An alternate version of this can be read at Riverside Examiner.
For all its diegetic hype about an original, pure, truly inspired idea, Inception is a film all about story and almost not at all about ideas. Certainly the narrative premise of this film is interesting, but it owes an obvious debt to a lot of films (and not just films), in which The Matrix stands perhaps most obviously. The problems with auteur theory are as problematic as ever these days, if not more so. However, to say that Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a distinct style is just ignorant. Inception plays almost exactly like the Batman films, particularly Batman Begins, and it carries plenty of similarities with the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre, too. Hans Zimmer deserves as much authorial credit for Nolan’s work as Nolan himself. The films are brimming with Zimmer’s distinctive soundtrack, working as a metronome for the narrative pace beginning as soon as the audience is thrown into the action of the film’s first scene and then growing steadily faster and louder. Whether this is a clever device or just a ploy to trick our aural sense into telling our brains something big is about to happen is uncertain. There is little to no rest in the recent Christopher Nolan films, just as much as there is little to no humor in them. The lack of any respite from the story’s intensity is fitting for a filmmaker who elevates narrative above all else. If the story takes a break, what is left to fill its place? Certainly not humor; Leonardo DiCaprio is even more humorless than Nolan, who at least tries to add a joke here and there via Gordon Joseph-Levitt. (Aside: Joseph-Levitt’s uncanny resemblance to the late Heath Ledger, who had just portrayed The Joker in Nolan’s last film, makes his “joking” all the more uncomfortable to watch.)
Not unlike Nolan’s in-between-Batman project The Prestige, Inception is about Nolan as a storyteller: the story he tells and how he tells it, and how he’s able to slip some conceit/deceit into it without the viewer noticing (hopefully). The overt message of The Prestige was arguably identical to whatever actual message it offered: “Look closely.” Like The Sixth Sense before it, these are films whose successes depend on their form misleading the audience until the final act, when the ace of spades is uncovered only to reveal a stacked deck. Subtract this component from the films and what remains? Something? Nothing? The Sixth Sense has been often compared to Hitchcock, a real disservice to the Master. While Hitch’s films have plenty of tricks that toy with the viewer, they are also chock full of ideas; ideas that don’t pretend to be “pure” or “original” like those masquerades in Inception but, rather, that are twisted with enough diabolical self-references and Freudian tropes that they may as well be original. Subtract suspense (form) from Hitchcock and there is still more than enough content to go round. Subtract it from Inception and what remains is a very weak version of Love’s Labours Lost. Like the Shakespearean source, it’s a play within a play centering on a romance surrounded by action. Also like the play, it ends on a note of uncertainty that throws its entire narrative into question, ending before the audience can discern its finality. For Inception, this is one of the only hints it contains of an actual “idea”. One could have banked what this idea would be before seeing the film, based on Nolan’s previous films. The “idea” of uncertainty only very loosely fits the requirements for being an “idea” in the first place. It’s somewhat akin to the “idea” of nothingness.
While all of this might incite a negative reaction to the film, the film has been wildly popular among filmgoers. Not long ago it was still ranked as the #2 all-time best film on IMDb, right behind The Shawshank Redemption and in front of The Godfather, Part II. The absurdity of IMDb movie ratings notwithstanding, they function as a gauge of the popular to some extent. And even if ideology is strangely absent from within Inception, the film itself clicks comfortably into the reigning ideology of popular culture, in which form supersedes content. The “what” of a discourse is much less exciting than the “how” of it. The success of everything from films to text messages depends on not what is said but rather how it is phrased. The final shot of Inception, whether predicted from the film’s beginning or not, is intended to effect wows from the audience, to make them walk away and foolishly debate what happened in the film. This is more interesting to most than discussing what the film meant to say by staging its events in the way it did. This very lack of ultimate meaning, however, this ultimate uncertainty as to what is happening in our world (and the question of whether it even is our world, rather than someone else’s!), has become as much the prevailing ideology as the main “idea” of Inception is an “idea”. It seems a misnomer, but it is what it is. After Inception, one gains a new appreciation for the brand of meaningless endorsed by the Coen brothers: if everything is vanity, we at least shouldn’t take it very seriously.