Monday, July 19, 2010


At first glance, it seems absurd to suggest that Christopher Nolan is an underrated film director. He's made a string of well-regarded films, including the biggest comic-book movie of all time, and Warner Brothers gave him $200 million dollars to shoot his original script, which is rarefied air indeed. But it still seems like critics in general have failed to recognize the singular nature of his accomplishments, especially the stunning achievement of Inception. This is evident from the instantaneous mini-backlash that's developing that Inception has inspired. Now, these critics aren't saying that the film isn't good, but they seem dedicated to proving beyond all doubt that it's not great, and certainly not a "masterpiece" (whatever that means). The whole debate is really a meta-critical argument about what sort of film's belong in the Great Canon. Folks like A.O. Scott and Stephanie Zacharek know what a great movie looks like, and Inception ain't it.

The backlash is partially an inevitable reaction to Inception's pre-release hype and the orgasmic reaction of fanboys the world over. Yet, the very nature of Nolan's achievement makes it almost impossible for some people to really recognize it. Like all of the human race's feeble attempts at artistic evaluation, film criticism functions in a relevant context. Criticism is largely the practice of placing films in relation to other films of similar genre or by the same director. Critics are aware that James Cameron's technical innovation and visual wizardly rests on a platform of borrowed tropes and easy cliche. Compared to fellow blockbuster-machine Michael Bay, who can barely manage to make his wafer-thin stereotypes and pointillist plots even vaguely coherent, Cameron is the Kurosawa of empty spectacle.

Inception's blend of idea-driven science fiction, art-house emotional catharsis and big budget special effects is pretty much unprecedented, and as a result, critics don't seem to know how to evaluate it. Put simply, Christopher Nolan is doing things with Inception that simply are not done in motion pictures. No other filmmaker is fusing such an intimate personal journey with puzzle-box plotting, idea-drive science fiction devices and jaw-dropping special effects action. Taken as component parts, none of these specific elements rises to the level of greatness: the action scenes are relatively perfunctory compared to the best the action genre has to offer, the mind-bending dream effects don't have the sheer delirious power of, say Terry Gilliam (although they're not supposed to), and the characters are a bit thinner than those found in the best serious dramatic films. Taken as a whole, however, Inception is a unique film experience. Not only does Nolan include a strong emotional element in the character of Leonardo DiCaprio, but DiCaprio's psychological journey is so strongly embedded in the plot that it actually proves the driving force of the entire film, not to mention the film's climax. Not to mention the richly-textured near-future dream-invasion technology and the brilliant decision to make the film a heist movie, which makes all the necessary but potentially deadly exposition gripping instead of inert. The level of ambition and execution and the richness of ideas and the inventiveness of the plot and the rawness of the emotion and, of course, that genius's unlike anything you're likely to ever see in a theater. If we don't feel comfortable calling it a masterpiece, then can't we invent a new term that acknowledges just how amazing this movie truly is?