Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Banner poster for "Inception"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Inception is 10 years old. I’ve seen innumerable sci-fi films since, but it’s hard to think of an original sci-fi property in the past decade that has so thoroughly remained in the popular consciousness. Even Christopher Nolan‘s 2013 big-budget space adventure Interstellar, which I found to be the more narratively ambitious of the two films, has largely faded from memory apart from people cruelly scoffing at Matthew McConaughey‘s well-earned and well-acted tears. As this is a 10YA review, I will be grappling with how well the film’s big ideas have aged, but it seems worth acknowledging that it never really left the building, and is perhaps the most influential and oft-referenced original sci-fi property since The Matrix. There are broadly two concepts at work here. I’ll spend most of my time on the first, “Extraction,” in which thieves hook themselves up to a subject’s brain using wired briefcase devices that look like a quiz-bowl scoring rig by way of The Fifth Element, in order to enter their dreams and steal their secrets. As cool as the dreamcases look, they might as well be laptop computers for all of their sterility. The Matrix or even eXistenZ make jacking into the brain feel a bit more…personal, invasive, and organic. But let’s step outside the method for a moment, because while brain-machine interfaces have made small, incremental advances in the past decade, entering another person’s dreams remains the stuff of spy-fi (Season 4 of Alias once did two episodes in a row with this trope). While discussing the rules of a multi-layered dream world, team leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes very close to giving a shout-out to the 10% brain myth, which struck me as the film giving me permission to handwave plausibility and accept that the only reason we’re talking about “exponentially accelerated brain function” at all is so that Nolan’s sandbox can include time and gravity manipulation. Which is fine! That stuff is awesome! I wasn’t a curmudgeon on this point in 2010, and I haven’t become one in the intervening years. And Nolan’s ambition when it came to making conceptual use of this sandbox was completely matched by his execution. Whether the visual spectacle of Ariadne (Ellen Page) relishing her first experience as a dream-god and folding a computer-generated Paris cityscape up and over itself, or constructing a massive gimbled set so that Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can have a gravity-shifting hallway fight – these brilliantly conceived and executed scenes remain as iconic as Hans Zimmer’s trailer *BRMMMMMMMMP* (as well as myriad other tracks).

So I’m on board with the what. Now let’s talk about the how and why. In true Inception fashion, there are several different layers, some of which have become pretty dated in the ensuing decade. While dream heists are still the stuff of fantasy, the real world has come up with plenty of equally ridiculous methods of stealing information. Websites that track your every move, click, search, and shopping choice. There’s single sign-on, tracking cookies, zombie cookies, third-party domains, adware, transparent pixels, hardware benchmarking, canvas fingerprinting, facial recognition, eye tracking, voiceprint recognition, and probably some other stuff I don’t know about yet. Smartphone apps hoovering up every piece of information you’re willing to give them, including Bluetooth and WiFi connection information which it can use to pinpoint your location and identity, often with greater accuracy and speed than simply handing them GPS data, which many of them either ask for unnecessarily or harvest in the background or sneakily steal anyway. And that’s just the mostly legal stuff. There’s also plenty of non-trivial opt-in surveillance from children’s toys to baby monitors to doorbell cams that invite people to share their data with the cloud, often insecurely. There are man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, header-spoofing, and SQL injecting. There’s Spectre, Meltdown, Foreshadow, and MouseJack, and other, less cool-sounding hardware vulnerabilities. But there’s also plenty of other cool sci-fi sounding shit here today, including reconstructing LCD monitor emissions from acoustic leakage (essentially a new technique for Van Eck Phreaking), reconstructing keystrokes from an audio recording, and my new favorite, Lamphone, wherein an attacker eavesdrops on a conversation using a laptop, an electro-optical sensor, and a telescope trained on a hanging lightbulb, whose emission variance can be used to reconstruct any audio that exists in its vicinity, including music with enough fidelity to be recognized by Shazam. Many of these are proofs of concept presented by security researchers, but their very nature as covert methods of data theft makes their usage difficult to detect. And while I think Nolan made a wise choice by making the secret-stealing tech in Inception seem so very fantastical, my career in information technology has left me asking an unexpected question about dream-stealing this time around: why would anyone bother? Kidnapping and dreamjacking a billionaire may well yield valuable secrets, but they’re not the sort that would be irretrievable through easier means.

