August 9th, 2010

Man, it’s a long time since I talked about a film.  You know why?  It’s a long time since I managed to get to the cinema.  Kids and books and building projects and all that other, you know, LIFE, can do that to you.  So imagine my delight when I chiselled free an afternoon to go and watch Inception.  The reviews had led me to expect Matrix meets Memento, trippy crazy action with mind-bending twisty plotting.  I could not WAIT.

Now imagine my disappointment when I left the cinema.  Inception ain’t a bad film, really, but it seemed to me a rather mediocre one.

Fundamentally, Inception is a con film.  A con film that takes place in people’s dreams rather than in faked realities, but a con film nonetheless.  Now usually, in such a story (I guess the Sting would be the classic example), there’s a superficial con being played on the target, but there are also tricks and cons being practiced among the con men themselves, which are gradually revealed.  In the best ones, there’s usually a final trick being perpetrated on the audience as well, and we all slap our thighs as the credits roll at the ingenuity of the way it’s all been put together.  There’s at least one good twist, in other words.

Now I’d been told Inception was ingenious, so I kept waiting for the twist.  For one of the team to pull their masterful triple-cross, for their mysterious employer to reveal his sinister hand, for the target of the sting to turn the tables and show the elaborate deception.  It never happened.  Elaborate, undoubtedly, but deception there was none.  No one really, at any point, did anything unexpected.  It did exactly what it said on the tin, even if the tin had a very long, confusing label.  It made me think of a bad orator using lots of complicated language to disguise the fact he’s got nothing much to say.  A bad comic trying to make up for having no punchline by making his joke really long and complicated.  REALLY long and complicated.  But when it comes to the long con in nested realities I can think of holodeck-based episodes of Star Trek that did more surprising things, and that investigated the whole concept of false reality and are we-aren’t we dreaming more effectively and elegantly.

The lack of any real guile in the plot might not have been so bad, if the film hadn’t disappointed in other ways.  There was much heavy-handed exposition, but key concepts were left largely unexplained or came suddenly out of nowhere, and others seemed inconsistent or were ignored whenever it suited.  The rules on which the whole thing functioned just didn’t feel concrete.  There was one good action sequence in zero gravity (though by no means for me the kind of game changer that the Matrix featured when it first appeared), but mostly the action was really very poor.  Loads of automatic gunfire endlessly ping-panging from car doors and that.  About as adrenaline pumping and dangerous as Roger Moore era James Bond.  There was no real enemy to fight, even, no mastermind to outwit, just anonymous baddies drawn from the target’s subconscious.  OK, maybe it’s all supposed to be a dream but – why such a naff one?  On the trippy reality-bending it really fell flat for me as well, in the end.  In preparation they were folding space and stepping through mirrors and all, and we were promised as they passed from one dream to another things would become “unstable”, collapse, go wild.  I was ready for MC Escher on acid and I got, erm, a rainy city, a fancy hotel, and a concrete fort in a blizzard.

I’m being harsh, I know.  Inception ain’t a bad film, really.  It was interesting, diverting, had some good performances (as well as a lot of forgettable ones), some great visuals, and the end packed a surprising emotional punch.  But it was too little too late.  I’d been promised clever, and maybe it all went over my head, but my mind came out of it decidedly unbent.  Everyone else seems to love it.  Perhaps a team of slick-back conmen had broken into my mind the previous night and predictably implanted the idea that the film just wasn’t all that good…

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on August 9th, 2010.

30 comments so far

  • Harevy Quinn says:

    I actually loved it.

    The only negative points I can think of was that it did have a lot of inconsistencies in the rules of “dream sharing”, or “dream exploring” whatever you want to call it.

    That and the characters didn’t really generate much empathy.

    All in all however, I really liked it. I didn’t go into it though expecting it to be a game changing movie, I didn’t know anything about it.

