The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Any Dream Will Do

“All that we ever see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”

The Edgar Allan Poe poem occurred to me whilst watching Inception. It’s a good film, but, well, it’s not a great film.

The premise of the film is actually quite simple. The Leonardo DiCaprio goes into people’s dreams as industrial espionage, to find out secrets or to give people bad ideas. That’s it. Yet the film spends the first hour or so establishing all the rules of this process, why half-a-dozen specialists are required to create the dream world, organise the ‘waking up’ and so forth... which means it’s actually quite talky and slow. And then in the second half, we hurriedly receive explanations of exceptions to the rules that have been established, either as easy-get-outs or added-jeopardy, until by the end the audience doesn’t have a clue what the ‘rules’ are, or what dramatically might be at stake. It’s clumsy writing, basically, and feels like the writer changing the rules of his fictional universe on an ad hoc basis.

It reminded me of the Amy's Choice episode of Doctor Who. Amy’s Choice simply and elegantly introduces the same idea of nested dream worlds, whereas Inception unfortunately makes the mistake of thinking that ‘confusing and complicated’ equals ‘clever’, whereas I’d say that ‘ingeniously and unexpectedly simple’ is actually much more difficult to achieve, ‘cleverer’, and certainly more satisfying to watch. Because Inception doesn’t really have twists as such, it just has added confusions and complexities, until by the end you are sitting watching a potentially brilliant movie disappearing up its own computer-generated derriere. In fact, the ending reminded me of the conclusions of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes – the sort of 'ambiguous reality' that The Twilight Zone was doing with far more finesse over forty years ago with A Stop At Willoughby and that Fry & Laurie so neatly parodied with their Red Hat of Patferrick sketch. Or did they?

The last hour of the film also drags on a lot, and really should only have been the last half an hour. What drags it out are endless cut-back-to scenes to show that yes, there is still some more fighting going on, or that the van is still falling off that bridge in slow motion, which add absolutely nothing until, by the end, you’re trying to make that bloody van hit the water by sheer effort of will.

My penultimate criticism is that a large part of the movie takes place in three dream worlds, and yet you couldn’t imagine three more prosaic fantasies. There’s very little attempt at surrealism or on giving the dream worlds a dreamlike atmosphere (compared to, say, Gilliam’s stuff in Brazil and elsewhere); instead, they are the most mundane dream worlds possible; a decaying industrial American city; a luxury hotel; and Blofeld’s mountain base from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Only in the fourth nested dream world do things actually start getting dreamlike, though it’s too little, too late – if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen all the moments of surrealism.

And finally, as the film progressed, I found it more and more difficult to follow the dialogue. There seems to be a rule – the Kiefer Sutherland effect, I shall call it – that the more crucial a line of dialogue is to following the plot, the more it should be spoken in an incomprehensible hoarse whisper. Some of the diction was appalling, I mean, it’s probably my cloth ears, but when the dialogue is so crucial to understanding what the bloody hell is going on, and what is at stake, to lose even a single line is to lose the plot.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good film, I did enjoy it, and it was worth the price of admission. There are some stunning visuals in there, good performances, and the idea behind it is pretty marvellous. It’s certainly better than those dreadful Batman films by the same director. But it’s no Prestige or Memento either. Despite the visuals, I’d say this is a more a film to rent on LoveFilm than to see in the cinema, because on DVD you can always turn on the subtitles and rewind bits to follow what’s going on.

And fast-forward through that bloody van.


  1. My main problem with it was the sequence that should have been drawn out as a prolongued battle, Lenny Cap going deeper and deeper into the dream world to rescue Sato, was completely glossed over. Since he was only doing all this to see his kids, and getting Sato to remember his promise was crucial to this, it seemed to miss the point rather. They should have cut half an hour out of Piz Gloria and used it here.

    Oh and 'dreadful Batman films'? No, no, no...

  2. Forgive me for being amused by your wrong comment (NB: haven't seen the film, never will, couldn't care less) about Amy's Choice. "It reminded me both of the Amy's Choice episode of Doctor Who."

    It reminded you both, I see. Yeah. "It’s clumsy writing, basically," indeed.

    D x

  3. David, there is a difference between a typo on a blog and writing a multi-million pound feature film with ever-changing arbitrary plot logic. One is clumsy typing. The other is clumsy writing. Do I know you IRL?