Inception, 2010. Directed and written by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, and armies of gun toting men.
The Builder, 2010. Directed by R. Alverson. Written by Alverson and Colm O’Leary. Starring O’Leary.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of…
–Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, 169-170
Does Christopher Nolan dream? One must assume that the Brit sleeps, and when he does his waking life warps and darkens as it does for the rest of us. But maybe I’m being presumptuous–maybe he cannot sleep, maybe he cannot dream. Maybe Mr. Nolan has to read about dreams, and maybe he thinks that movies are dreams. There has to be something to explain the utter lack of imagination on display in his lauded Inception. For Inception is a film about dreaming… that hasn’t a single dreamlike frame in its 148 minutes.
Inception boasts a story that could be catnip for even the most thudding of talents. A band of agents led by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have had chronic indigestion in his last few movies–I’ve never seen anyone wear a grimace for so long) fall to sleep and enter into a victim’s dreams in order to “extract”, or steal, information. Hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese energy magnate, Cobb must go into the slumber of English energy rival Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), but this time to implant an idea that will wreck the company.
This process, the planting, is called, you guessed it, “inception”. And, as the dialogue repeats again and again, it is difficult or impossible or deadly, depending on where we are in the story. Cobb assembles a crack team of well-dressed souls almost totally devoid of personality or motivation. There’s the manager Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is supposedly in charge of assembling information about the subject so there are no surprises–of course, he fails miserably, because we’re going to need surprise. Ariadne (Ellen Page)–whose name references the woman who helped Theseus out of the maze with her crimson thread, and yet another of Nolan’s dipshit attempts at increasing the depth of this shallow, shallow film–is the one who designs the layout of the dreams. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) creates potions that help put everyone to sleep effectively, and I guess he goes into the dreams because he’s a good driver (that’s the only reason I could come up with.) Eames (Tom Hardy, the only decent performer in the movie), can change shapes at will in the dream. Why others can’t do the tasks of each dreamer is never explained, but then, there’s a lot of stuff left out.
To make the dream heists even more treacherous–though being in someone else’s dream ought to be enough–Nolan ratchets up the tension (I’m kidding) by making Cobb a troubled soul. He may or may not have killed his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) years ago, spending years and years in a dream state and turning her into a loony by doing an inception on her. She shows up in various dreams, pissed off, and screws up a number of heists and threatens the lives of all the characters in scenes without a lick of real suspense.
Frankly, I’m baffled at all the talk about how “confusing” Inception is to everyone. Nolan manages to make each level different enough visually to make very clear sense of where the characters are in each dream. The problem is that each level is almost identical to the last in terms of its themes, each one so utterly dull and redundant as to make one lose interest almost immediately. For every level in Fischer’s mind is simply a new landscape watched over by guys with weapons. Whoop-de-do.
Perhaps most troubling is that there’s no motivation for any of the characters. In even the most routine heist films (and Inception is most assuredly a heist movie), we know why each character wants to bust open that safe. And it’s more than just money. The money is needed for this surgery, or for that failing business, something that the character lives for, or the character is an edgy dude who loves the risk, etc. The men and women of Inception are committing a crime, and it’s got a moral curveball that should make at least Ariadne pause. “It’s not strictly legal,” Cobb tells her, and even a shrug on Ariadne’s part would have been welcome. Nope, she just jumps right in, as does everyone.
Each dream sequence tries to outdo the last in terms of incredible special effects, but in each instance the effect is merely showing off, not a necessity. In The Matrix, a film I found unoffensive and silly, at least the effects helped to create a very effective sense of the world as a computer, and when Neo could finally manipulate this world, it was mind-blowing–to him and to us. Here, when Cobb’s got Ariadne in Paris to show off what dreams can do, the city folds over onto itself , or begins to explode as someone’s waking up. Why? Why not have smoke dissolve the city, or any number of different ways of making a place vanish? Or when Cobb is woken out of one deep sleep, by being shoved into a tub, water shoots out the sides of a building–because as we all know whatever wakes you in the present always appears in a dream. This will be a theme throughout the movie–if they’re sleeping in a car and the car twists and turns, they do so in the dream. When music plays by an ear, it plays in the dream. Apparently, the sound of plane engines and air-pressure changes don’t effect dreamers, but there you go.
The dreams in Nolan’s world are astounding… in their literalness. Frankly, filling dreams with nothing at all but incredible special effects is dull. Watch just five minutes of Eraserhead and you’ll have a more dreamlike, weird, menacing, and unnerving moment. In the dream world of Inception secrets are literally locked in a safe, each and every time. As our heroes drop into new levels of dreaming, the secrets are, again and again, protected by guys with guns, who can’t hit the side of a barn. Why can’t they be protected by squirrels? By duplicates of Cobb, Ariadne, Eames, etc.? Christ, you name it–anything is more imaginative than the same battalions of men with submachine guns.
And never in my life have I seen dreams that were not only chaste but without embarrassment–Cobb never dreams of his wife in the nude, never has a sexual encounter with the only female, never sneezes, drools, is never without pants, is never nervous, never menaced by something strange. Strangeness is sorely lacking here.
