That Christopher Nolan chose dreams as the concept for his latest portentous and pretentious blockbuster Inception is all too fitting, because it perfectly highlights the severe limits of the director's imagination. These are surely the most workmanlike, banal dream sequences in the history of the medium, with Nolan managing to make even the most unreal (not surreal) of imagery come off as completely commonplace - what other film maker could do virtually nothing with imagery such as an entire city folding in on itself, a train riding down the middle of a street, or an entire cityscape crumbling? Nolan never uses his storytelling device as anything other than a device, rather, it's merely an attempt to convince the audience that there's something profound going on beneath a mechanical heist movie.
Inception tells the story of Dom Cobb (an ultra serious Leonardo DiCaprio), an 'extractor' who, via a concept the film continuously refers to as "shared consciousness" (something Nolan never fleshes out and just expects us to swallow), infiltrates people's dreams to steal their secrets. Alas, not the good kind of secrets - surely the subconscious isn't quite as timid as Nolan depicts - the heist movie kind of secrets, in this case, the code for a safe that houses a document that will help Saito (Ken Watanabe) bring down a business rival. While Nolan uses copious amounts of CGI to flesh out what he constantly tries to remind us is supposed to be a psychological landscape (the words "projection" and "subconscious" make frequent appearances in the film's script), it never looks like anything but the world we inhabit, even when he introduces things that are supposed to clash with our perception of reality. All I could wonder during sequences that I felt were intended to blow my mind is if Nolan's dreams are actually this boring, or if he doesn't have the directorial capacities to visualize dreamscapes in an effective manner - is it a failure of vision or a failure of execution?
Nolan makes it clear from the outset that he's in way over his head - he is a film maker fascinated with process and details, so perhaps dreams weren't the best thematic vehicle for his particular sensibilities. Rather than expressing himself via imagery (and, really, how else do you make a movie about dreams?), Nolan feels the need to explain via contrived dialogue the significance of every solitary event in the story, to the point where his characters feel less like flesh and blood human beings and more like mouthpieces with which to explain the film's themes, which makes his rather trite attempts at melodrama come off as disingenuous. It's like Nolan feels the constant need to prove - either to himself or to his audience - that what we're watching really is meaningful, yet he rigidly confines himself to genre and cliche to express ideas that are at once cosmic, intimately personal, and intensely psychological - Nolan even turns Cobb's visions of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) into a cheap plot device by having her play what amounts to the film's villain. The approach he takes in Inception doesn't do his chosen topic justice.
Even if you were to judge the picture on strictly action movie terms, it's still a mess. As my darling girlfriend remarked as we exited the movie theater, watching Inception is like going to a restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger, but being given a whole cow instead. Truthfully, I can't remember the last time I was so profoundly bored in a movie theater, as Nolan's film feels aimless and structureless, lacking even the shallow pleasures offered in the similarly problematic The Dark Knight. The action sequences display Nolan's propensity for chaos over continuity and, as with his previous feature, it's an impossible task to deduce where one object within his frame is in relation to another. While he uses quick cutting and disorientation in an attempt to create excitement, I've always found action movies that seek to disorient to be the dullest kind, and that's become a defining feature of Nolan's blockbusters, unfortunately.
Since his debut film Following, Nolan has essentially been a trickster at heart - the "Gotcha!" endings of Memento and The Prestige pretty much sum his artistic M.O. - yet it is this very desire to confuse, impress, and mystify that makes his films ultimately hollow. Christopher Nolan is literal minded to a fault, and the logical approach he takes to dreams is inherently contradictory, as dreams are by their very nature illogical - and it is this paradox that Nolan fails to reconcile in any meaningful way, instead inventing a lot of arbitrary rules for his imagined world that he can obey or not as he pleases. What Nolan fails to realize is that he's the only one who has stolen our dreams.