Still from "Inception"

The other thing that has happened in the past decade is that secrets have become less valuable and protected than ever before. We live in a world in which entire media ecosystems exist to provide incontrovertible proof of the wrongdoing of the people in charge, and also to ensure that they never face any consequences for it. Remember the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers? The revelation of secret offshore tax havens used by rich people around the world to evade taxes and responsibility for the systems they’ve helped to create and exploit, which journalists from around the world worked tirelessly for over a year to extract and reveal every last scandal from? Has anything really changed as a result of this? Okay, sure, they brought down the Prime Minister of Iceland. But nearly all of the business practices revealed in this “damning” trove are still legal and broadly used. Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns even released a (not very good) movie to try to explain this to us (in the same year that Burns adapted another several thousand pages of dry text to try to explain that the US tortured people for most of the 2000s), and still: nothing. Millennials have managed to maintain a baseline level of simmering rage (and unapologetic profanity) as we remember that we only hold 3% of the household wealth in the United States. But that’s no secret. And the specific malfeasance of the specific set of jamokes in charge is no secret either. Meanwhile, our leaders openly flaunt their dogshit-terrible InfoSec, and all of our secrets are stolen semi-annually from public and private entities alike.

This led to my most surprising reaction to Inception, a film that I still had an absolute hoot while watching. And that reaction was…taken on its own terms, why should this plot, whether about stealing secrets or manipulating billionaires into doing a slightly different arbitrary thing while maintaining all of their outsized and unaccountable political and economic power, really matter to me? If this were taking place in the real world, would it affect my life in any measurable way, or would one company’s “total energy dominance” just be one more tacitly government-sanctioned monopoly, slowly picking my pockets along with the rest of them? The film attempts to add personal stakes by furnishing Dom with an elaborate and tragic backstory with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who – despite being a capable femme fatale, comes pre-fridged before the film even begins, and only appears as projection of her widower’s subconscious who torments him as he feebly tries to return to their never-aging kids, who may or may not still exist. How much more literally can you render Nolan’s persistent screenwriting problems with female characters than that? On the side of the angels is dream-architect Ariadne, a solid character made doubly so by Page’s would-be naïve, but ultimately commanding performance. She functions not just as an audience surrogate that the team can explain things to, but as someone who immediately sees the appeal of this life, and starts jonesing for a fix of being a lucid dream god the minute she first (initially) walks away from it. And even as a newcomer, she’s clearly a more capable architect than either Dom or Mal ever were, from the look of their “world”, which has a real copypasta look to it, with the same three or four identical buildings repeated ad infinitum. When Ariadne returns, she immediately starts ignoring Dom’s rules, bearing into his mind and using his own techniques against him, justifying herself to him in the voice of a jilted lover. This has everything to do with me. You’ve asked me to share dreams with you. She has just met Dom, but she knows his subconscious inside and out, and recognizes the threat that dwells within it. Unfortunately, Ariadne’s story basically concludes before they enter the dream. While she tosses out a few wild new dream rules after the two-hour mark, it’s basically Dom and the Dream Team’s story at that point, with Projection Mal occasionally throwing a monkey wrench (or a train) into the works. But apart from some brief strong character work from Ariadne, and Dom’s personal stakes, the rest of the team are simply guns for hire, as well as a writers’ room for the film to make it absolutely clear that all of this was essentially a metaphor for filmmaking and storytelling. And honestly, all of that is fine, and I’m certain that if you’re reading a retrospective on Inception, you’ve probably read plenty on that subject already. An anti-monopolistic plot fueled by a billionaire with daddy issues is as fine a MacGuffin as any. Even Saito (Ken Watanabe) was acting selfishly and never pretended otherwise, and that he and Dom ended up being failed dream-gods, trapped in limbo for decades before then relinquishing their power for equally arbitrary and personal reasons never inspired much sympathy in me then or now. As an elaborate blockbuster spectacle, Inception fires on all cylinders, showcasing some of the most compelling and original filmmaking ever put to the big screen. But for all of the detail, there was never very much substance here. It was all just…a very good dream.

