Brainy but not terribly philosophical

It seems sort of imperative that I weigh in on Inception, which I saw with a predictably packed house at Sundance Cinemas on Tuesday night. (Can’t beat my seat: Row 1, Seat 1—the front-left corner of the theater. I’m exceedingly pleased with the fact that I didn’t end up going to see the film in IMAX.) My Isthmus colleague Kimberly Jones did an exemplary job articulating many of the things I found commendable about Inception: Its often exhilarating imagery, its intellectually demanding nature, its persistent desire to engage the viewer in its (perhaps overly logical) investigation of the human imagination in both its conscious and unconscious manifestations.

Kimberly is right on the money when she says

[Inception is] a mindbender bearing superficial resemblance to other question-reality manifestos like The Matrix and Synecdoche, New York, only minus the giddy pop psychology of the former and the me-myself-and-I self-seeking of the latter.

My immediate impression of Inception was that, for as convoluted as its narrative gets—with all of its meta-dreams and meta-meta-dreams and whatnot—it’s actually a pretty straightforward, conventional action flick. Nolan never ceases to employ genre conventions in the service of conjuring a cinematic experience whose most salient quality is its overwhelming bigness. That said, it’s undoubtedly a tight, lucid action flick, with only a handful of off-puttingly sluggish passages (such as the DiCaprio-Cotillard segments, despite Cotillard’s complex if overpraised performance).

Yet, because the film is, in my reading, more or less conventional, I couldn’t help but find its excavations of fictional minds to be more pretentious than substantial. Keep in mind that I’m not using “pretentious” here as a pejorative. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Nolan’s aspirations of creating films that are once riveting and cerebral, freight trains and therapy couches; I only wish that he had upped the film’s headiness and, by extension, its difficulty as a cinematic text.

The comparisons between Inception and the sci-fi films of Andrei Tarkovsky, namely Stalker and Solaris, are pretty apt, though Tarkovsky wasn’t nearly as afraid of ambiguity and irrationality, those being such key aspects of human subjectivity, as is Nolan, whose vision of the mind is defined by internal rules rather than by curious, often erratic responses to external phenomena. Also, like other critics I was puzzled by the film’s depiction of dreams as being mostly asexual; then again, the film’s PG-13 rating is probably a necessary concession in order for it to touch an audience the size of which it deserves.

Go see Inception, and hope that it puts up big  numbers at the box office (which seems very likely at this point) so that more big-budget films that take such thought-provoking stuff as their primary subjects are produced. But let’s also hope that, should films with comparably lofty intellectual aims become more commonplace, those films will handle their material in a less straightforward fashion. Recall Cocteau’s remarks on cinema’s potential “to practice a kind of hypnotism on the public and enable a large number of people to dream the same dream together”: “[cinema] is a first-class vehicle of ideas and of poetry that can take the viewer into realms that previously only sleep and dreams had led him to.”

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