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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

my biggest disappointment in ‘Inception’

(not a spoiler)

Yes, I loved the movie. But as I indicated in my review, my mind wasn’t blown as much as I was expecting it to be. Some of my expectations were created by the astonishing imagery the trailer showed us, such as the folding city:

My mind was abuzz pondering the possibilities: How would Nolan play with this? How would it impact the story, the characters, their world? If this is just the tease, what would the extent of such a concept be?

So I was sorta flummoxed to see that, in fact, the tease was basically it — there was no expansion on it. Cobb is showing Ariadne the framework of how they build dreams, and she wonders what happens when you play with the physics of the dreamworld, and that’s when the city folds up. Which is unbelievably cool and mind-blowing.

And then the topic never gets revisited. At least not in anything like this way. It’s almost as if, in The Empire Strikes Back, we saw Luke Force-lift some rocks and attempt to raise his X-wing from the swamp, but then we never saw him use this skill again.

If the physics gets played with again, it comes in ways we can’t see: ways that are metaphoric or in the subconscious of the characters. And that’s fine. But I thought there would be more stuff to see like the folding city.

Am I alone in this?

(Feel free to spoil in comments, but offer a warning first!)

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  • RyanT


    I hear you. I was hoping for the third-level dream (the snow-capped mountains) to be a bit more “magical” or even dream-like. The second-level dream with the hotel was the closest it seemed to playing around with the physics/reality of dreams (excluding Limbo of course).

  • Magess

    I do think it was just a tease and feel a little cheated. But they also made a point to say that messing with things to that extent will make the person’s mind know you’re there. So you can do it, but you’ll probably get kicked from the dream for it. Which I think explains why they didn’t do it again. Although not why they wouldn’t mess with physics in order to get kicked. At least I don’t think… Hrm.

  • Nate


    I guess the problem with that is much of the rest of the film is spent in the dreams of people who either don’t know they’re dreaming or have already created such a detailed reality within their own dreams that they don’t think of altering the physics of it as dramatically as Ariadne did.

    Personally, I think Nolan made up for it by showing the cool effects the different dream levels had on each other, like with the shifting gravity and avalanche, as well as the rendering of Cobb’s abandoned dream city.

  • E

    I wonder if they’ll do more with it in Inception 2: Electric Boogaloo?

  • Peter

    My question: if we hadn’t been teased with the imagery in trailers and commercials, would we have been satisfied with what we god, not having expected it? We have so many bad films these days where every funny line (all two of them!) are doled out in the promotion; maybe here’s a film where almost every vivid, original frame was spoiled for us (but unlike those vapid comedies, we’re left with a lot to enjoy.)

    All said, loved the film, but I understand where you’re coming from. I think it’s high praise for Nolan that so much is expected.

  • Peter

    “god” should be “got.” Odd Freudian slip?

  • Lisa

    I’m avoiding your inception threads (and doing a good job of it!) I’m seeing it next Tuesday. Mind you, I’m hoping a twist ending in a movie about a man who can control other people’s dreams isn’t going to be as obvious as it sounds.

  • Winged

    Sounds like a Chekhov’s gun that wasn’t actually used. It always leavings you feeling like you’re missing something. “Wait, it’s over? But the gun didn’t go off!”

  • Drew

    *Spoiler warning!*
    Yeah, I was totally waiting for the 3rd level to be solved with Ariadne walking around shooting structure at the projections using dream telekinesis. “She picked it up faster than anyone” Leo says. “She’ll end up with Super Dream Powers” I thought. A tad disappointing.

  • elucidarian

    Oh, the layers of story one could find in this movie. I highly recommend this critique which happens to answer why most of the minor plot holes cited here are entirely appropriate for the film, with the given interpretation:


  • Elisa_Maria

    I work in a movie theater, so on a typical day leading up to its release I would hear/see the Inception trailer a good 20 or 30 times. It was one of the few trailers that didn’t make me complain. In fact, every time I just got more excited, thinking “If this is just a taste of the eye-candy, I can’t wait to see the movie!” So of course I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more physics-defying dream-tampering done.

    But what really boggled me was the effect of seeing the beginning and ending of certain moments in the trailer. The folding city, for instance—I’d come to know the image so well as a stand-alone effect that when *SPOILER ALERT?* it kept going and folded all the way over… it through me off. The same goes for when Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character was spinning the other characters and wrapping them with cord. It’s so surprising in the trailer that it made my heart leap and my jaw drop; in context, it makes more sense, so it didn’t have quite the same effect.

    I still think that it was visually stunning, and I can’t wait to see it again. I think a lot of the problems I had came from overexposure to the trailer, and once I see the actual movie more, they’ll start to fade :)

  • Russell Challenger

    I agree. In many ways it shares the same creative problems that the Matrix posed, only this time it’s your dreams and not some hard wired software calling the shots. You have this complex plot, with characters (and ultimately the filmmakers) with a lack of imagination.

    Lots of missed opportunity here unfortunately.

  • Mo

    *tsk tsk* Expectations suck. You really should avoid those. They’re clearly spoiling something magnificent.

