Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Continuum Shifts; Quality Doesn't

This time last year I gave a rave review to BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, the new fighting game from the developers of the Guilty Gear series. I didn't expect that I would be back this year to review a new installment in the BlazBlue series, yet here I am, once again delivering a thoroughly positive take on Arc System Works' latest production.

I was slightly disappointed when BlazBlue: Continuum Shift was announced. Though I was glad to see a great game get a sequel, it initially appeared that the "new" game would include relatively little new content. There were four new characters, a few new stages, and adjustments to existing characters, but I worried this would be as disappointing an upgrade as the reiterations of Guilty Gear X2. Given Arc System Works's history, I wasn't wrong to worry, but I'm glad to say that Arc has come through this time. BlazBlue: Continuum Shift is so chock-full of new content that it makes its predecessor's abundance seem paltry.

Though there are several very obvious differences between Continuum Shift and Calamity Trigger, Arc System Works have also demonstrated admirable attention to detail with a whole slew of small changes. The first game's slapdash menus have made way for a more elegant setup. If the short load times bother you, you can now shorten them still further by installing the game, which takes about five gigabytes on the hard drive. All the new characters have new portraits, the art gallery has twice as many unlockables, and the in-battle "HUD" has been redesigned.

When the Guilty Gear games first appeared, they were praised for their beautiful sprite graphics and smooth animation, which made most 2D and many 3D fighting games appear dowdy and outdated. The BlazBlue franchise's HD sprites surpass their Guilty Gear precursors, though I admit I rather miss the old games' sprite backgrounds. The 3D backgrounds in Continuum Shift are lively, detailed, and full of spectators and moving parts, but Arc System Works' 3D output never approaches the beauty of their 2D work. The stages, though not unsightly, represent a missed opportunity.

In an interview from 2008, Daisuke Ishiwatari of Arc Systems Works compared his games with games like Street Fighter IV, which claim to be user-friendly but which are impenetrable to those unfamiliar with fighting games, their history, and their terminology. As he put it: "In my own opinion, no matter what the game, it's important to make sure that beginners and non-gamers can pick it up, and have fun just mashing the buttons." Calamity Trigger, with its Drive (i.e. X Button/A button) attacks and right-stick special attacks, achieved this goal quite well, but Continuum Shift manages to be even more user-friendly. Though you no longer have the option to perform special attacks with the right joystick, Arc System Works instituted a new Beginner Mode which remaps buttons, removes certain of the more arcane techniques, and generally accommodates new players and button mashers. If you'd like to learn the game in-depth, there's also a Tutorial mode that explains the game's various rules, systems, and terminology in a reasonably comprehensible manner. If you're really dedicated, there's also Challenge Mode, which teaches you some very difficult combos. Continuum Shift is as accessible as this sort of game can ever be.

Calamity Trigger featured a Story "campaign" for each character, fully-voiced with multiple endings. The plot features various warring factions, mysterious entities, cat people, squirrel people, two psychotic children, time paradoxes and loops, cursed weapons, damned warriors, flashbacks, violent sibling rivalry, vampires, and ninjas. The characters talk a great deal without explaining very much, and the multiple endings and the characters' tendency to make every meeting end in violent conflict help make the developments even more opaque. Even so, Continuum Shift's Story mode is a great improvement over Calamity Trigger's. Aside from the increase in anime sequences and set piece battles, seeing all the story paths requires significantly less tedium.

Though Continuum Shift is advertised as having four new characters, it would be more fair to say that it has three-and-a-half. New fighter Lamba replaces Nu from the first game; the two characters look and play very similar, though Lambda is all in all less dangerous than Nu, who was after all a boss character. Continuum Shift's one hidden character, Mu, somewhat resembles Lambda, but plays quite differently. Hazama, the villain of the piece, seems like a very difficult character to learn. He can summon green energy chains to bind opponents, jet around the arena, etc. His special and super moves are among the most impressive in the game. The final new character, Tsubaki, is a conservatively-dressed (!!!) female with very easy to perform special attacks. Each of her attacks has four variations; her Drive move charges up a gauge that lets Tsubaki perform especially powerful takes on her moves. She's not a very flashy character, but I've found her a lot of fun to play.

