Alex takes a look at the cultural and critical praise that Inception received upon its release.
SPOILER ALERT: This post mentions some scenes from Inception, albeit only in passing.
Context within which we examine a piece of pop culture is important, even though it is typically mostly ignored. Whenever a piece of mass media resonates with a large North American audience, there are almost always reasons for this resonance that are not particularly difficult to find. This can easily be found in popular blockbuster movies, but also in pretty much any piece of pop culture. Kanye West’s 2004 debut the College Dropout was praised as a return to the days of more thoughtful, emotional popular hip-hop that had long since been ushered off of the charts by the overtly commercial Jiggy Era that began in the mid-90s. Critics, fans, and some rappers themselves were showing the first signs of a backlash to overtly commercial rap, and West’s album came out precisely at the time to be viewed as a shift in the tide of popular hip-hop music. Of course, there are more original moments on the College Dropout than you would find on most platinum-selling rap albums around 2004, but the difference in lyrical content was not as vast as people seemed to think. We were sold on the return to a time where more personal and socially aware hip-hop could sell a million-plus, or as West called it “the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest,” but it was sold to us by a man who called himself the Louis Vutton Don. The merits of West’s album notwithstanding, we were told that it was something unique when it simply wasn’t. While I would still count it among my favourite albums, I am not going to pretend that it’s something it’s not in order to make myself happier.
Inception’s critical success needs to be placed in a similar context, much like its acceptance by the masses does. Movie critics have to watch just about everything that gets a wide release – they see Saw 17, vehemently dislike it, and then watch as it proceeds to become a big financial success. Seemingly every week, critics lose more faith in the filmgoing masses, and when they see a movie with a large marketing budget that actually has any sort of depth to it, they collectively lose their shit. If these movies actually do succeed financially, critics’ hopes that these successes could bring about mass change for the big Hollywood movie are bolstered (although these hopes are never met). These critics aren’t just writing about and suggesting that people see Inception, they are writing about hopes for a Hollywood where a financial and critical success like Inception isn’t merely an anomaly. This has a huge effect on how the public collectively judges a movie.
Inception is not a flawless movie: while I realize he has experience doing so, it still seems far too easy for Cobb to get back through limbo towards the end of the film, and the manipulation of the dream world doesn’t go as far as it could. It is a great movie however, and I say that without reservation, much like I say that it had a perfect marketing campaign. There were enough stunning images in the trailer that most people who aren’t completely against blockbusters would want to see the movie, and the trailer gave away nothing important to the plot. Providing a vague sense of the film in a time when we are often shown most of the key points of a movie in its trailer allowed for curiousity around the movie to build. Once the critical fellatio began, all the marketers had to do was put the reviewers’ best quotes all over the television and print ads, and they had locked up a huge opening weekend draw. Peter Travers, a notoriously easy film critic who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, was given the first critic screening of the film and proceeded to write wildly praising prose about the movie, much like he did with his first-look review of Christopher Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight. As the rest of the reviews began to trickle across the internet, people began to suspect that they were about to watch something special, culturally significant, and most of all (since just about every review called it this) “smart.”
Any time a piece of media is referred to as smart, people who hear this about it often will actively try to like it. I used to know somebody who continually tried to become a fan of Arrested Development merely because he thought it was something he should enjoy, even though it simply didn’t line up with the media he typically liked. Since he perceived himself as a smart person, he felt he should like this smart media. Once you take this and apply it on the scale of the summer blockbuster, this method of thinking starts applying to significantly more people. You had to look to find advertisements or reviews calling Arrested Development smart, for Inception all you had to do was read a couple phrases on the poster at your bus stop. If you lived in a major city and even mildly paid attention to movies, chances are you knew Inception was a well-reviewed movie before it was released. Once it had a successful opening weekend, word of mouth was able to spread, and this fueled Inception’s subsequent weeks of topping the box office.
Here is where I take issue with media being called smart: if Inception was as smart as critics seemed to believe it is, a movie like Inception never could have been the hit that it was because people simply wouldn’t understand the movie. Critics put the “smart” tag on the film to connote its superiority in comparison with the rest of the blockbuster world, and that lead the masses to begin to think that if they want to be perceived as smart, they should enjoy this movie. One of the best aspects of Inception is that, while being complicated, it is not particularly difficult to follow assuming you don’t typically have an issue with non-linear storytelling. For the first 30 minutes or so, the audience is completely in the dark, but by the end of the movie everything that really needs to be explained has been. The movie can be thought about for as long as the viewer wants to, but it doesn’t need extensive deciphering in order to enjoy it. Inception isn’t necessarily a smart movie, it’s just a really fucking good one.
Of course, this perception of the film can work both ways, and can turn people off from the movie should they be even vaguely media-savvy. Modern movie releases are completely different from even 10 years ago, as the continual escalation in the availability of information continues to change how every piece of media is perceived. I recently listened to somebody on a podcast recounting a story of finding out Rocky III existed when it happened to be playing at his local theatre – and this is a movie fan who grew up in a major city. Before the mid-80s or so, even an established franchise didn’t really have much of a marketing push behind it. When the 2006 sequel Rocky Balboa was released, much had changed – before going into the movie I knew Adrian was not in the film thanks to one of the readily available Sylvester Stallone interviews, and I knew Rocky’s son was being played by that punk kid in Heroes from my anticipatory Internet Movie Database research. In the past, you would have to get a subscription to Variety to learn some of these facts: now, many of these bits of information can be picked up merely by chance. The way this changes how we view movies cannot be overstated.
