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.