The first BlazBlue received much praise for its "net code". Online matches flowed well and rarely suffered from noticeable slowdown. I've only played a few online opponents in Continuum Shift, but I've already noticed and appreciated a few changes to network play. You now have the opportunity to play Training or Arcade while waiting for a fellow human to come online and interrupt. Match observation has also been improved; you can now join as an observer mid-match instead of waiting at the "Connecting..." screen. Online play as a whole is far better than before; I doubt I shall be able to return to Calamity Trigger.

As happy as I am with Continuum Shift, I still have a few complaints. The enemy AI can be fairly cheap, especially with overpowered characters. Unlimited Hazama, the boss of Arcade, is the case in point: He seems to block everything, has three times your health, can poison you, and regenerates. As you might imagine, fighting him is an exercise in frustration. My other complaint concerns DLC – as I write, one new character is available on the Playstation Store. Two more will appear in the coming months. Each character costs $7.99. This seems exorbitant to me, especially since Story mode is plastered with "ads" for the new characters, all of whom have speaking (but not fighting) roles. At least the game itself is cheap; Continuum Shift launched with an MSRP of $39.99.

Continuum Shift is a fine step forward for the BlazBlue franchise, whatever minor quibbles I might have with it. I look forward to spending more time with it – I've played it a lot already, but I know that I've only scratched the surface. Well-worth the money for those already fans of the series, Continuum Shift is also a fine jumping-on point. Don't worry what you've missed – you still wouldn't understand that plot...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Kick Me: Why Inception's Complexity Is So Unnecessary

I don't like my first review of Inception. I had nagging gripes with the movie the first time I saw it, but I couldn't nail them down. So, I saw it again, and I now wish to clarify what I find so frustrating about the film. Again, it must be said that Inception is not bad. It contains some fascinating ideas and thrilling moments. (If you don't want any of those moments spoiled, stick with my first review. This one will assume you've seen the movie and more or less grasp its plot.) Nevertheless, aspects of the film drive me nuts, and I have not been able to satisfyingly explain why until now.

Someone should sit through this movie with a stopwatch and determine exactly how much of the running time is devoted to explaining stuff. Textbook screenwriting says that your characters should verbally explain things as rarely as possible (meaning, as much should be shown as possible – this isn't radio!), and when your characters absolutely must be explaining things, you should camouflage it. Inception's main tool for camouflage is the old "we have a new recruit" trick. Cobb dumping info on Ariadne is tolerable for the early moments of the film because she's wet behind the ears, but stuff is still getting explained to her two thirds of the way into the film and, in the last third, Ariadne jumps in and starts explaining stuff herself. ("Wait! We can jump down into limbo and then Kick X will knock us into Level C, bringing Character P back to life... homefry!") The relentless barrage of information is not particularly involving. It's more headache-inducing than anything else.

Technically speaking, this isn't great writing, but whatever best serves the story, right? Thing is, I cannot figure out what this babbling adds to our experience. The consensus seems to be that Inception is about Cobb's journey toward realizing that existence is what you make of it – that whether you're dreaming or awake isn't terribly important. If this is the core of the film, all of this exposition only serves the film by showing that, in searching for reality, Cobb is making his life more complicated than it needs to be. So, yes, Cobb's plans should be complicated. Yet 90% of the explaining in this film is not devoted to Cobb's plans; most of it is devoted to the fundamentals of dream navigation. In other words, all of these complicated rules are only there because Christopher Nolan purposelessly made them up.

At the moment, the ability to follow Inception's plot seems to be our popular culture's litmus test for basic intelligence, but, since little of the film's complexity contributes to its ultimate meaning, this movie is not as intellectually engaging as it may seem. Cobb and Mal could have gone into one layer of one dream, gotten lost in the recesses of their own minds, and she could have been driven mad right then and there. There is no need for dozens of arbitrary rules to tell this story; they are needless mental busywork.

Not only would paring things down rid the film of tons of exposition, but it would create room for the characters to experience things together. This would allow the film to explore how these characters lost their grip on reality and why it happened. As the film is, what do we actually see Mal and Cobb do together? They briefly gawk at all of the buildings they made and then they take a train to the face. It conveys the events that took place, yes, but does it demand that we grapple with them?

I think this detached, clinical approach seriously harms the scenes following Mal and Cobb's return to (supposed) reality. We see her ignoring the kids and screaming at Cobb. These moments are obviously charged with emotion, and seem to be the most human way to convey the damage dream-hopping does. Yet we are not allowed to feel any of the emotion from these scenes because they are being conveyed through Cobb's narration.