  • spyroteknik says:

    Yay, the first honest review I’ve seen for that movie, it’s been so hyped, consistently, as being the most clever and mindbending film for an age, possibly the best film of all time, etc. I went with high hopes, and was totally deflated, nothing came as a surprise, everything was very linear and easily understandable (and predictable), no rush of adrenaline, no real excitement, just shaky standard action shots filled in with a relatively simplistic storyline, felt like it was trying to be clever, but never really got there, I see people going over and over again to see it, I have forgotten most of it already, it was a good movie, but, nothing special, memento was a far superior movie, I thought the same for Shutter Island (also hyped), DiCaprio has tried to choose AAA and chose AA instead. I did enjoy it, was a decent action/suspense romp, but not nearly as good as I thought it was going to be.

  • Mark C says:

    I went to see it yesterday afternoon and, I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Richard Morgan has had a review up for a while on his site, and he seems to pretty much agree with you, Joe. ‘Chris Nolan’ himself has even made an appearance, telling Mr M exactly what he thought of his review…

    As much as I enjoyed it, I do have to agree with some of the points you both raise. But I am not an award winning sci-fi writer nor a writer of one of the best fantasy trilogies ever. So I habitually sit through these movies with a chunk of my brain stem switched off, only looking to be entertained. I tend not to think about them too much as they unfold in front of me. And thats probably how I like it. Big tub of juice, big bag of m and m’s and some entertainment.

    And these type of movies (big budget sci-fi/ fantasy) are rare enough for me to be almost grateful to be watching one at the cinema! Not necessarily the right way to look at it, but…

    Mark C

  • Jon Sprunk says:

    Well, for a Hollywood major motion picture, I thought it was clever and well-done, but it doesn’t come close to the magic of something like The Empire Strikes Back…

  • Mary says:

    I was the only one – of a group of 5 that went to see it together – who was similarly unimpressed.

    I’ll hazard a guess that having rewatched The Matrix (entirely coincidentally) less than a week beforehand didn’t help, as Inception only suffers in comparison.

    I deliberately didn’t read much about Inception beforehand – I usually don’t when it comes to movies that are supposed to be a bit mind-bendy. I was honestly expecting only two things (and really would have been happy with just one); to see some fantastically crazy-abstract dreamscapes, and to spend a day or two afterwards wondering whether I/everything around me was actually real. I left with neither.

    Considering that it is frequently compared to The Matrix, which definitely had me questioning the reality of reality for a couple of weeks, I thought Inception was a pretty poor delivery.

    I really didn’t care for the characters, and the Cobb/Mal storyline felt so overdone that by the end I just had this hollow feeling; all that time and effort just translated into financial gain for Saito, a character we barely even saw. I have a feeling that Mal’s storyline was supposed to add some weight – and a general sense of greater achievement at the end of the whole scenario – but for me that just fell flat.

    As a friend of mine pointed out; they had the freedom of working within people’s dreams and the best they could come up with was a couple of car chases? It doesn’t necessarily follow that Nolan needed to go all Terry Gillingham on the dreamscapes – that doesn’t exactly translate to wider appeal – but a little more imagination would have been welcome.

    The only time I spiked a bit of excitement was when they arrived in the third dream level in their snow gear and my brain, for one blissful moment, thought “YES! They’ve somehow obtained permission to base one of the dreams on Hoth!!!”

    Needless to say, that didn’t pan out as expected…

  • Dan says:

    Gotta disagree Joe. Best movie I’ve seen this year.

  • Thank You! I thought I was the only one.

    It’s a good film and better than 90% of the utter crap that Hollywood typically produces but it’s by no means the groundbreaking work of genius it’s beind marketed as.

    All of the hype about being too cerebral to understand or needing multiple rewatches to understand everything was a ridiculously oversold. I left the theatre with few questions and I felt like Nolan held your hand through the entire film.

  • Wogan says:

    Joe, thanks for posting this – I entirely agree, Inception does not deliver on the hype.

  • mus42 says:

    Well I think it really depends on what you expect before seeing the film. If as you said you expected a film with twists and turns everywhere then it would be disappointing. Personally I really enjoyed it. I understand the feeling though, when you go into a film expecting a certain type of movie and you don’t get that then its kind of disappointing. I had the same feeling with the first Daniel Craig James Bond movie. I was expecting more of the same cheesy Bond fun but of course its a very different movie. Now however, when I watch Casino Royale I really enjoy it as I know what to expect.