A good friend of mine liked Inception, but not nearly on the level that I did. Our conversations about the movie were extensive, and her main issue with the movie seemed to be with it being perceived as smarter than it is. She saw it as a good blockbuster, but as an English major, she took issue with some comments Christopher Nolan made in an interview about the film being influenced by Jorge Borges and magic realism. When she saw the movie, she did not find much Borges and found little to no magic realism, and took issue with Nolan talking like it had been an influence. While my post-Inception research lead me to find a few lines in a Borges poem that quite obviously influenced a scene in Inception, it was a relatively small moment in the movie. And while I do see some magic realism in Inception, I am biased towards Nolan and in general know little about the subject – in both of these regards, I support my friend’s opinion because she knows a million times better than me.
I tried to read as little as possible about Inception before actually seeing it because I wanted to be unaffected by outside factors. Of course, it was already too late for that because I am a borderline-obsessive film fan and have read about as much as there is to read on Nolan’s previous films and the man himself. After first watching Memento years ago, I remember looking for the director’s name on its IMDB page, and I have been following him ever since. Memento is one of the few times I can remember where I knew almost nothing about the movie itself and had no real strong feelings toward anybody in the cast or crew, and seeing how it was a great story and idea that unfolded impeccably, I wanted to know more about the man who directed it. Of course, since then, I have seen every one of his movies with the mindset that they are from “the director of Memento.”
Now I can scour the internet for information about Nolan as well as countless critical readings of his movies which can in turn make me like them more. This makes me even more excited for his new films, and eventually I find myself experiencing a moment that seems surreal to me but should be wholly realistic – sitting in a movie theatre, watching the beginning of a brand new Christopher Nolan movie. Even if Inception was only mediocre, I realize that I probably would have loved it, or at least really liked it anyway assuming the few things I was looking for were there. This is years of excitement coming to their conclusion, so seeing the movie ends up being a mixture of happiness, relief, and hope that it’s actually good. Meanwhile, not all that long ago, moviegoers would walk into a movie having just found out it had been released.
My friend was not particularly excited about Inception but since we talk a lot she had to hear plenty about my excitement. This probably had a negative influence on her enjoyment of the movie, and her reading the aforementioned interview with Nolan almost certainly did too. I doubt either of these things would have happened had Inception been released in the media world of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not saying that the evolution of the media has necessarily become a negative for filmmaking, nor am I saying my friend would have loved the movie had she not read that interview, but this growth in the media has resulted in the inception of opinions before we actually get to view Inception for ourselves. The movie itself is static, and everybody will see the same images, but the surrounding environment has changed immensely from a couple of decades ago. Our perception of a movie changes depending on the media we experience, so we need to be cognizant of the context movies are being released into, and try to form our opinions on them with little outside influence. Since we simply cannot completely avoid outside influence at this point, we just have to make sure we get the context right so that they are accurately remembered.
Examples of not taking context into consideration when judging media are not difficult to find. During Michael Jordan’s first retirement in the mid-1990s, the NBA (obviously) changed drastically without him, and one of the main beneficiaries of this is Reggie Miller’s legacy. Miller was a guard who was basically a less athletic Ray Allen; he had a great jump shot, a flair for theatrics, and he should have never been the number one guy on a team with championship aspirations. When Jordan left, he left behind a newly guard-obsessed league, albeit now without a great shooting guard. Reggie Miller had just enough great moments (his playoff 25-point 4th quarter domination of the Knicks as well as a few other memorable clutch performances) to look like a superstar, but in reality he choked far more often than he came through. Of course, in a Jordan-free guard-loving league, he was the highest profile shooting guard, and he was perceived to be a superstar. He was damn good, no doubt about it, but he just wasn’t great.
As such, when an event movie like Inception is released, we need to take a look at the time it came out in for us to properly gauge its cultural impact. Inception, like Avatar last winter, was a fairly big movie for mass film culture, and like Avatar it needs to be analyzed within the proper context. Both films were so well reviewed partially because of the surrounding time period’s movies being generally lackluster. With how these movies have been reviewed, almost everybody who cares about movies feels an obligation to see them and be able to discuss them. When discussing Avatar years down the line, I hope that it is remembered almost exclusively for technological reasons such as ushering in the era of 3D, just like I hope Inception’s greatness is measured within the context that there hasn’t been a great year for film since 2007. Contrary to what I believe the final shot of Inception to convey, I would rather have an accurate view of a film’s legacy than a false one that makes me happier. I realize that I may be overly criticizing these aspects of filmgoing, but I do feel that these aspects deserve to be critiqued overtly… otherwise we might accidentally end up with an All-Decade team filled with Reggie Millers. Like Cobb’s crew, we need to go deeper to finish the job correctly.