Relegating such scenes to short flashbacks is presumably used as a way to speed things along so we can get back to the heist plot line. Even this side of the story, however, is not told in the most effective manner. Inception really wants to be a heist movie, but it does not properly execute the most fundamental heist movie device: Show us the plan so we know what can (and will) go wrong. Inception never really shows us the plan. It spends tons of time explaining the metaphysical context for the plan and the tools for manipulating this context (levels, kicks, architecture, etc.), but it never provides sufficient detail about who's going to do what and why. So, when the plan rolls into action and immediately falls apart, Nolan is wasting his time. We don't care because we didn't know what was supposed to happen. Then, the rest of the movie is a mix of improvisation and the original plan, meaning that the audience continues to be stuck trying to understand what the plan is, never getting a moment to react to what's happening. There is no room for investment on the audience's part. This is only storytelling in the most literal sense.

All of the misfiring heist movie mechanics also trample over the only remotely important characters: Mal and Cobb. Strangling the depth out of all of the characters is an impressive achievement for a film that mostly takes place within their minds.

Nolan's misuse of dreams, after all, is Inception's greatest problem. The lynchpin of every plan Cobb makes is avoiding "unconstructed dreamspace." He does this by using architects like Ariadne to make sandboxes within which Cobb and his team can safely play. The failure of one of those sandboxes is the worst thing that can possibly happen and, yet, it never does; the device with the greatest potential for drama is never utilized. No character ever wanders out of a building and into a void, and no collapsing dream ever reveals some untold anarchy beyond its bounds. Even when Nolan takes us into the limbo level – which, by his own description, is largely composed of "unconstructed dreamspace" – he goes against all likelihood and throws the characters into two pieces of constructed real estate.

This gutless move deprives the audience of the story's greatest potential spectacle and its best opportunity to explore the characters' minds. The bland mountain base shootout was painful to watch because I knew every moment we spent watching it was a moment we could have spent watching a cross between the film's hallway fight and the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film does broach the potential for dreams' character development when Ariadne sneaks her way into Cobb's dream, but even that fairly intense sequence had only a fraction of the raw emotion we could have experienced if we had entered Cobb's unconstructed subconscious.

Such scenes would necessitate a bit of abstraction, but that is exactly what Inception lacks. Dreams are abstract, but Nolan insists on trying to reduce them to tangible, practical chunks. It's an impossible task and Nolan's failure to complete it renders this a cluttered, breathless film. The irony is that something much simpler could have yielded far more depth.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

You Might Say It "Eclipses" the Other Movies

From the very first scene, Eclipse feels less like a scam than the last two Twilight movies. New Moon, in particular, seemed like a movie-shaped placeholder – a $50 millon "OUT TO LUNCH. BE BACK IN JUNE." sign from the producers. While Twilight, the original, managed to succeed as entertainment, it wasn't because of any brilliance on the filmmakers' part – the movie felt as if someone had dropped their latte on the keyboard in the editing room and, by providence, all of its ill-conceived pieces congealed into something idiosyncratic but enjoyable.

Eclipse is an entirely different experience. David Slade delivers assured work – a movie with purpose and a shred of personality. It doesn't cover much new ground – Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga is still a pamphlet fluffed into a phonebook – but this is actually a strength. Newcomers really have no need to look back at the previous films. They can infer anything consequential that happened prior to this story, and will altogether avoid the narrative water treading of the previous films.

I dumped on the screenwriter, Melissa Rosenberg, in my New Moon review. She has been one of the glaring weaknesses in each Twilight film, but she returns once again for Eclipse. It's hard to say that she's learned from her mistakes here. Instead, she's become better at sliding them under the rug. Eclipse has more of a structure than the first two films, but no one's going to be awed by this writing. Plot lines still appear and disappear with an incoherence typical of mediocre book-to-movie adaptations, but this time Rosenberg at least picks a few threads to string consistently through the film.

A group of young vampires is travelling throughout the Northwest, brutally attacking anything in its path. This insatiable hunger for violence is typical of new vampires, but this level of organization is not. Both Edward's family and the local Quileute tribe are concerned by these events and must consider taking action against the gang. This inevitable battle guarantees that the film will have a climax – something I appreciated coming from a movie for which I had such low expectations. This plot line also has some relevance for Bella (Kristen Stewart). She's resolute in her choice of Edward (Robert Pattinson) over Jacob (Taylor Lautner), so she spends most of her time mulling over her impending entrance into the ranks of vampires. These attacks serve as a reminder of what she's bound to experience once she takes the plunge.

