July 31, 2010
It’s a heist movie. It’s also a good example of what you can do with formula, how flexible story formula are, and why you don’t always have to come up with brand-new stories — just interesting ways to tell familiar stories.
The heist movie structure: First, a prologue of an early heist in which the main character and his techniques are introduced. Often the heist fails, which provides the jumping off point for the movie’s main heist. If the first heist succeeds, that will often bring on repercussions that kick off the main heist. Second, exposition, in which the main job is introduced and the main character gathers his posse. Third act, the heist, which usually goes wrong and we learn that the heist isn’t about what we thought, and the fun is seeing the main character weasel his way out of trouble.
Where Inception really caught my attention wasn’t the crunchy sci fi exposition bits (and they were awfully crunchy and expository in a very classic sci fi way), but in the way it messed with the heist structure. We all know the heist is going to go wrong in the third act. But I didn’t expect it to go wrong immediately, and very spectacularly, within the first five minutes. The main characters spend the rest of the heist in a state of fatalistic inertia — they keep on with the plan because they have no choice, but with a sense that it’s all for nothing.
We then come to a point where the heist is working on three (or four, or five, depending on how you count it) levels, all moving on a different time scale, with three (or four, or five) completely different action sequences happening at once that time out in such a way that they reach their climaxes simultaneously. Holy crap. The structure here is astonishing and lovely to watch, whatever else you think about the film. (Like the fact that every character apparently has extraordinarily dull subconsciouses and no imagination at all. Because they’re trying to fool dreamers into thinking they’re in reality, the dream states are very mundane. That only breaks a couple of times. See, in my dreams, I’m stuck in a giant spider web with John and John of They Might Be Giants. Stuff like that. But, really, this movie isn’t about dreams, it’s about the heist.)
So. Totally worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of story structure. Now for my big fat problem.
FEMINIST ANALYSIS TO FOLLOW
This film has no real women characters. But, I can hear you argue, what about Ellen Page’s character? The intelligent, not-sexually emphasized, super awesome character who even wears sensible shoes? And the brilliant Marion Cotillard for crying out loud! Well, let’s talk about that.
Page’s character is named Ariadne, which is the name of the princess who gave Theseus the magic twine that guided him out of the minotaur’s labyrinth. Which is exactly what she does here for Cobb. Ariadne was a great character in the first half of the film. Then we got to the second half, the third act, the heist, and I kept asking myself — why is she here again? The reasons Ariadne herself gives for her presence: “I couldn’t stay away.” And “Someone here has to know that you’re a narcissistic asshole.” (Well, she didn’t use those exact words, but you get the idea.) And I’m like, What? Does she even get a suitcase of money like the rest of the mercs on the team? But no. She is there to lead Cobb out of the maze. She is Cobb’s conscience, and she has no motivation of her own. No history, no background, no reason for being there. At one point we see her making her own totem, the object that helps “extractors” tell dream from reality, but it never comes up again, because it doesn’t matter. She’s not a character but a symbol.
And then there’s Mal, which was pronounced Moll throughout the film but in the credits we see is spelled the same as the Latin word for bad. Because that’s what she is. In the classic heist structure she’s the femme fatal, the old flame who always shows up in time to screw over the main character. Except here she’s explicitly not a character at all but a projection of Cobb’s subconscious. Another symbol. A plot device.
I wouldn’t have noticed this, and it wouldn’t have bothered me as much if just one of the other characters on the heist had been a woman, and that’s just it — there was absolutely no reason why one of the others — the fixer, the forger, the pharmacist, the mark, the businessman — couldn’t have been a woman. Instead, what we get is the Hollywood default. The active players are all men, while the women are emotional doppelgangers for the hero. In a movie where the filmmakers obviously spent some time thinking about formula and structure and how to play with them, it’s very disappointing to me that they couldn’t find a way to work on this.
I will admit that this is all Feminism 401 stuff rather than 101. It’s really easy to slam movies like Jumper and Taken where the women characters are all hyper-sexualized victims. Inception doesn’t do that. Here, the women are portrayed splendidly, through no small part because of the great skill of Page and Cotillard. But what are they doing here? Are they fully fledged, active members of the plot? Not so much, as it turns out.
END FEMINIST ANALYSIS
There’s a pretty strong argument to be made that the entire film is Cobb’s dream. My feminist analysis feeds into that argument, as does the rather creaky plot. (“I have to go to Mumbai!” “But the bad guys will find you!” “I have to chance it!” Me: huh? “Oh no, bad guys!” Spooky Ken Watanabe: “Lo, I arrive like a fairy godmother to rescue you!” — kinda looks like a dream, doesn’t it?) It explains a lot. But this is awfully unsatisfying because it then becomes way too easy to explain away every bit of bad plotting and bad characterization. Of course Ariadne and Mal are symbols and ciphers because that’s how Cobb sees women — which makes him even more of a narcissistic jerk than he already is. As I said, very unsatisfying.
Basically, the film passes the refrigerator test with flying colors (except for the feminist thing. I was fuming about that out the door of the theater). But if you start thinking about it too much, the elegant facade may well topple.