18 July 2010

INCEPTION (Dir. Christopher Nolan, US/UK, 2010) - Deleuzian Mind Games (300th Post!)

There is nothing particularly complex about the philosophy of Christopher Nolan – he likes puzzles, mind games, conundrums, enigmas. But does this instinctively make him an intellectual Hollywood director? For many, the answer to this question would be yes many times over. Comparisons with Kubrick seem a little odd really when given Nolan operates in a periphery similar to that of Michael Mann. This led me to question why western academic film criticism continues to over praise the likes of Kubrick, elevating his work to an exalted plane when in reality under represented directors like Satyajit Ray rarely get a look in. I’m not sure if the West including Europe has produced a film maker as prolific, ideological and magnificent as Ray. Anyway, the canonization of film makers and their work deserves an altogether separate post and I do attend come back to the Eurocentric bias that continues to afflict academic film criticism. Come to think of it; Kurosawa and Ray should dominate the discussion but Kubrick and Scorsese end up being the likely suspects for critical pontificating.

Hollywood has been reluctant with shooting films in the IMAX format as it is generally expensive and only a handful of screens are capable of accommodating such technology in terms of cinema exhibition. Nolan’s The Dark Knight was perhaps the first feature film to fully exploit the IMAX format yet Hollywood seems to have embraced 3D technology rather than the potentially epic spectacle and visceral experience offered by IMAX. Though Inception was not shot using IMAX cameras, Nolan’s decision to shoot in scope was triggered by a desire to see his film play in IMAX screens. I’m still trying to decide whether or not this is simply another Hollywood blockbuster with an intellectual edge or it evidences a genuine evolution in the career of Nolan. It is definitely not lacking of ideas or short of imagination. If a film is labelled as having a convoluted narrative it usually means the film’s director knows how to manipulate narrative so as to make it appear sophisticated for a mainstream audience. Inception is a very cerebral film, perhaps too cerebral for the mainstream audience it is going after. It is also a science fiction thriller, a genre aspect which the marketing has deliberately downplayed in fear of over egging the film as another The Matrix derivative.

One of the major problems with Inception is that Nolan overdoes the narrative and at times the explanations offered by the various characters on the nature of extraction and inception are rather quite muddled and at times confusing. However, Nolan’s attempt to tackle large scale philosophical and metaphysical ideas in the framework of a high concept summer film should be commended – memories and dreams seem to be the life force of cinema. Yet the blurring of the line between the dream world and our own reality is one of the oldest conventions of a really strong science fiction movie. Having said that Nolan’s films unlike the work of Kubrick do not inherit the clean symmetrical lines which make films like The Shining and Full Metal Jacket clinically constructed. The cool intensity and crisp visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann linger attractively in many of the jaw dropping action sequences. Beginning with Memento which has been described by one critic as the ultimate mind fuck movie, Nolan like Mann has tried to make films on his own terms and though he followed up Memento with a remake of Insomnia, the two Batman films proved to the studios he can magnify his artistic sensibilities to a much larger canvas. The Dark Knight is one of the stand out mainstream blockbusters of the last ten years and though it is infected ideologically by an allegorical Bush-Bin Laden context, Nolan’s ending is audaciously executed.

One of the other drawbacks with Inception is that Nolan over populates his Deleuzian landscapes with way too many characters and then fails to develop them through the course of what is a mind boggling narrative. This was an initial criticism of the film but on reflection it doesn't really affect the content and shape of the film in any major way considering how Nolan's spectacular and bold images impress throughout. Cinema has always been about size and the IMAX context delivers an altogether more visceral experience, making one consider if all films that cost up to $200 million should be screened only in IMAX. With the growth of home cinema, IMAX certainly suggests that size will never be out done by the domestic sanctity of large plasmas screens or expensive projectors.

Nolan is serviced well by three additional elements, two of which are regular collaborators; Wally Pfister's luminous cinematography, Hans Zimmer's bombastic and at times moving score and Leonardo DiCaprio's impressive performance as a mind heist magician. DiCaprio has matured over the last few years into a strong actor. I was never convinced of his talents but his last three films including Inception, Shutter Island and Revolutionary Road have certainly witnessed an evolution in terms of being able to command on screen presence whilst also performing to a consistently high level. A lot of critics are declaring Inception as Nolan's masterpiece but I think it is too early to start saying such things considering how he is still evolving as a film maker. Yet I do agree that trapped inside the body of this expensive summer spectacle is an intelligent art film and superior genre cinema. Inception is likely to be one of the best summer films this year and though I do tend to stay away these days from the overcrowded silly season of dim Hollywood films auteurs like Nolan try to make things just that little bit more exciting and interesting for the discerning cinema goer. Inception is one of those films which is surely to grow with audiences and part of me already wants to go back and watch this again just so I can start putting together what amounts to a skillfully engineered jigsaw puzzle. Additionally, theological and philosophical interpretations of the film is already making this quite popular with those with an interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze.

The teaser trailer for the film is brilliantly put together and really does put forward a strong argument on the dying art of making a half decent trailer:


  1. Excellent write up, Omar. I really liked the film. What turned me off was the explanation-of-plot-endlessly-within-the-film part and the cynical ending.

    Yet, it was a roller coaster ride all the way.

  2. Congrats for your 300th post, and wish you many more.

    Your first paragraph would make for a very interesting discussion. The representation of directors is quite parochial in the West, which need to change in order for it to be commensurate with the kind of film knowledge the West always proclaims to possess. I'd be really looking forward to your expanding that paragraph into a full post.

  3. Thank you for visiting my blog; otherwise, I would not have found yours. What a treat! I agree totally about the need for a more world view in film criticism, and Ray is an especial favorite of mine. The Music Room is one of my favorite films, and one of the best films ever made.

    I was not a particular fan of Memento; it felt like a Rubik's Cube game more than a significant movie, but as Jungian, I think Inception may hold treasures for me, and I'm anxious to see it. This was a fine write-up, the best I've read on this film.

    Thanks, Omar. As Ahnold says, "I'll be back."

  4. The feelings mutual Marilyn. Your blog was pointed out to me by girish and I can see why. Well be checking back regularly on your blog. Excellent stuff.

  5. Ta shubhajit I do intend to explore the way directors from the east are often under represented will come back to this one.