I saw Inception at a midnight showing, and really liked it. I really enjoy the way that Christopher Nolan puts together a script as a writer, and the way that he emphasizes narrative structure as a director. He’s very good at creating stylized realities, whether that’s the grimy 19th century cities of The Prestige, the run down bleakness of Nowheresville, CA in Memento, or the logical unconscious of Inception. Rarely do the conflicts of the characters make his movies compelling to me; I’m much more hooked by the construction of the plot and the puzzle.
That perspective has made the critical dialogue around Inception very interesting to me. Two of the reviews that are drawing a lot of attention are David Edelstein’s review for NPR and A.O. Scott’s for the NYT. Edelstein is directly negative, calling it “lumbering and humorless and pretentious, with a drag of a hero.” Scott’s review is not negative, but makes a distinction between Nolan’s blockbusters and the arthouse movies that they get confused with.
I’m with Scott on this one. A movie that I’ve been mulling over recently is Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It was filmed before there were such things as blockbusters, but it was a big budget movie that matched interesting visual effects with heady dialogue, and presumed a curious and adult audience. Solaris and Inception couldn’t be more different. Solaris is not so ideological that any one character clearly speaks for the filmmaker, however ideas are given a gravity that conveys to the audience that they are important, and they are spoken with conviction. Inception has the trappings of an ideas movie–what could be more high concept than questioning the nature of reality itself?–but really just uses these as dressings for a much more conventional and familiar story.
This is not a bad thing. Christopher Nolan’s films are extremely well crafted, and he knows how to manipulate an audience into having a good time. He’s managed the trick of having a mainstream career with arthouse cred.
Not every movie needs to have a “message,” and not every director needs to work with big ideas. But I would like to see a Christopher Nolan movie with an idea or a perspective to match his strengths in plotting and production design. I don’t need for movies to be ideological, but I do like to get a sense for what the director or screenwriter thinks are important issues or how they see the world. Nolan has made many good movies, but he’s a cipher. He’s proven that he can fluidly transmit complex settings and situations, and he’s proven that he can work with big themes in a way that adds to a plot without obstructing it. Now I’d like for him to use those talents to say something.

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