  • Some people will think it’s just taking a cheap shot at a popular movie, because in some small part I’m rankled by the hype.

    But those people of course, are completely wrong. I only care about what the movie delivers.

    It is true that Inception stumbles to deliver on what it promises, and there is the worry always that perhaps those promises weren’t really about the film at all, but people’s expectations. I kept mine neutral going in. That’s not exactly the same thing as reacting negatively to its hype; if I’m judging it at all, it’s solely on the basis of the story itself and vision of the director.

    That said, I didn’t find it to be a terribly complex film, but one which I’d say is very good, very slick at making itself seem reasonably intelligent when set against the rather low expectations of your typical cinema crowd. A clever film then, for shallow people.

    Condescending? Not really, and certainly not my intent. I’ve seen enough thinking movies to tell you this one just ain’t it. Not the thinking-man’s blockbuster/action/sf – you fill in the blank, certainly not. It’s a bit dull, a bit plodding, and as pointed out, without any real twists let alone the kind of cinematic daring that wrong foot you and leave you whistling hours later in grudging appreciation.

    At the end, there were many things I could say about the movie but only one of them really damning: is that it? Unfortunately, yes.

    Strictly underwhelming.

  • Jim Bob says:

    Going into a movie with high expectations, especially as high as you listed, will always lead to disappointment. I knew little to nothing about it and enjoyed because of it. I don’t see it as a con movie at all (which might be part of your problem), but a heist movie which doesn’t need a clever twist. I find your opinion is prevalent in people who heard a lot of hype before hand. It was a movie my girlfriend and I liked, and for entirely different reasons and that is truly rare in film and what makes this movie exceptional in my opinion. You take what you want from this movie, no one agrees exactly what is reality and everyone is justified in their opinion. And though not earth shattering, that is clever in a film.

  • Sedulo says:

    I liked Inception. It was movie lasagne. I saw it on opening weekend so the hype was unnoticed until post viewing.

    Check THIS fellow’s analysis.

    Whoa. That is one big secret.

  • Dan says:

    Thanks Sedulo, that article opens up a whole other layer of depth and thought to this complex movie. Sorry to be negative to the board, but I have to wonder how many of you that are claiming the movie was average and over-hyped:
    a) really have given it the thought it requires and deserves (I guess you are waiting on transformers 3??)
    b) are just kissing Joe’s ass because this is his blog.

  • Wilfred says:

    The problem here of course are your expectations. You read several reviews that raved about it, so the movie got hyped in your head. Now if you had gone to the movie without having read any reviews then I would suspect that you would have enjoyed it a lot more. In general I try not to read any reviews or even watch trailers if it’s clear that the trailer has spoilers (as so many of them do). At least this doesn’t build up any big expectations.

    Actually I recently read The Steel Remains and kept expecting to read something shocking or see an over usage of harsh language, sex, whatever. But no nothing like that. So your review had changed my expectations. I was expecting something I did not get. And in the end although I quite enjoyed the book I felt cheated. You cheated me Joe!

    Anyway, I’ll forgive you if you can bump up the publishing date for The Heroes by another month or so. 🙂

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Jim Bob,
    Well, it’s a heist movie in which the heists involve conning people, which seems a little like a con movie to me. To-may-to, to-mah-to. But either way, I just felt let down by the lack of any surprise. As for hype, well, yes, that can be a bad thing, but high expectations does not always lead to disappointment. I had massively high expectations for Unforgiven, Pulp Fiction, and Memento, come to that, and loved them all. If you’re told a film is great and you don’t think it is, therein lies the disappointment. If you DO think it’s great, no problem.

