Inception: When Dreaming is Bad for You

inception-filmDear Reader, I regretfully must inform you that Christopher Nolan's bombastic Inception has enough startling footage with which to edit 30 exquisitely enticing trailers, but not enough to compose one comprehensible movie from.

So what is the most anticipated film of the summer like? If you recall the scene in Dahmer (2002) where Jeremy Renner as the deranged killer drills holes into his victims' heads, you'll know what watching this Freudian claptrap of a thriller is like.

You'll sit in your seat, possibly with overly salted popcorn, and immediately become bewildered. But then you'll tell yourself the creative force behind Following (1998) and Memento (2000) is always in control. Of course you'll soon know what's happening. But a half hour later exasperation will start settling in over you like a cup of cherry Jell-o firming up in your fridge. Then another 20 minutes will pass, and you'll start feeling like Timothy Leary's severed, cryogenically preserved head. Will there be any relief arriving at all?

Suddenly you'll realize there is no hope when one character asks, "Whose subconscious are we going into?" and another admits she doesn't know what's going on either.

Inception's plot, you see, is about the possibility of remolding a person's mind by subverting his dreams. And sometimes to execute this task, you must enter a dream within a dream that is within another dream. And within this dream within a dream within a dream, you can bring a gang of friends along with you. And on this nightmare journey, people who don't really exist will attack you and your pals because they know you all don’t belong in this other person's dream. And as these folks turn on you, there are a lot of guns blasting away, speedy car races, and buildings disintegrating, but little sex. No sex in a dream?

What's more confusing is that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, seems to be an extension of his deranged Teddy Daniels of Shutter Island (2010). You see, his "deceased" wife keeps popping up and his faceless children are not within his reach, and certain people think he’s a murderer, and . . .

Then there's the great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as Saito, an ambitious executive, whom we first meet as an old man, then as a much younger man. But whatever age he is, you can’t make out 90% of what he is saying.

As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of American greatest young actors, here as Arthur, Dom Cobb's sidekick, a piece of cardboard could have nearly given the same performance.

And Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard? She walks about to Piaf music. Mr. Nolan, please don’t remind us of better films.

Only Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Michael Caine survive Lee Smith’s breakneck editing. Unlike with Christopher Rouse's brilliantly seamless, razor-sharp cutting about for The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), the splicing here is haphazard and exasperating.

All of which brings us to an anonymous quote: "The best thing about dreams is that fleeting moment, when you are between asleep and awake, when you don't know the difference between reality and fantasy, when for just that one moment you feel with your entire soul that the dream is reality, and it really happened."

The main problem with Inception is that it’s soulless. - Brandon Judell


Mr. Judell is featured in the forthcoming documentary Activist: The Times of Vito Russo and has been edited out of Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories. In the fall, he'll be teaching "American Jewish Theater" and "Theater into Film" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice,, The New York Daily News, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).

Sorry to be so brazen but

Sorry to be so brazen but stop nit-picking just to do it. it is ridiculous that you think this has a poor premise and the rules they apply are there just to explain it away. the plot may be fantastical but it is completely original and in my opinion raised the bar for creative movie premise's. I bet you can't list on one hand movies where people plant an idea into someones mind through their subconscious. This is the only one I can think of. The rules Nolan creates are there so that something as chaotic as dreaming can be rationalized and understood by the viewer. Without the first half of the movie we would be clueless of what takes place within the dreams.

Here are my rebuttle's to each of your 5 points.

1. the reason that the enemies have guns is because the man they are trying to plant the idea in has been trained to fight off divers. his subconscious is "militarized". they say this very clearly in the movie. you remember the Mr. Charles method they use. that works because he thinks that the divers are actually the ones he hired to protect him in his dreams. Strike one.

2. You said things were laughably grounded in reality...then you list 4 INSANELY UNREALISTIC HAPPENINGS! plus the reason it is realistic is because they are trying to fool the man that he isn't dreaming... until they use the Mr. Charles method then it doesn't matter anymore. Nothing in this movie is poorly thought out. Years and years were spent creating the screenplay for this movie and making every aspect of it connect. Strike two.