    I sort of accidentally figured out how to lucid dream (more or less) a while ago and was thoroughly impressed by how all that sort of stuff worked in the movie because it all felt *really* real and familiar in a good way to me. It’s weird, one of the first times you’re vaguely aware of your control over things (at least in my case), you go for the big and obvious, like twisting your surroundings up like Paris there, or jumping off a balcony and floating away. After that there’s frankly more interesting (to your dreaming mind) and personal things to do that have less to do with bending “reality”, because dreams are ultimately about the things we care about rather than what our waking minds would want to see for fun, and the levels and plots in the movie dream world reflected that quite well.

    Personally I avoided the trailers, went in expecting only that it would be a Nolan movie, and left more thoroughly satisfied than any movie has made me in a very, very long time. Was my mind blown? Not completely, it’s too busy rearranging the puzzle pieces even now to be blown. But then I didn’t expect it to be blown, I expected a puzzle and I got one.

  • laura

    Huh. Interesting.

    I agree that there was a lack of emotional involvement in the film, but I actually think I enjoyed that about it. I sometimes get weary of the inevitable emotional, well, almost manipulation that films engage in to get you to care about the characters. Inception, as you say, was all about thinking, and I think I’m OK with it being purely on an intellectual level.

    Of course, I’ve been in love with Joseph Gordon-Levitt since I was 11, so I guess I WAS emotionally involved, anyway. :D

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    That’s a good point. I was wondering why many of the special effects felt so gratuitous, if undeniably amazing, and this might be it. Nolan’s said before, I think, that there was an ‘effects-light’ version of the script that he prepared years ago when he wasn’t sure if he’d get the budget to make the movie how he wanted it. I can’t imagine that version was any different in substance, rather than style, to what we’ve got now.

    Although the film wasn’t devoid of visual surprises…

    [mild spoiler!]

    …one of my favourite effects, the impossible staircase, wasn’t so much as suggested in the trailer.

  • allochthon

    I thought the hotel anti-gravity tricks were the pay-off for the folding city. I was completely captivated by those scenes, and the grace with which Arthur’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) character dealt with his circumstances, once he got over the WTF? aspect. Especially after they made a big deal about his lack of imagination.

    I loved this movie. We were thinking it was the best High-Concept SF movie since Gattaca, but then you reminded me of Moon!

  • Oh dear, I’m going to be the outlier here, the troll, the nay-sayer. I took my two teenage sons to see this tonight, because we’d all been so jazzed by the positive reviews. But I failed to see the magic, even on IMAX.

    I watched a (three layered) chase movie where the prize was the hidden recesses of someone’s mind. I was strongly reminded of the Bourne trilogy, but the latter achieved more excitement without expending so many shiny effects. The slow-mo car chases, weird gravity shoot-em-ups, and endless Bond-type-snowmobile-shenanigans didn’t seem to have any satisfying justification in the plot. I simply endured them however flashy they seemed. The sense of threat mainly came from the horns on the soundtrack – which was like being shouted at for two-and-a-half hours!

    I’m a big science fiction fan – why was I so down on this? All the effort in setting up the scenarios (and there’s a lot of groundwork to prepare) just seemed to be glossed over. “This isn’t strictly legal” raised almost no response whatsoever from Ariadne/Page, let alone any objection! I am reminded of the Guardian’s comments on Neo’s discovery that his world was a facade – he looked like he had received a slightly larger-than-normal gas bill.

    All the solipsistic “my pretend wife thinks all this is real” undercurrents got old quite quickly, and I was only surprised that the closing scene required the spinning top to be made quite so obvious.

    Oh well. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood to suspend disbelief today. MaryAnn said that this was a movie about ideas – but I didn’t accept the premise of the movie that planting an idea in someone’s mind is almost impossible. I think it’s quite easy, and so does MaryAnn: “just someone whispering something to you in the right way at the right time — can have a crude, subtle power like nothing else.” You really, really don’t need to go through three layers of reality, three layers of car-chasing baddies, and the ghost of your ex-wife to make someone think about changing their business strategy. How about a nice little PowerPoint presentation next time?

  • Nate

    You really, really don’t need to go through three layers of reality, three layers of car-chasing baddies, and the ghost of your ex-wife to make someone think about changing their business strategy. How about a nice little PowerPoint presentation next time?

    When your target is a competing businessman, I don’t think it’s hard to understand why it isn’t that simple.

  • MaryAnn

    I thought the hotel anti-gravity tricks were the pay-off for the folding city.

    I thought the antigrav scenes were some of the best antigrav scenes I’ve ever seen on film, but they seem to me to be the opposite of the folding city. No one in the folding city seems to notice that the physics have been played with, or else the upside-down people would be falling. But in the antigrav scenes, it’s not the physics of the dream that have been messed with but the reality of the dreamers in the real world (or at least the physical “reality” of whatever the next dream level up is).

    In other words, the folding city is about the physics purely *within* the dream, and the antigrav stuff is about the physics *outside* the dream.

  • HeJü

    In other words, the folding city is about the physics purely *within* the dream, and the antigrav stuff is about the physics *outside* the dream.

    When she folded the city, they were (in reality) sitting in a comfy chair. The physical reality was normal.
    When their bodies were experiencing a very unusual phenomenon, weightlessness, they incorporated that into their dream.

    Also, folding the city was something radical, something of the sort you try out when you learn that you can do anything, like Mo already said.
    I loved that they kept the dream-realities visually interesting but didn’t turn them into some sort of big budget tech demo.

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