Otherwise, Edward and Bella still struggle with the complications of human-vampire romance, Jacob still refuses to accept Bella's decision to marry Edward, her relationship with her father is still strained, and the vampires still have a tense relationship with Jacob's tribe. None of these plot lines are turned on their head in this film, but they are approached from fresh angles and with new levels of filmmaking competence, ensuring that they are moderately engaging. (Hell, the existence of sex is even acknowledged!) Other threads are dead on arrival. Jacob repeatedly mentions a love triangle among three of his friends. We have no idea who these people are; we only know that this is a heavy-handed parallel to Jacob, Bella and Edward's predicament. I'm not sure how we were supposed to gain greater understanding about the protagonists' love triangle by hearing about an identical one. There is also some chatter about a kid from Bella's town who may have been taken by the gang, but this personal connection never gains any significance.

Thankfully, while Rosenberg only improves marginally, the director executing her script has been significantly upgraded. The film opens on Bella and Edward sitting in a field of flowers for the umpteenth time and, instantly, the difference is obvious: The actors are acting. For the first time, the two have chemistry. They are joking in ways that are funny. They are flirting in ways that are romantic. They are fretting in ways that are involving. If one ever needs an example of how vital a director is in ensuring actors do their jobs well, compare Eclipse and New Moon. The difference is night and day.

In fact, there is not a single terrible performance in this movie – something I never thought I'd be able to say in reference to Twilight. Now, there are no Oscars in these actors' immediate futures, but even the cast's weak link (Lautner) seems considerably more comfortable in his role than he has in the past. Perhaps most notable, however, is Stewart's newfound ability to get through a sentence without pausing. In fact, she has shed much of her idiosyncratic behavior, and that goes a long way toward making Bella relatable.

A speech of hers near the end of the movie also helps a great deal. I wish I knew who was responsible for it (whether it be Meyer, Slade, Rosenberg or maybe even Stewart), so I could give praise where it is due. Bella finally stands up and explains that her motivations are not entirely derived from her romance with Edward; part of the reason she wants to become a vampire is that she simply never fit in as a human. She has spent two entire films being a horrendously submissive, impotent female lead who is defined entirely by the men in her life and now (better late than never) she finally asserts a bit of independence. Slade places a fair bit of importance on this moment, shrewdly realizing that it may just be the true climax of the film.

In fact, there are many reasons why David Slade will go down in history as the first director to make Twilight self-conscious. There was more than one scene in this film that made me want to scream "Thank you!" as aspects of the series that were always frustrating get rectified. I said that there are jokes here – not stumbles that are amusing, but real jokes. Jacob dryly sneers to Edward at one point, "I'm hotter than you." Taking a moment to show that these characters are not always serious humanizes them, and acknowledges that this movie is quite silly. He probably didn't write the joke, but Slade could have played that moment many different ways. He chose to let us laugh at the movie as much as we were laughing with it. Ironically, this sort of winking makes it far easier to take the movie seriously.

Slade is also the first director to do Twilight's action scenes justice. Fights are grisly and intense. They have a vital feeling of peril, too. There is no more prancing from tree to tree, growling at a distance. Slade never shies away from showing exactly how a vampire kills and how a vampire dies. In fact, this film pushes the PG-13 rating pretty hard, plainly depicting decapitation, dismemberment, impalement and other assorted forms of gore. An R rating is only avoided because of vampires' tendency shatter into glass-like pieces. It sounds absurd, but it's actually quite brutal. Depicting the battles' violence honestly drives home the point that Bella is about to give up her humanity in more ways than one.

Okay: Twilight's still no high art. Thanks to Slade, however, Eclipse's summer release is not a delusion; this is legitimate entertainment that stands up well against the stuff that the big studios are peddling this year, and it's a pleasantly surprising upgrade over its predecessor.

