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'Inception': Am I the only one who didn't get it?

arthur-inceptionImage Credit: Stephen VaughanThis particular blog post isn’t an analysis, or a description, so much as it is a confession: I found myself more or less entirely baffled by Inception. I tried, I really tried, to figure it out, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it – not really. For approximately two out of every three minutes the movie was unfolding on screen, my honest experience is that it was vague, obscure, scattershot, puzzling, confounding –  and, finally, maddening. There were moments, of course, when I was dazzled. How could you not be? Yet even then, I had the feeling that those moments would have provoked virtually the same reaction of “Oh, wow!” awe if I had seen them completely out of context. Take the scene in which the streets of downtown Paris literally fold, making the movie look like Godzilla recast as a physics experiment. Sure, my eyeballs just about popped out in delight. But what did the spatial-bending quality of this sequence have to do with the rest of the movie? Did its relevance, in terms of explaining the universe of dreams, ever truly pay off?

That’s the kind of question that nagged at me throughout Inception. Too often, I couldn’t connect the movie to itself; for most of the running time, the act of trying to put together what was happening made my head hurt. I’ve discovered that going back to read reviews of it, in the hopes that my fellow critics could shed light on what I missed, has only made my head hurt more. It’s not that they haven’t done a good job. It’s that simply hearing that damned plot described, over and over again, produces the same “What the f—?” I-get-it-but-I-don’t-really-get-it sensation that the movie did.

For let’s be clear: Inception is a reasonably easy movie to understand… in the abstract. I get that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb wants to enter the dreams of a corporate heir (Cillian Murphy) in order to implant an idea in his head that will help a rival company. I get that Dom’s wife (Marion Cotillard) gave into the dark side of her own dreams – easily the best element of the movie (it should have been played up more). And as often as not, I could sort of make out what “level” of dream the movie was supposed to be taking place on. But all of that, to me, isn’t really Inception; it’s the bare bones of Inception. And it’s the moment-to-moment substance of the movie, the experiential flesh and flow of it, that I couldn’t begin to fathom.

I think that where I kept getting lost, over and over and over again, was in the leaps from one dream level to the next. I never really understood how this worked. When you’re inside one dream level, what’s happening, at the same moment, in the dream level above it? Does its significance vanish? How, precisely, does what’s happening in one dream level influence the next level? Since various people are occupying the same dream, who’s determining, at any given instant, what happens in that dream? Why does one person have more sway than the next? And why did everything, on all the dream levels, look like bits and pieces of the same action movie? What are the rules, and therefore the strategies? Frankly, it all seemed maddeningly arbitrary. It didn’t seem as if the psychology of the various levels of dreaming truly interlocked; it certainly didn’t interlock, to me, in ingenious or finely calibrated ways. In fact, I dare say that this is a dream movie without much psychology at all. So all the jabbering about the subconscious seemed to be just that: stray chatter that didn’t connect to anything. Ellen Page’s instantly famous line – “Wait, whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” – appears to be there to elicit an intentional laugh. Yet the joke, of course, is that if she has questions about it, then surely her lack of clarity mirrors our own. The line comes off as Christopher Nolan’s way of neutralizing the film’s confusion without genuinely resolving it. I felt as if the real leaping between dream levels is what Nolan was doing, frantically, in the editing room.

It has become an article of faith that Inception is a movie you probably want to see, and maybe even need to see, twice. At the screening I attended, three critics I know were there for the second time, having seen it for the first time only the day before. In general, I’m religious about second viewings – to me, when a movie is good, that second time enriches and enlightens, deepens the pleasure. It’s like going back to eat a sublime dish you discovered at a restaurant. The second viewing is really all about savoring. But in my entire moviegoing life, I have never had the experience of encountering a movie like Inception that people felt compelled to see twice simply to figure out what was going on in it. Is the movie itself that rich, that special, that mysteriously subtle and exquisite in its logic? Or has the collective reverence for Christopher Nolan – a reverence that I share – made this a unique case? In Memento and The Prestige, Nolan proved a master brainteaser of a filmmaker, and so we spend much of Inception giving him the benefit of the doubt. Surely, we think, he must know what’s going on in this movie. And so, by implication, if we didn’t get it the first time, then surely the second time will clear everything up.

This is all, as you may have gathered, a rather frustrating position for a film critic to find himself in, because a big part of my job is to explain things – to find order even in disorder – but how can you clarify, and justify, your feelings in precise language when those feelings are haziness, confusion, befuddlement, and a vague sense of missed connections? In our day and age, a further question might be: How can you declare your confusion about a movie like Inception without inviting people to call you an idiot, a douche, a disgrace to film buffs everywhere? I expect (though without any iconoclastic eagerness, I assure you) to be insulted fairly venomously on the comment board of this post.

But let me answer those insults, in advance, by at least saying this: I think that “getting” Inception has, from the outset, been something of a parlor game of one-upmanship. In a cerebral/digital culture, where mastering new systems is an essential survival skill, to admit that you saw this film and are not one of the enlightened is to invite disgrace. And, of course, the movie, in what is (to me) its very incomprehensibility, might almost have been made for the blogosphere. It’s a movie designed, in its very structure, to be analyzed forever. But that’s because, in my view, it’s a cinematic videogame that keeps making up its rules as it goes along. And if you think that the film really does make sense, then I’m tempted to say: You’re dreaming.

So come on, fess up: Is there anyone else out there who simply didn’t get Inception? Who watched it, as I did, in a state of near-perilous confusion? Please, if you’re there, come out of the woodwork. If only so I can stop feeling like I’m the only dummy in the room.

Originally posted July 20 2010 — 1:28 PM EDT

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