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Anatomy of a Backlash: Intercepting Inception Criticisms…

It’s always interesting to watch the reaction to a highly anticipated blockbuster. Sure, most of the time it hits like a drop in the ocean: there’s a moment of anticipation as it travels through the air and a slight reverberation as it joins the rather sizeable pool of existing movies, quickly forgotten or accepted. However, sometimes – if the movie is big enough – you get a slightly more complex reaction. That second before it hits the water becomes longer, the audience holds its breath even tighter and then, when it hits… there are reactions. The first wave, usually one of acceptance – the geekery, the exotic embrace, the types of reviews that push a Rotten Tomatoes score up to 100% before it even gets a wide release. Then there’s the second wave, as a few high-profile commentators dare to speak out against the film – usually reviewers from prestigious publications, usually as release day dawns. There’s a third movement, perhaps in direct response to the above – the rapid fanboy passion, one determined to lock down any criticism, sometimes aggressive, just sometimes caught up in the moment. And, if the film is really big, there’s a fourth wave, the public backlash against the film itself. It’s interesting to watch a movie cycle through these four basic events, like Inception certainly has of late. There are ripples across the internet, and waves of discussion and engagement, which is always great to see. However, it’s somewhat less exciting to witness how bitter criticisms and arguments can become.

It's all a bit topsy-turvy...

I am, of course, talking about on both sides of the fence. There are some of the critics themselves, who seem intent on harbouring their critiques inside some truly bitchy comments. In perusing a selection of negative reviews I can find observations that the target market for the film is “people who fritter away their time playing video games” or “conceived to amuse an era hungry for hokum and a geek audience”. Of course, this works the other way around, with some positive reviews making the same insinuations about people who don’t enjoy the film. Comments like “if you thought Christopher Nolan’s Inception was a bad movie, you’re f*cking stupid” don’t help matters, nor does the observation that anyone who fails to see the glory in what’s unspooling before them on that movie screen can only be described as “stupid”.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s fair to make assumptions about what kind of people like what kind of things – let alone to make judgements about their intelligence or personality based on their preferences. After all, I’m fairly sure all of us hate at least one commonly accepted “masterpiece” – for instance I have a huge problem with Avatar. I don’t think that it’s particular condusive to debate and discussion to label people who enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a particular film in prejudicial terms.

Still, it’s fun and interesting to look at the arguments that can and do pop up about a given film. It’s highly unlikely that you can ever convince someone to like or dislike something they’ve already formed an opinion of, and I don’t think it’s fair to try. However, it is interesting to get reactions and insights to observations and criticisms. So I’ve been following the more common criticisms of Inception and I’ve found them interesting.

Are audiences sitting comfortably?

Notwithstanding arguments about the content of the film – “it’s too smart for audiences”“it’s too shallow”, “it’s incomprehensible” – can’t really be proven one way or the other, though I would suggest that the box office figures would suggest that audiences are engaging with it. Similarly, any number of people have problems with the characters themselves – this is the sort of thing that varies from person-to-person.

However, from my perspective, the most interesting aspect of this debate and discussion has been the suggestion that Inception simply isn’t “enough”. It isn’t daring “enough”, it isn’t challenging “enough”, it isn’t dense “enough”. There’s a line of argument which suggests that Nolan hasn’t done enough with his massive budget and creative vision. For example, in lamenting Inception’s big budget emptiness, The Guardian curses what it describes as an “unequal distribution of wealth”:

The industry’s catch-22 is that there is a small army of directors whose wildly individual films mean they will never be trusted with a big budget despite them having exactly the kinds of imagination that deserve one.

Similarly, there’s the argument that, for a film built around dreams, Inception anchors itself in far too conventional terms:

Nolan uses techniques usually associated with innovative fiction writers—simultaneous narratives, for instance, and varying rhythms to distinguish different levels of dreams. It seems to have ruffled some that he’s put these techniques to the service of what is admittedly pulp material, like car chases and gunfights. (And not always successfully—an Alpine assault sequence involving skiers with machine guns and snowmobiles goes on entirely too long and is too conventional. I kept waiting for Bruce Willis, or any number of James Bonds, to pop up.)

The idea seems to be that the movie should somehow be more “out there”, it should be denser and less conventional and that Nolan does himself a disservice by, for example, offering dreams of hotels and car chases and snow-mobile assaults. After all, how many of us dream of action movie clichés?

Let's not allow this to get out of hand...

