Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nolan's Lost in the Maze

Saw "Inception" yesterday.


And despite the strangely uniform high praise, the film personally left me a little cold. Which isn't to say it's not an impressive piece of work, but within the context of Christopher Nolan's other films, it comes up short.

Without giving anything away, it's worth comparing the opening shots of "Inception" with Nolan's last film, "The Dark Knight" to illustrate this point. Both begin with no credits. We are thrust into a universe and must navigate our way through it. In "The Dark Knight", that universe begins with a dense, exploding cloud emanating from what appears to be blue fire, with bat shapes in the background forming an abstracted Batman symbol. That dissolves into a wide shot of a city, slowly but insistently zooming in on a black glass-paneled office building. The zoom takes enough time to allow the viewer to focus on the texture on the glass, just before one of the panels shatters. It's an elegant, restrained yet unnerving beginning to (arguably) Nolan's best film.

In contrast, "Inception" begins with closeups of waves hitting rocks on a beach. My first thought was of familiarity - "From Here to Eternity",

The camera moves down to the face of Leonardo DiCaprio laying in the sand, unconscious. My reference point expanded to "Robinson Crusoe" and any other castaway film/story. And crudely, the scene even slightly evoked those Calvin Kelin "Eternity" ads.

The action continues and Leonardo is awakened by a man wearing a uniform with a gun, speaking an Asian language. The camera pans to an enormous house modeled on traditional Asian architecture. Again, familiarity - take your pick of any adventure film/anime with a beachfront evil shrine/fortress/etc looming above.

These two examples show my main problem with "Inception" - it raises Nolan's interest in psychological puzzles but severely lacks his signature combination of unique visual style and intense mood. I found myself drawn to the story, but the world Nolan created to tell the story lacked the depth of his previous work. The reason for this may be twofold: it is the first movie he's written without his younger brother Johnathan, who may be big bro's screenwriting foil in keeping plot in check with other film components. The second is that these "arty" commercial directors often get on a hot streak and then the studios allow them to indulge their creative impulses too much, without giving proper attention to the craft. Darron Arronofsky made this mistake with the beautifully shot but highly flawed "The Fountain"

In that case, it was the inverse of Nolan's issue: the visuals were much better developed than the story. But after the critical and commercial failure of "The Fountain", Arronofsky reeled himself in and made the far superior "The Wrestler".

Unfortunately for Nolan, critics seem to be buying into "Incpetion" like hip sheep buying the latest ipod. I only hope this doesn't indicate the direction he will be taking with the next (and final) Batman film.

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