3. You don't like the time rate changes... that's fine, you think it's contrived. You do realize that this story was created by a completely different person who, throughout their entire life has had different experiences and different views and different dreams and different ideas about dreams. Christopher Nolan made this movie about a completely impossible concept and realized it with rules that he created, not you. I think it is logical, not only within the concept, but also with building tension for an enormous blockbuster movie. without this time difference the different layers of dreams would have been less distinguishable to the viewer which is not something that this movie requires. It is already challenging. Strike three kindof, this is just your personal preference, you were not actually wrong about it.

4. How are you putting action in quotations. Are you implying that there is no action in the movie? The cinematography was absolutely amazing as was the editing. I never felt, and I can't allow anyone to say that they felt the cinematography The action has less to do with cinematography than correography (or however you spell it) if you didn't appreciate the cinematography or the correography than you should stop watching movies right now because your expectations are waaaaaaay too high. the no gravity fight scene is possibly the best action sequence ever concieved technically, visually or any other way.

(this was clearly driven by the desire to create cool visuals at the cost of telling a story that held any amount of water.) - seriously? You didn't think that there was a story or that it was hindered by the visuals? the visuals are there to realize the dream worlds that we (the audience) are supposed to believe they are in.

5. I kindof agree with you about this except that you call it arbitrary. This was the only hokey part of the movie in my opinion. I still think it is necessary to show the severity of Doms obsession with his dead wife because he needed a way to go between memories and an elevator seems like a good way to organize them.

Thank you

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses. I still don't buy that a purposely militarized subconscious brain would resort to such fallible methods of protecting the dreamer. If the subconscious can act without notifying the dreamer, it should be able to act in a far more effective manner, realistic or fanciful. How about a bigger army? There happens to be JUST enough enemies for these people to fight off successfully, and their success is still questionable.

I also do not appreciate the ability for all of the ground rules laid out in the first half of the film to be broken without repercussion. Yeah, the dreamer needs to be unaware they are dreaming, which is only accomplished by creating a realistic world for them to inhabit. The movie makes that very clear and it makes sense. Unfortunately, the downtown train, human shape shifting, gun evoking, and stairwell manipulation clearly demonstrate that these rules can be broken without alerting the dreamer OR the subconscious. If this is the case, every scene of danger that occurs out of the direct line of vision of the dreamer could have benefited from manipulation by the divers. So, perhaps Leo asked the other divers to not do that. Bummer. How long did that take the screenwriter to write that one sentence to cover that huge hole in his world's logic?

nothing man made is "perfect"

The first thing a movie attempts to do, is get you to "buy into its premise” if you don't... then you might as well get up before it's over... and get your money back... every movie made is it's own world... and as remote the locale, it still is based in some form or fashion in our real world reality.
You listed your 5 top/worse points of the film... and I would go thru each one... but that would be a waste of my time
But some of the things you "ask to be corrected" just wouldn't "work"
The "architect" is the base... in order for the divers to have some control over the dreamer
(Creating a world the dreamer would believe they could actually live in)
and if they could pop up a first aid kit, what could they really do with it? This isn't the Matrix where they
could download a program into their heads to perform the surgery required....
And you finished that point with " so essentially, the protagonists are enabling their targets to kill them."
ummm, isn't that out of the control of the protagonists to begin with? oh... you over looked that part... gotcha...
Wait... i thought i could move on, but in your point 2. you state again " which helped foil the enemies . . . THAT THEY OPENLY ADMIT THEY DIDN'T KNOW THEY'D HAVE TO FACE." ummmm yeah... cuz they can't control who the dreamer projects into the dream... and maybe you also missed the part about the dreamer being trained to defend themselves in their dreams...
Now... moving on...
the train... was a manifestation of how broken Dom Cobb is...his inability to control his own projections (the train is what killed him and his wife to wake them up) on each level there is something that he inadvertently projects, which the architect warns can foil the mission at any time... but.. You missed that one too huh?

Lastly... cuz now after breaking down the faults you had with the film, i see more why i liked it...