That is not to say that Twilight is guaranteed the consistent improvement of, say, the Harry Potter series. The next, final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, will be split into two movies and will be directed by Bill Condon, the guy brought us Dreamgirls. The closing moments of Eclipse do represent the first time that I have looked forward to more of this story, but I still do not see enough plot to justify two movies. Ditching Slade is an equally baffling decision, especially when its done in favor of a director who gained notoriety for his work on a musical. Do these producers want to make watchable movies, or are they too busy looking forward to their next lunch break?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Does the Road to Vienna Pass through Munich?

Night Train to Munich is an obscure movie; an early Carol Reed film made at the start of World War II. It's hardly the best film of Reed's career, but it more than deserves its recent Criterion Collection reissue.

Philip Kemp's fine essay introducing the Criterion edition of Night Train to Munich concludes by calling the 1940 film a "preparatory sketch" for Reed's later masterpiece, The Third Man. As much as I enjoyed reading Kemp's thoughts on the film, I'm not entirely sure that I can subscribe to his last words on it. For Night Train to Munich lacks most of The Third Man's defining characteristics. One could compare Night Train's conventional score with The Third Man's zither music; or one could compare the two film's senses of humor – recall that the two funniest characters in The Third Man die in a sewer; or perhaps we could contrast movies' attitudes toward romance; but the most noticeable difference, to me at least, lies in the movie's settings. Reed shot almost all of his 1949 production location in Vienna, but in 1940 he had no choice but to film Night Train to Munich on sets.

Some months ago I reviewed another WWII "propaganda" film, Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. It was far more angry and violent than most films of the period. Lang, a German refugee, had a fine sense of the Nazi's radical evil; Reed, at least in 1940, did not. Kemp's Criterion introduction apologizes for the film's comic take on the Nazis and their concentration camps, rightly pleading that the the director had no way of knowing just what horrors Hitler was perpetrating. It's true that the heroine makes light of her concentration camp experience, but Reed also shows the Nazi penchant for torture, cruelty, and murder.

Night Train to Munich has been ill-served by its title. Though the film indeed contains a Munich-bound locomotive, the film ranges far outside of it, encompassing Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, and Switzerland. Including "train" in the title also reminds audiences of the similarities between Reed's film and Hitchcock's train-set The Lady Vanishes. Margaret Lockwood returns from the previous film in a new, less-lively role as a scientist's daughter. Far more memorable are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, The Lady Vanishes' cricket-fixated comic relief. One really must marvel at their poor luck – twice in three years their European vacations have dissolved into violence and gunplay! One would expect them to be more struck by the coincidence, but the script is as stolid and unflappable as Charters and Caldicott wish they were.

There's one remarkable plot twist in this film, and I'm about to spoil it. Fifteen minutes in, the audience discovers that the competent and charming concentration camp escapee Karl Marsen's true occupation: Gestapo spy. The revelation would be surprising enough on its own, but the casting provides an additional frisson for film fans; Paul Henreid, famous as the Resistance hero of Casablanca, plays Marsen. Henreid's villainy seems more sinister and threatening in light of his later iconic performance. For two-thirds of the movie I half-expected Marsen to turn out a triple agent.

Though Margaret Lockwood received top billing, she's outshone by Henreid and by Rex Harrison as the jaunty (and campy) British spy Dicky Randall. Randall's espionage capabilities vary wildly from scene to scene – he doesn't seem a very good shot and falls victim to obvious traps – yet Harrison never disappoints. Still, my favorite performances in the movie come from Radford and Wayne. Charters and Caldicott were hilarious in The Lady Vanishes, and they're equally good fun here. I understand the characters recur in several other films, and I'm afraid I may have to track some of those down. They're funny enough that I can't imagine any film with the two of them could be a total loss.

Night Train to Munich is one of the best films I've watched this year. It's well-paced, surprising, and funny. It's not as artistically accomplished as The Third Man, but it has more than enough panache to make up for its shortcomings.

Monday, July 26, 2010

If You're Going to Dream, Dream Big

In spite of its travels to the depths of the human mind, Inception may be most interesting as an expression of the limits of Christopher Nolan's ambition. His film is by no means a failure, but it balks at taking big risks; Inception rarely feels like the unfettered roller coaster that it should be. Instead, it is a neat film – one that mostly challenges on the superficial level of plot and hesitates to unsettle the audience on a more meaningful level.