    I don’t find that article hugely convincing. When people love a thing, they can find all kinds of profundity in it. I’m not saying it’s not there for those who loved this film. But that doesn’t mean it is there for those who didn’t love it. The lovers may see it all beautifully meshing together, and I’m happy for their experience, but I just saw a lot of gaps. Again, I didn’t hate it, but I did not find it profound. If you found it all a bit unconvincing, the argument that it might all have been a dream and therefore doesn’t have to be convincing seems a lame one. Likewise the argument about the central crew being like a film crew, well, you could make just as good an argument for the crew in Ocean’s 12. Or the magnificent seven, for that matter. Well, Yul Brinner is the director, and Steve McQueen’s the actor, and James Coburn with his penchant for knives is obviously the editor, and Horst Bucholz, why, he’s clearly meant to be the key grip…

    I sat in the cinema, I watched the film, I came out, and this was my opinion. This was the experience I had, and I have tried to explain why. How much thought should I have to give it before my opinion is worth as much as yours? If I sit here, drumming my fingers and really THINKING about that jetski chase, will I suddenly think, “A ha! Actually that was really ace and not quite boring as I thought while watching it!” If someone thinks one of my books is mediocre, I may beg to differ, but would it be fair for me to smugly announce, “well, I wonder whether you’ve given it the thought it requires and deserves, perhaps you would be happier reading the funny papers, a haw haw.” As for kissing my ass, that is a noble goal, and much to be encouraged.

  • Sedulo says:

    I liked the film, and thought lasagne was an apt comparison as something pleasant, filling, layered and predictable. I was entertained. The end actually has older children cast as Cobb’s kids, not that I was able to tell except during the credits. Does it help me? Not really.

    I thought the article was funny. Hence the comment “That’s one big secret”. I was amazed that the author got that much out of the film. To each his own and all of that respect, but the comparison to 8 1/2 was a chuckler.

  • Chad says:

    Didn’t like STAR TREK. Loved AVATAR. Meh on INCEPTION.

    I feel like we may not end up being best internet friends Joe.

    Please tell me you liked KICK ASS. I’m willing to work on our virtual relationship, just throw me a bone.

  • Dan says:

    Sorry Joe, wasn’t trying to bash your opinion at all. To each his own. I was more irked by some of the others who came with the “Wow, and here I thought I was the ONLY one who didn’t like it” bit. Perhaps a bit rash. When I think of this movie, I also think of Memento and movies like Mulholland Drive. On first glance they may seem simple or “what was the point,” but on further analysis there is much more going on. I guess it just depends if you are interested in digging deeper or not. And if not, then that’s cool.

    And about anyone thinking a book of yours could be average…lets not get crazy. Ah, but there I go kissing ass…

  • Hendrik says:

    I liked the movie but I didn’t have any expectation when I went to see it. For a summer blockbuster as massivly advertised as this you will usually get a mediocre movie. And it was definately better than that. I was on the edge of my seat when the car hit the water.

    However, I didn’t think to much about it and about the conspiracies it seems to have spawned over the internet. That is until I read a quite interesting thought: The top wasn’t Cobb’s totem but his wive’s! Obviously you will never know exactly if it stop spinning or not. But from this point of view you don’t need to. It’s just a souvenir to remind him of his wife. That being said, what is his totem? Is he back in reality?

    This, for me, is the final twist. A new meta layer you have to process. The top is just the spin (haha) that gets this layer of thought started.

  • Sonny says:

    I had a blast while watching this film, overall, but I cannot understand people’s reaction to it as being a philosophically, metaphysical, complex masterpiece. The film’s complexity, to me, was solely from the first act, which continually bombarded the audience with an almost endless supply of information about dreams. Sure, it was interesting and imaginative, but rather than being spoon-fed I felt I had been gavaged by Nolan. The Call of Duty, sorry, third dream action scenes were monotonous and could have been cut completely. The gravity-shifting fight scene, on the other hand, was brilliant, and was hands-down my favourite part of the film. Inception was a Summer Blockbuster with an original concept told in a familiar and satisfying manner. It’s popcorn fun. Why are people so eager to analyse it to death?

  • Tyson says:

    Sounds like you were expecting a whole other movie. Reminds me when a friend of mine went to see Evita not realizing it was a musical. It made it hard for her to enjoy on any level since she had her brain all set for something different. Sorta like when you pick up a glass and take a gulp, expecting water but getting Sprite instead. Sprite is lovely and all but if your mouth is set for water you may spit it out in shock.

