Inception Is Brilliant and Baffling

How do all these puzzles work together? It depends on what you want from a movie. The major flaw of the average picture today is its glum predictability. Implicitly, most movies ask that you check your brain at the door and pretend to be surprised when the lovers finally get together or the bad guy is blown to bits. Not so Inception. Just sifting through the layers of fantasy and reality requires a mental workout that may exhilarate you -- or might make you simply tune out. Don’t see this movie when you’re less than fully alert. It’s cinematic advanced calculus that makes The Matrix look like first-grade arithmetic.

As promised by months of hype, Inception is a whole lot of movie, maybe more than you can handle, made to be idolized and parodied and argued over. The cliché attached to it already is “mindblowing.” Is that a good thing?

Inception may well be a landmark that nudges forward our ideas of how much dazzle and wonder can be made to fit inside a film. The superstar filmmakers of twenty or thirty years from now will, I am sure, cite it as an inspiration, the way their elders did Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde.

Yet there is another, perhaps competing idea of what a film should be -- an intense emotional bond between audience and character. Here Inception falls short -- apart from Cobb and his wife, there is no one to care about at all, any more than you care about the background of the guy who programmed your iPhone. And there is so much hocus-pocus, such a firestorm of confusion and special effects, around the two leads that you may not even find yourself attached to them either.

I’m hedging because it’s too soon to tell. Inception is too large an experience to fully receive in on one viewing, and it is for that reason, along with its technical virtuosity, that it should be compared to films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey -- which at first seemed opaque and cold but was built to mature slowly. In five years I may think Inception the pinnacle of its era -- or a flashy mess.