Still from "Inception"

Astute readers may notice I’ve wandered afield from the plot of this film, and barely touched upon the titular concept of “Inception”, a violation that amounts to brainwashing bordering on replacement of an unknowing individual. Planting inspiration into someone’s mind in order to change every aspect of who they are and what they’ll do is an act that the film’s dialogue casually treats like murder, or at the very least involuntary manslaughter. But Inception doesn’t dwell long on the morality of this procedure, and I don’t see any reason why I should do so either. I suppose I could add a sentence on the twenty boring and inconsequential minutes of Tom Hardy (or perhaps his stunt double) reenacting Die Hard 2 with some anonymous goons on snowmobiles, or spend a paragraph quibbling over totem mechanics. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on unaccountable police brutality and systemic racism in America, and I can write whatever I want. Even more astute readers may have noticed…that the dream is collapsing. Whether it’s the release date of the next Nolan film, the always-preposterous notion that anyone was sincere when they said “all lives matter”, or the idea that America is exceptional in any measurable way besides military spending and political and economic dysfunction bordering on cultish mass suicide, it’s hard to engage in this sort of diversion…okay so the totems they really do make no sense at all as a means of discerning reality from dreams because they rely on surety about the totem’s inimitable physical characteristics that would vanish the first time the user goes to sleep in a room with someone else for the second time, with the unavoidable knowledge that they might’ve rifled through your pockets while you were asleep the first time, except for Dom’s spinning top, which is completely different from all the other totems and relies on its ability to exhibit behavior that is physically impossible, which, ya know, good totem if you can get it…without keeping some of my mind occupied on the depravities of the real world. Revisiting a blockbuster from the past is a fine diversion. I wouldn’t do it unless I still enjoyed it. But it also reminds me of what we’re in the process of losing, which may include the very idea of a blockbuster. And I’m definitely starting to wonder how we’ll distract ourselves after the theaters are gone, and the only bold new worlds remaining are made for half-watching.

FilmWonk rating: Feels a bit of an afterthought at this point, but 7.5/10.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #121 – “Una” (dir. Benedict Andrews)

Poster for "Una"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel, along with returning guest Erika, dive into a difficult and timely film (43:59).

Content warning: This drama depicts an illegal, predatory sexual relationship between an adult and a minor child, as well as explicit discussion of that relationship many years after it is over. Our review contains candid discussion of the film and its handling of this subject matter. Listener discretion is advised.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Erika), 7/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is selections from the film’s score by Jed Kerzel.
  • We briefly chatted about the 2005 film Hard Candy, and I described it as an entertaining thriller, but essentially a vigilante fantasy. Since this episode was recorded, actress Ellen Page (who portrayed a 14-year-old in the film, but was 17 when it was filmed) released a Facebook post describing her own experiences with sexual harassment on the set of X-Men: The Last Stand and elsewhere. It’s well worth a read.
  • Also worth a read:
  • CORRECTION: We slightly understated the grossness of Woody Allen‘s new film, A Rainy Day in New York, which features a sexual relationship between a 44-year-old actor (played by Jude Law) and a 15-year-old actress (played by 19-year-old Elle Fanning). We incorrectly gave the fictional actress’ age as 17. The release date on this one is TBD, but we’ll go ahead and say now that we do not plan to review it.

Listen above, or download: Una (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

whip-it_poster-690x1024

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson‘s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10


Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.