The premise, however, is irresistible. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor. He, along with his team, enters people's dreams and steals their ideas. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, approaches him with a unique challenge: He wants Cobb to plant an idea in a competitor's head. The process, known as "inception," is largely untested and very risky. Nolan's script spends roughly the first hour of the movie establishing these risks and the complexities that go into mitigating them. It makes these early minutes slower than one would expect, but it's necessary; when the shit heads for the fan, it's much more fun if we know what's at stake.

Whether it be extraction or inception, Cobb's plans are meticulous. For example, the dream world that the thieves enter is never that of the victim. Instead, one of the thieves constructs a dream world in his or her own mind, then the victim is slipped into it. It ensures that the situation is as tightly controlled as possible. The variable? The imagined people inhabiting the dream are created by the person entering it. This means that your average heist must be pulled off in a setting filled with projections of the victim's subconscious – crowds of people keeping a suspicious eye on foreigners at all times.

Cobb brings a problem of his own into the equation: He's a little hung up on his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). As a result, she occasionally pries her way into a dream and wreaks havoc. Cobb's baggage is ostensibly the core of the movie. Nolan works hard to give the film a strong emotional thread, but it never quite resonates; Mal's scenes are often intense, but never moving. This is likely due to Cobb's impenetrable, sullen attitude. (Yet even the great supporting actors struggle to achieve some sort of presence amid all of the plot machinery.)

Mal serves the film a bit better on a plot level. With Cobb's plans keeping the dreams as tame as possible, she is the wildcard that is guaranteed to make things interesting. The moment Saito's heist begins, she delivers. I don't wish to spoil anything, but the action sequence that ensues makes surprising and harrowing use of a freight train, and it fully benefits from Nolan's disdain for computer-generated fakery. For the most part, however, Mal is content to simply tease Cobb.

Likewise, the main heist (which takes up the back hour and a half) tends to play out more through tense dialogue than surreal visuals. By the time Cobb & Co. have ventured into a dream within a dream within a dream, this has begun to ring false. How can a journey into the sub-sub-subconscious play out so smoothly? Maybe this is just me, but I always envisioned my subconscious as a circus of id-fueled madness. Sure, it makes sense that Cobb would try to control it, but I figured complete failure was inevitable. Things certainly go wrong, and Cobb's story reveals greater complexities during the course of the movie, but the dreamscapes never fully unhinge – they never quite feel dreamlike.

That's where this movie pisses me off.

That amazing shot of Paris folding over itself (heavily featured in trailers) is shortly followed by Cobb's admonishment. Manipulating the scenery in such a way is too flashy, he tells Ariadane (Ellen Page), the latest recruit to his team. Cobb would say this; he's running from his subconscious. But Nolan? Why does he seem to feel the same way? One of the deepest dream levels comes in the form of a bland mountain base shootout – for no good reason – and the film's climax takes place in Cobb's old house, in the midst of a decrepit city. It's slightly surreal but, at this point, we're four dreams deep, in an unplanned face-off with his darkest fears. It's downright lame that the setting is anything short of a mindfuck. What happened? It's not like the budget was running short.

Nolan's execution of his ideas is not a complete letdown thanks to a few strong sequences. The aforementioned training sequence with Cobb and Ariadane is quite fun. She serves as the audience's proxy for most of the movie and the role pays off in this scene. She runs through a city, manipulating every structure conceivable – a brief moment where whimsy overcomes the film's portentousness.

The other highlight is an excellent action scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is otherwise criminally underused) has to fight off a few guards in a hallway. Thing is, outside of the dream he is in, he is strapped into a tumbling van. The turning feeling has a direct impact on his experience in the dream. So, he must scamper up walls and and across ceilings as the hallway spins around him. The sequence is almost lyrical as it cuts between Gordon-Levitt scrambling to stay upright and slow-motion images of his unconscious body swaying inside the vehicle.

That scene, as well as the zero-gravity scenes that follow, is a marvel of special effects. I have absolutely no idea how Nolan and his team achieved these effects and, frankly, I do not want to know. Especially when one studies film, moments of genuine movie magic become very rare. This film provides a few such moments.

But, god damnit, those moments are just too few and far between to elevate Inception to greatness. Other than a devilish cutaway at the very end that leaves one major question unanswered, Inception leaves little of consequence to ponder. Nolan seems unable or unwilling to fully explore his biggest ideas; they are, instead, confined to the conceptual stage. Consequently, what could have been a landmark sci-fi epic is little more than a solid thriller.