The McGuffin in Fischer’s mind is his relationship with his pop. Fischer is so utterly torn by this that our heroes (and why we root for Saito to get Fischer’s secrets is beyond me–it’d be like rooting for Shell Oil to whip British Petroleum’s ass) use it as a fulcrum upon which their whole strategy lies. Down and down they go, trying to get Fischer to unearth a secret so they can plant info, using the dead Father to pry open the many safes in his mind. Again, this is so straightforward as to be finally laughable. Why wouldn’t Fischer have dreams about his father as a young man, and he a boy? Why wouldn’t information be protected by… hell, a butterfly? Or stored in a lunchbox that had meaning for him ages ago (fill in a million blanks here.) Dreams can do anything–anything–and here they do virtually nothing, and seem unconnected to life in any way. (And by the way, if you want a great example of what dreams can do, pick up Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.)
As usual, Nolan is not very good with his actors, instructing the crew here to furrow their brows and look deadly serious throughout (references to his being the new Kubrick seem off to me–I’m beginning to wonder if he’s not soon to be a new Shyamalan…) And the dialogue! “I hear rumors that his relationship with his father is complicated,” Saito asks in reference to Fischer. “We have to have more than rumors!” Cobb responds, squinting. Wow, he’s got a complicated relationship with his dad–how unique is that? And how thudding is that dialogue–when you can hear it over the oppressive score.
Later, when Arthur is shooting at the many, many ineffective guards, and misses, Eames laughs and pulls out of nowhere a larger gun, “You should dream bigger!” This sense of pulling something out of nowhere because it’s a dream doesn’t exist outside this small scene, and really doesn’t make sense because it’s someone else’s dream (Eames isn’t the dreamer, so how can he dream bigger?) So let’s say it does make sense, since after all its unreality. OK, then why doesn’t anyone else dream bigger and pull out larger weapons? This underscores the sense, that I got right away, that no character is truly threatened–they’ll all survive, and we know this right away, and I’ll add that Inception is a strangely bloodless, and pain-free film.
In the end, Inception does not get any points for originality, borrowing from Blade Runner and The Matrix, but failing to put any twist into the homage (though I doubt Nolan would admit this) to make it fascinating, as, say, Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds, which borrowed mercilessly and yet was totally unpredictable and original. Despite being called “thought-provoking”, Inception is, like Nolan’s other movies, a puzzle. Difficult perhaps, but a puzzle nonetheless. As difficult as a Rubik’s cube may be, and whether or not I may solve one, at the end of two hours of twisting that cube I don’t emerge with my thoughts provoked–I emerge with time killed and nothing more.
Inception closing shot, culminating in composer Hans Zimmer’s loudest brass moments, beating home the sense that you should be feeling something, is, again, a borrowed moment, nothing we haven’t seen in Blade Runner or a dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone. What is reality and what isn’t? A good question, and if you give me an hour I’ll come up with twenty other movies and books that address this with more intelligence, mystery, humor, and plain old storytelling expertise than Inception.
Inception opened throughout the country on nearly four thousand screens. R. Alverson’s The Builder has played, I think, on one screen in the U.S., at the James River Film Festival.It’s now available on DVD. Like Inception, The Builder is about dreams. Failed dreams, but dreams nonetheless. Try to plumb the mysteries in its 94 minutes… you will leave debating its meaning, instead of trying to fit the pieces together to a puzzle without a picture. If you ever get a chance to see the thing.
Colm O’Leary plays the Builder of the title, a middle-aged man with a girlfriend, a brother, a nephew, and a sense that his life is going… well, not even nowhere. Would that he had that crisis–certainly there is a sense of existential angst, but crisis is not what I’d call his experiences. We see him bathing, making coffee, preparing to leave his house. “I might be gone awhile,” he tells his girlfriend, a line that neatly sums up this amazing little picture.
The Builder has some property, or hopes to acquire some property, where he can put together a home. He is a man of good taste, hardworking, and with an almost zen-like sense of what is good in woodworking. The plan is to build a beautiful replica of a Cape Cod style home, his perfect home, and a thing that will challenge his abilities.
But things don’t go according to plan. His finances don’t come together. Hell, life doesn’t quite come together, but again, neither is anything so dramatically wrong that he is given the drama of trying to fight metaphorical fires. No, this is life, slow, grinding, and my God, so painfully beautiful. The Builder drifts, living in a trailer on the property, making a fire, staring into the fire, being moved by the wildflowers surrounding him. He visits friends and argues, tries to get the property in shape, finally works in a restaurant, and almost falls into an affair with the wife of the friend who’s putting him up. He falls in with some young men, but this is nothing sordid–again, this is not meant to be rip-roaring drama, but a rather Ozuian struggle to make sense of this world. When we see him riding his bike with these young men, the result is moving and strange, like the best dreams.
The simple act of riding a bike reveals in its simplicity the notions that life is hard, life is beautiful, and life is complex and multitudinous. Watch The Builder and marvel. See a man’s dream not die, but go into stasis–this house might still be a possibility, but it is elusive. That’s dreaming, isn’t it? Dreams rarely come true, but even when they do, the route and the result are like nothing you imagine.
Director R. Alverson will never be lauded like Christopher Nolan, nor will he take on such giant projects or have whole armies of special effects crews at his disposal, and he may not have such movie stars on his sets. But he lives in the world of dream and reality, and he understands that, like the magic of water draining through your hands, both are linked and unpredictable. Dreams in The Builder are messy, complicated, and, eventually, unresolved. The closing shot is as odd as Inception, but you will be left pondering this one for a very long time.