase, stolen shamelessly from Escher in lieu of any original idea (and, perhaps, because it films really easily using forced perspective) -- that works, but a shortcut contradicts the laws of physics?

What this movie desperately needed is a bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (or one of the many other films that got dreams right). You're working in the medium where it's easiest to achieve the dream effect: the cinematic experience allows you to put whatever you want on screen and any visual can be infused with emotion by use of music. (Hint: not Hans Zimmer's overbearing crescendos.)

Another trademark of dreams is imagination. Now, explain to me what all the guys with guns are doing there. Why should a person "arm his mind" with a militia? One of your characters says "Dream big!" and hoists a grenade launcher. That's not dreaming big. Here is a list of other armaments, taken directly from the current box office tops: an ogre, a dragon, a predatory alien, a sorcerer. Need I go on? You were doing well there, for a moment, with the freight train, but it turned out to drive aimlessly and disappeared from the film with nothing further. Much the same can be said for the militia. How can we possibly care about the plot or the characters when most of the time they are attacked by gun-toting, faceless, aimless men, with no strategy or goals, that appear at random simply for the sake of action? Then there is "multi-layered". Here, it just means "complicated", not "intelligent". A small sample of suspense-of-disbelief shatterers: 1. Dreams in dreams in dreams are just dreams. What "inner-ear" does a dream figment have, to wake him up when he falls? 2. If the reflex of waking up is caused from a sensation of free falling then, surprise, in zero gravity everyone should wake up. 3. For the same reason, people in the van should wake up when the van leaves the bridge and attains free fall, not when it hits the water. 4. And, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the subconscious mind works 20 times faster than the conscious mind. What, pray tell, causes the "compounded effect"? A dream in a dream is just a product of the subconscious mind, not a method for lightning-speed thought processes. 5. And these totems -- how exactly do they work? People can't dream up toppling spinning-tops? (A totem "litmus test" that Dom happily explains to everyone.) They can steal passports, but not loaded dice? Come on. 6. Oh, and, best of all: they can break into people's minds but can't persuade a customs official to issue a visa?

You can't market your movie as intelligent, and then insult viewers with such lenient physics.

(And for heaven's sake don't bring Michael Caine in to play a 1D character with two lines of script. That's just embarrassing.)

And now, to close off, the final scene.

This last shot, ostensibly stamping the 'masterpiece' seal on the whole film, is really its most expected part. It's a problem when your audience is consistently ahead of you. (Big revelations like "That's how I knew inception was possible" gave me a feeling of "Didn't we already know this half an hour ago?") If you asked audience members five minutes into the film, 90% would have guessed the ending.

And it's not even a good ending: why not go for a last shot like the one you used in Memento, which spelled out to the audience that we all live within the confines of our own minds and can never truly separate memory from fantasy? All you had to do was to flash back to a sequence we know to be a dream, and to have the spinning top topple there. The movie already contains contradicting flashbacks (e.g. Dom and Mal seen alternately young and old at the end of their stay in limbo). Why not that? Instead of telling the audience that Dom may still be dreaming, say that nobody ever knows.

Don't get me wrong, Mr. Nolan. I don't think your film is bad. It's worse than that: it's average. It's a run-of-the-mill, big-budget, Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. And I was left bored.