    This is why I don’t read reviews or go into a movie with any expectations if I can help it.

    Regarding the movie itself, to me the big mystery was who was Cobb’s wife and what was she doing. And as we learned more, the mystery became how will Cobb’s subconscious interfere. Then in the end it all came down to human realizations and decisions for Cobb. I was happy with the movie for what it was.

  • oteckre says:

    I didn’t read your whole review, ’cause someday i will watch the film and I like to know as less as possible about films before watching them.
    But only your first few lines showed me that my concerns were probably right and again you show to have a similar movie and tv taste. (I’m ever grateful that i watched “the wire” amongst others mainly because of your praises).
    However, I had exactly the same experience with “Batman Begins”. Because of massive positive critiques plus incredible high ratings on imdb and the like I was sure to see an ingenious film in a genre i like very very much. Well, I was soo deeply dissappointed that i fear the very same of “Inception”.

    I have to add that I didn’t liked “Memento” that much as all my friends did as well…

  • Shay says:

    I liked the way that Inception took unoriginal things like car chases and fights in hotels and put them in an original dream setting. Story wise I didnt think the film was that special.

    If you want to see a highly original movie linked into the video games that we all love then see Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Amazing…

  • Peter says:

    Totally agree, mind you it’s still scoring well on IMDB. Just felt so flat. Should really be a film you’d want to see more than once (like Shutter Island.)

  • Jebus says:

    Gotta say I pretty much agree with you Joe. I went in expecting a seriously awesome mind fuck and instead got a rather pedestrian, though well filmed and with great effects, ho-hum action thriller.

    At no stage was I mesmerised, and actually all the way through I kept thinking to myself “but they said this would happen and it didn’t” “what’s with all the storm troopers missing them all the time?” “why didn’t Cobb just get his kids shipped to France?” “What the Hell did Watanabe just say?”

    It was entertaining but the majority had been seen before (13th Floor, Matrix, Strange Days) and been done better. I’d given it 3/5 coming out of the cinema and then reduced that to 2.5/5 upon further contemplation.

    For reference my two favourite films so far this year have been “The Actresses” and “City of Life and Death” and my two favourite films of all time are “Still Walking” and “Calamity Jane” – I dig ALL forms of cinema so long as the story is good (these four films are all 5/5).

    Script is KING and Inception just didn’t have a good script.

    The Actresses –
    City of Life and Death –
    Still Walking –
    Calamity Jane –

  • Jebus says:

    Oh I also wanted to say it matters not to me if the entire film was a dream or the top layer was “real life”, doesn’t save the film in the least.

  • cmi says:

    I would give the movie a 7.5/10. It is an good action movie (but I also noticed this crappy “I shoot with my assault rifle from a distance of 2 meters through the back window of your car and hit nobody”-A-Team-Style), it had some cool effects (interesting enough that the only *real* stunning effects where the ones in the “introduction” of the dream architect girl) and the actors were ok. But it has a very clumsy end (trying to copy the “WTF-effect”-style of David Lynch?) and it doesn’t even barely make use of it’s potential.

    Ok, dreams are most of the time happening in a “common” environment (at least the ones I remember) but why the hell was this only a combination of standard action scenes in different environments? Why was the *only* really cool action in the introduction of these dream architect girl? Why were all the characters so predictable, fulfilling the action movie stereotypes?

  • Skout says:

    I’m not surprised whatsoever that Joe didn’t like it. I loved it, and I thought the bad “guy” [Mal] was brilliant and motivated. A perfect example of a realistic “villain” who saw her acts as being the fix for a problem. She was certainly no Colonel Quaritch from Avatar.

    I’ve been to see Inception twice now, and both times the movie ended with more than a few people applauding, and both times I left the theater grinning.

  • Jay says:

    At last! Just when I thought that my wife and I were the only people in the whole world to leave ‘Inception’ wondering why people thought it was sooooo good when really it’s typical bombastic predictable Hollywood crap, you write this review. Great stuff.

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