Time... let’s go back to the beginning... in the real world, where you didn't buy into the film, story, plot, premise, characters... from the first fall asleep... and in that one minute you've watched the whole movie...
And as the credits roll, you fall asleep again, on this level you've watched the whole movie, went home, and wrote your opinion about this movie, fall asleep once more... here... You watched the whole movie, went home, wrote your opinion, but you left your brain on the beach.....

Re: nothing man made is "perfect"

I watched the entire thing quite closely. I would even describe myself as having been excited to see this movie going into it. I love crazy twisty intellectual stories. I just sadly found myself cringing at far too many points in the film when some convenient tool or aid would pop up unexpectedly. I personally find that sort of plot mechanism to be lazy. It pulls me away from any suspension of disbelief I may have been able to muster up to a given point. A story like this should be handled relative to the subject matter and setting. Pixar's UP for example; I don't fault the movie for allowing a house to fly, hanging from mere party balloons because it's a whimsical story that makes no pretense of being based in reality. Inception on the other hand is supposedly based in our modern reality save for the mysterious technology that allows these dream dives. When the movie sets up this already thinly explained plot device and then goes way out there and creates their own arbitrary rules for how dreams work that make no sense other than to allow the various plot threads to coexist, I get bummed. I don't think it's unreasonable to go into this movie expecting some sort of reasonable pseudo-scientific explanation for the technology. Instead, it's kept a mystery other than a brief, layman's overview of what the machine allows the users to accomplish. I applaud you and the 99% of people that saw this movie and loved it for not being bothered by this. I'm clearly a minority, but I still perceive that the screenwriter phoned this in.

Well put, I really enjoyed

Well put, I really enjoyed the movie but the lacking explanation behind how "the dream" actually works and the fact that everyone else seems to capriciously accept it drives me mad.

not everyone is gonna like

not everyone is gonna like the movie.. so i don't fault you for that...
and as i said, if your not buying into the premise of the movie... then nothing else matters... you just don't like it...
but it's what you find fault in, where i find you faulting it for the wrong reasons...
i don't see what your saying "some convenient tool or aid would pop up unexpectedly"... like what?
the bigger gun? fine.. one scene... but if that idea was to snow ball, then by the end of the movie
they would be dropping nukes on each projected enemy... one scene, for comic relief, let it go...
your next fault of INCEPTION being based in "our modern reality".. yes.. but in the dream, of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream.... "our modern reality" actually gets thrown out the window in the first dream level...
they are no longer in "our modern reality". so your problem starts from the films concept... a gov't made contraption that allows people to share dreams... they said it was used to train soilders in combat... but the movie is not ABOUT the machine.. but what ppl like cobb and his team began to use it for... stealing ideas or planting them... you bearly even see the machine... it's not important.. either you buy into that, or you don't... you just didn't... so everything else falls apart... i understand that... but where you feel things arent thought out... your just not correct. The rules of the dreams are not arbitrary, they are the rules of this movie.. not our REAL WORLD... the machine doesn't exist, no one is going 5-6-7-8 levels deep into anyones dream... you just couldn't accept that for THIS MOVIE...and i'm sorry but you think "the screenwriter (nolan) phoned this in"?!?!?!????? he spent 10 years working on this.... a movie like INDEPENDENCE DAY was written in a month? it doesn't matter if you got the movie or not... you just didn't like it.... that's all

Dear YoctoYotta I had the

Dear YoctoYotta

I had the same feelings about the movie until the ending...Ending was the key....because (spoiler) if the whole movie is a dream, anything is possible..isn't it!! I think this movie is a great movie because of the ending.

"In the very real world you

"In the very real world you and I live in..."

that's quite the assumption to make. if you've been living in a dream your entire life, how do you know its a dream?


Dear God, YoctoYotta.

1) The projections shouldn't have gun because guns are objects? So they shouldn't have clothes then either, right? The projections are imagined, dreamed; they are part of, or a creation by, a person's mind. Why can they not be imagined with clothes, guns, a briefcase, stilts, etc?

2) The obstacles that were talked about were not always for protective projections. The mazes were meant to affect the extraction/inception target. Also, in the sequence where the paradoxes were explained, they were being explained for the sake of explanation alone, not with respect to son of the business owner. We were told that some people did have protection and the extraction team knew about this, they just weren't expecting it in the mind of the son of the business owner.

