I used to be really into the Academy Awards back when I was still in high school and trying my best to get into film school for my undergraduate studies (obviously, this did not happen). But I do still pay attention to Oscar-worthy films because I love (and always will love) that medium of art hitting its greatest potential. Film is no longer a passion, per se, but a hobby . . . like fine wine. So from time to time I read a few film blogs here and there, which is risky in and of itself because most are horrifically written, poorly informed, egotistical, and altogether bad. There are a few gems out there, though (one of which is Awards Daily, formerly known as Oscar Watch), and soon after Christopher Nolan’s Inception hit theatres this summer, everybody was abuzz about its Oscar potential.
Why am I weighing my voice (that only about twelve people will probably even glance at)? Because all this hype and Oscar fawning is rather ridiculous. That, and I don’t see anyone else echoing my opinion. If they have, I guess I missed it. But I do enjoy films and the art of writing, so I’ll combine the two for this post. This isn’t so much a review of Inception as it is an evaluation of what its chances are come awards season, which we are very much in the thick of since it is now October.
Everybody is wondering if Inception will win Best Picture, and the answer should easily come to mind: no, it will not be victorious. I say “should” because weird things happen, but other people seem more confident about its chances for victory, and this debate in the world of film criticism still has me befuddled. Will Inception be at least nominated? Probably. But there are enough facets of the film that are not working in its favor for a victory. I think this is a pretty logical summation, but if you disagree, please feel free to throw in your opinion against mine.
Now, I can already acknowledge one response from the pro-Best Picture crowd, and these people say, “But it’s such a great original story.” But that is incorrect, and it is the very thing with which I have an issue. Inception’s story is neither great nor original. It’s one cliché after another.
Do not believe such a statement would be a slap to the face of Christopher Nolan. For his undergraduate studies, he was an English major and student of literature, and Nolan is well aware the tenant storyboard facets of his film are heavily borrowed from cinema past. But credit Nolan with this: he recognizes what all great storytellers do, and that is that it doesn’t matter necessarily what your story is but how you tell it (see Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for a more fleshed-out concept of this idea, only in relation to telling war stories). So for Nolan—and audiences alike—it doesn’t matter that there are myriad clichés emanating from the screen. Quite honestly, many viewers are probably completely oblivious to it because they are so entranced with the originality in his storytelling technique. The technique overshadows the substance, which shows the artisan strength inherent in Nolan’s capabilities. He is a grand story teller. But is he a grand story maker?
What makes Inception great is the way in which the story is told. That is the place from which its power and intellectual verve are derived. Consider, however, the parts making up the story:
- A guy separated from his kids, but trying to get back home to them.
- The guy doing “one last job” that tests the boundaries of right and wrong, but will give him the opportunity to retire and walk away from his profession that he probably doesn’t even like anymore.
- The guy assembling an “all star” team to help him carry out this “one last job.”
- The guy having a dark past and secret, the likes of which comes back to haunt him repeatedly.
- The guy being unable to walk away from his past/secret.
- The guy’s secret putting those around him at risk.
- The guy’s secret centering on either 1) death, 2) a woman, or 3) both.
- Someone (preferably of the opposite sex) discovering the guy’s secret, but being unable to tell anyone around him/her.
I’ll criticize my own list. You may notice that almost all of these have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. This is not to imply that his character is shallow by any means. Quite the contrary—his is the most fleshed-out of all of Nolan’s characters in this film, possessing a vast amount of depth in the midst of a wealth of one-dimensional players. But even so, it doesn’t change the fact that his depth as the protagonist is constructed with worn-out cinematic devices.
Now for a criticism of Inception. It is in love with its own message of the virility of an idea, and really, this is either somewhat groan-worthy or brilliant depending on how you look at it: audience members in love with Inception are falling prey to the same problem fleshed out in the film, which is, getting attached to an idea without really stopping and thinking it through. Because that’s really all the story is: a really awesome idea. The story Nolan wrote centers on an idea, and a quite original one at that, but from there he simply fleshed it out by using formulaic tactics, and so, the originality began to fade. People don’t stop and consider this, though, and instantly hail Inception as the next Oscar king. Odd.
People will respond that it’s still an extremely original film and ask me to remember all the other qualities of the movie I’m seemingly oblivious to, such as, four layers deep into the mind? Stealing an idea from the mind after being intentional about planting it? The connection between the mental and physical—asking the question of what dying in a dream does to this life? Oh, I’m more than aware of the unique aspects of Nolan’s tale. But those ideas can’t stand on their own legs. They have to be fully realized in concrete forms, and Nolan simply chose to go with the same old, same old to do that. It’s not that it’s bad or good; I’m simply saying it’s not Oscar-caliber.
People may then also argue that I’m criticizing all of Hollywood, that I’m being critical of the way stories have always been told. “These are the things that make stories great. This is classic conflict.” At what point do we move from being “classic” to simply parodying what we’ve seen our entire lives? Who said a father separated from his kids is a great way to tell a story? Can we no longer think of something besides that plot line? If people say, “No, that’s a good plot structure. It makes for great stories,” then, in effect, we’re saying all has been done with cinema that will be done. Nothing new can be created. We just have to borrow now. (In other words, we don’t need to make art anymore; we should just quit.) The beauty of art (and the brain-wracking challenge) comes from the very nature within us to want to create something better, something different, something that redefines the way we look at art. And since much of art is derived from conflict, we must apply that same effort towards constructing rising action. Nolan absolutely gave such efforts to creating the main idea beneath his story; it’s a phenomenal premise—no argument there. But the way in which he drew it out for us to sink our teeth into came across as all too familiar. Conflict itself is so intricate and complex and can be produced from any millions of different life circumstances. Nolan, though, did not give a “life depth” to match the intensity of the intellect behind his movie. And maybe that was his plan all along. Maybe he wanted a shallow surface so we could see the deep mind just below those waters. Maybe he didn’t want to confuse us by having too many thick layers. I don’t know. But it severely limits a film when it possess cerebral tenants, and yet, the audience can sit in the theatre thinking, “I feel like I’ve seen many parts of this movie many times in many other places.” Something original and revolutionary should never feel familiar.
Is this to say Inception is not a good film? Far from it. I enjoyed it immensely. I went to see it twice. I thought the story, as a whole, was incredibly cohesive; Nolan did an excellent job covering all of his bases as far as I can tell. And despite facets of hackneyed tools, the film was still stimulating intellectually, which you rarely will find during the summer blockbuster season. But does it merit a Best Picture Oscar? Hardly.
Now, I think it has a decent chance to win Best Original Screenplay, but let’s keep in mind it is only October. The slew of films that will be coming out in the next ten weeks will be the best of the best. It isn’t a stretch to think Inception, a summer film, will have moved a bit to the back of the line by then (or, at the very least, further back in our minds). And a simple look at the winners of that award in the last ten years shows it’s pretty apparent the Academy does a very good job selecting films that express a truly original depth—not one given over to imitation. I guess it will all just depend on whether or not they feel Nolan’s overarching story and not the individual parts that comprise it are worth admiration. A movie like American Beauty or Lost in Translation had depth on every level, a writer’s masterpiece to where something truly transcendent art-wise was taking place. Inception’s strength obviously falls more into the category of “story as a whole,” but should the Academy be feeling such a form of sentimentality running through its veins come early 2011, Inception has that gold statue in the bag. Best Picture does not have me convinced, though.