It only took for half the summer to be over before we got to the 2010 movies worth talking about. Even the failures were either two middle-of-the-road to be worth yakking about (Iron Man 2; Alice in Wonderland) or too awful to contemplate watching even for the A/C (The Prince of Persia, Twilight, The Karate Kid, Grown Ups, The Last Airbender, Robin Hood, Get Him to the Greek, and on and on). But now that we've finally reached the portion of the year where we're allowed to see good movies again, it's no surprise everybody is hopping all over themselves to talk about...
I can't fairly say where it's going to settle on my lists quite yet, and I'm not about to take any sides in the Great or Hate Debate. It's interesting, I definitely see many of the gripes I've seen crop up in the select negative reviews. Well, maybe not all of them -- I can't cosign the complaints that the dreamworlds weren't surreal enough, both because I feel like it made sense within the world of the film (these specific dreams were created by architects for the expressed purpose of being navigable) and because I think I've seen enough of the Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds school of dream rendering at this point (isn't that what we all hated about The Lovely Bones, after all?). It seems to me that dreams -- most of the dreams I can remember -- are more like familiar scenarios that seem real enough ... except for all the ways they're not. A stairway that keeps ascending. A rainstorm that splashes against the backdrop of an indoor bar. Familiar faces where they don't belong. Everybody's looking at you. I thought Inception got that right.
I will, however, agree with the complaints that certain characters weren't drawn richly enough. It seems like Nolan gave a lot of thought to his lead (DiCaprio) and the minor players (Ken Watanabe; Cillian Murphy), but he could have given a lot more attention to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page. (Incidentally, Tom Hardy's is the one character we get to know exactly the right amount given his role in the movie; we get just enough to know he's a competent forger, a bit cocky, and in possession of a scorching sexual chemistry with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) We spend so much time with Page's Ariadne* -- as her name suggests, she's our anchor (our TOTEM, even!), providing a thread for us to follow when DiCaprio's Cobb gets too lost in the dreamworld. The problem is, she's pretty much just that, without a whole lot of insight into why she's doing what she's doing. Her biggest bit of characterization -- she's spooked by the dreambuilding process but returns to it because, thereafter, the lure of building her own reality became too strong -- is delivered by DiCaprio in her absence.
I also kept wondering why Page was the only character who cared about Cobb's incredibly obvious psychological issues. Gordon-Levitt obviously sees them and acknowledges them. It felt like a shortchanging, then, to have him basically cede the entirety of caring about it to Page. You'd think he'd take more of an active role in helping Cobb get his shit together, what with Cobb hauling Marion Cotillard into every dreamscape to shoot JGL in the leg. It's not like his character had anything else to occupy his time, either.
That said, I really can't see myself lingering on the elements I found wanting when so much of it felt so impressive and satisfying. As a pure action blockbuster, it goes without saying that it towers over this summer's offerings. And while Descartes may not have much to worry about in terms of it reinventing our perceptions of reality, Nolan deals with such concepts in a way that feels respectful of his audience's intelligence without feeling needlessly dense. For a movie that goes four levels deep into a nested dreamscape, it retains its structure so well. The forever-falling car of the first dream layer almost becomes a totem of its own. Gordon-Levitt floating through hotel corridors trying to manufacture gravity is a minor masterpiece in itself. Not to mention the fact that a film that deals with both dreams where you don't know if you're dreaming AND a character who is basically a face-dancer never once uses those elements to cheat the audience.
Yes, the score could be oppressive (though I found the urgency rather thrilling). Yes, the MacGuffin was rather low-stakes. But I can't think of a movie this year that has delivered with stakes this high. That kept me riveted through the prisms of action, spectacle, ideas, narrative. There are a lot of things this movie is not, but as a top-notch heist movie within the dream of reasonably rigorous sci-fi within the dream of a mainstream-targeted blockbuster, it's incredibly satisfying.
To create dreamscapes in which every action, decision, and thought feels vital and important (how many times did the turn of a head signal something big?) is an accomplishment in any season. In this sorry-ass summer, I'm not surprised some took it as miraculous. That's it's not quite is far from a disaster.
*So, yeah, Ariadne. It's an obvious but not insurmountable quirk. But it does play into the "Is it or isn't it?" conclusion of the film. There's going to be a temptation to use that ending to gloss over any number of flaws, particularly the thinness of character that I mentioned above. In my opinion, it's no excuse. If that ending is to work the way it should, it needs to be just as plausible that we're out of the dream as it is that we're still in it. So stop that, apologist people.