3) Yes, time does seem to pass at different rates in dreams. Have you never went to sleep after looking at your phone and then waking up say thirty minutes later yet recalling for an instant a powerful, long dream that seemed much longer than thirty minutes? That's what they are talking about. We can't remember out dreams, and we only dream for a small fraction of our sleep (there are four sleep stages and REM), but when we can recall our dreams (the moment we awaken) they seem to be very long. Even if this wasn't the case, it wouldn't matter. In the movie, we are expected to accept that minutes of the induced sleep translate to perhaps hours of dreaming. If you search on the internet you can find reports people have written after certain drug overdoses (mushrooms, in particular) where a day in the hospital felt like months to the victim in their "trip".

4) I dont really agree with this. It was pretty standard action, and it was actually a lot more believable then what we see in most Bond Flicks or Die Hard movies. If you did think it was unbelievable though, what would that tell you?.... Did you see the ending?

5) So what? We have memories in your mind, and Nolan is saying in Leo's dream world he reconciles getting from one memory to another in this way. He is the architect of that world. He created the elevator, and he populated the floors with his memories (violating his own rule).

I think you just didn't understand the movie.

Re: Wow

This dream world lets you defy gravity, make the world collapse, blow up, or double over on itself like a NY slice of pizza, but it's too hard to whip up an unstoppable storm of wasps or some poisonous gas? Why would the subconscious of the dreamer--a guy specifically well-trained to protect his mind from these types of dream invasions--resort to using humans with guns at all? Without them, the movie would only be 30 minutes long because those dream divers would fail immediately.

Inception is flawed at the most fundamental level because it recklessly picks and chooses how it uses the inarguably unlimited potential of the human dream state. And yeah, the movie would be an abstract mess if they didn't work within the confined box of rules they've created, but that's exactly why this script should have never been turned into a movie. Even if the unexplained technology they use existed, these events would never occur because dreams aren't that vivid, neat and tidy and I think its insulting to ask the viewer to believe that's the case. If they want to pass that sort of crap around, they should have set the story in the far flung future or used a species other than human. I've experimented with "astral projections" (cool, if of course just the mind at work), hypnosis, and lucid dreams, and despite the purposeful intent of entering these states, there's always an element of randomness that's not completely in your control. I know it probably seems like I'm a art-hating close-minded jerk saying that this work of fiction is dumb for trying to be creative, but it seems obvious to me that these rules were born arbitrarily for convenience as the script was being written, not so much as an interesting creative element. I liked Memento a lot for whatever that's worth.

Time is easily dilated in dreams or by our favorite hallucinogens, but it's an ever-changing variable, not something you could set your watch to.

The divers use a real-world physical representation of an optical illusion for some reason when they've demonstrate again and again their ability to freely manipulate the world. If they can make the optical illusion magically behave in the way that the illusion is perceived (as an endless staircase) and then swoosh the camera angle and it's suddenly the physical representation of the broken-illusion, could they not just as easily make a steel box appear out of thin air and encase the enemies, or conjure up a hole in the ground underneath the enemy the moment they see them? Again, perhaps the movie would only be 30 minutes long.

I don't know about the action . . . it's fun, but I recall at least a half dozen occasions that our protagonists should have been annihilated by a hail of bullets while they stood completely out of cover popping off pistol rounds and dropping enemies in a exceptionally impressive manner. I would have totally just made some of those steel boxes I mentioned earlier appear around those dream fools. I fully appreciate the SFX and choreography, but the protagonists shouldn't have made it through what was shown on the screen unharmed.

Regarding the elevator, I guess it would be easiest for me to ask: does your dreams or subconscious work in any manner resembling what's represented in the movie? For a movie that tries to tie itself to modern day reality (thin-of-string as it may be by), all this allegorical BS really stuck out like a sore thumb. I think the core idea of having a story about diving into dreams is indisputably awesome, but the rules and story that was created on top of it are a disservice to the concept, spending way too much time trying to fill in the holes it has dug for itself. I'm tired, hopefully this I've made some sense of my views.