I can understand these criticisms and see where their coming from, but it seems rather unfair to criticise Inception, one of the most creative major studio releases in years, of not being daring enough. That’s a criticism that is surely more appropriately applied to Transformers II than to to Inception? Or to bland paint-by-numbers blockbusters like The A-Team or The Karate Kid remakes? It seems like a bit of sour grapes to suggest that Nolan has produced a rather bland and empty blockbuster – rathering that someone more creative like David Cronenberg were given the budget. The truth is that Nolan is the most innovative director to work his way up through the studio system – he might not be the most innovative or creative director out there, but he’s the most complex who will be given a budget like this. Perhaps it’s better to suggest allocating Michael Bay’s budget, for example, to an autuer rather than replacing Nolan?

As for his perceived lack of creativity, I think that Nolan made a film as challenging as he could have with the budget he had. Unlike several reviewers, I never doubted that Nolan’s vision would hit home with regular film-goers, because that’s what Nolan does. He takes a big high-concept idea and makes it accessible to all. He did offer some wonderful dream imagery – the impossible stairs, for example, or the zero-gravity fight scenes – but had he gone completely “off the walls”, there’s no way the movie would have been able to find as broad an audience as it has, nor would he have been allocated the budget he was in order to make the film.

It’s a trade-off, but I firmly believe he made the right call. I love that the film is more than a “cult” film. Everyone in my office has seen it and all of them have loved it. That’s the kind of impact that the movie can have, and I accept that it might come at the cost of some creativity. However, I was satisfied with the inventiveness that we got, so I suppose your mileage may vary. Still, such is life.

I don’t know, Inception is probably the film of the year to me, but I can see where the criticisms come from. Still, I can’t help but remain incredibly impressed with the movie.

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6 Responses

  1. I’d like to think that I’m not biased, but I don’t see the criticisms of Inception. Cobb’s storyline has an emotional element to it, whether people like it is another question.

  2. You are absolutely right on the money here – with your assessment of the roller-coaster style reactions to mega-hyped films in general, this film Inception in specific, and Nolan as a big-budget auteur who deserves credit for not being Michael Bay instead of being criticized for not being David Lynch.

    If I want “way out there” or totally cutting edge, I will seek out Lynch or Cronenberg or PT Anderson. And I will enjoy it for what it is, not complain about what it isn’t.

    If I want a big-budget mainstream film with a fair amount of brains, top notch production values, a big-name cast who can act their socks off, and a clever plot – I will run as fast as I can to a Nolan film. And I will enjoy it for what it is, not complain what it isn’t.

  3. It’s only a movie! Now we’ve started analysing summer blockbusters we better go back to the likes of Jaws and ask: could Spielberg have done more with that shark story.

    Inception is undoubtedly being killed in some quarters by expectation. Clear Nolan’s CV and this film goes up a couple of marks in all his detractors reviews. For me, it isn’t his best film, but it’s still a brilliant piece of work.

    I agree with David above – anybody building the framework for a film that’s going to make a lot of money has to be work within a framework that works for mass, mainstream audiences. That means, Lynch and Cronenberg are probably the guys you’re not going to call. Nolan has done it and done it well.

  4. My response, in short, would be that the conventional nature of the dreams isn’t problematic but required by the nature of the story Nolan is telling. Cobb and his team need to keep their mark from realizing that they’re dreaming for as long as it takes for them to do their jobs; something more “beyond” kind of torpedoes that essential secrecy.

    But for me this also sort of indicates the one Achilles heel of Inception, which is that if an audience member watching it doesn’t feel like the dreaming in Inception matches up with their own concept of what dreaming is, then the film won’t work for them.

    I’d also argue that the nature of the dreams isn’t really the point of the movie, which (as I’m currently writing in my long-delayed review) is to provide a glimpse at Nolan’s filmmaking process.

  5. nice recap Darren. to call someone a dick for not liking a movie is just ridiculous, except when that movie is The Great Outdoors.

  6. I came out blasting for this film when I wrote my review, extolling it as the greatest movie I’d seen in theatres this year. That it was or wasn’t seemed less important at the time than the fact that it left me “feeling” that it was. I felt that I had experienced something new and that my expectations of what a film can do were adjusted slightly – and what more can one ask for?

    Funny that I found myself reading your stages of criticism right after I finish writing a scathing/lukewarm defence of Inception elsewhere on your blog. Have to remember to take a deep breath before I critique.

    A fantastic comparison to Tranformers 2! Why should such heavy expectations fall onto this film? I’m wiling to bet that the heavy expectations from critics weren’t ascribed until they saw how great Inception was. Having seen what he’d accomplished, then they could say: “Hey, if you could make all this craziness happen, you must have been able to make all kinds of other craziness happen. What gives?”

    That the public is never satisfied though is what keeps the great movies coming… hopefully more great than not.

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