Chuck Ross

Not Your Grandparents’ Sandman: ‘Inception’ is the Talk of the Town. One Major Critic Confesses He Doesn’t Get the Film; and What That Says About Shows Such as ‘Lost,’ ’24’ and ‘Twin Peaks’

Jul 21, 2010

I’ve never met Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, but I’ve always considered him a smart and thoughtful movie critic.

Gleiberman published an intriguing blog yesterday (Tuesday, July 20, 2010) entitled “ ‘Inception’: Am I the only one who didn’t get it?”

The piece clearly hit a nerve: in the first 24 hours it drew more than 500 comments.

Gleiberman begins the blog by saying, “This particular blog post isn’t an analysis, or a description, so much as it is a confession: I found myself more or less entirely baffled by ‘Inception.’ I tried, I really tried, to figure it out, but I just couldn’t get the hang of it — not really. For approximately two out of every three minutes the movie was unfolding on screen, my honest experience is that it was vague, obtuse, scattershot, puzzling, confounding – and, finally, maddening. There were moments, of course, when I was dazzled.”

He continues by writing, “Too often, I couldn’t connect the movie to itself; for most of the running time, the act of trying to put together what was happening made my head hurt.”

Being a smart guy, he notes that the basic plot of “Inception” is NOT hard to understand. Where Gleiberman says he got tripped up, was in the details.

He writes, “I think that where I kept getting lost, over and over and over again, was in the leaps from one dream level to the next. I never really understood how this worked. When you’re inside one dream level, what’s happening, at the same moment, in the dream level above it?”

Gleiberman asks a number of detailed questions like that, and then concludes, “Frankly, it all seemed maddeningly arbitrary.”

Later he notes, “I felt as if the real leaping between dream levels is what [writer and director Christopher] Nolan was doing, frantically, in the editing room.”

Gleiberman concludes, “It’s a movie designed, in its very structure, to be analyzed forever. But that’s because, in my view, it’s a cinematic videogame that keeps making up its rules as it goes along. And if you think that the film really does make sense, then I’m tempted to say: You’re dreaming.”

It’s an intriguing point that Gleiberman makes, and one that could be made in regard to a number of movies and TV shows, particularly those by David Lynch (“Mulhulland Drive” “Twin Peaks”) and J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Fringe”).

Yes, indeed, the devil is in the details. But the question is, can one enjoy and/or find stimulating a work of art or an entertainment wherein the details might be, at times, murky.

As a fan of the work of Lynch, Abrams and shows such as “24,” where the details are, yes, sometimes maddeningly inconsistent or seemingly nonsensical, I would argue that doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of the particular work, but actually enhances it.

We love to argue over the details. That in itself is fun and stimulating.

So yes, I’ll see “Inception” again just for that reason. It’s a terrific thrill ride.#


  1. Umm, Okay. Twin Peaks was complicated and murky. Lost went off in all directions. Fringe is not so complicated. But Inception signals its ending early on and pushed a little too hard at the end just for good measure. Not even at a Sixth Sense level. Perhaps movie critcs should publish their IQ scores after their name.
    But this is right. Even if the story is too complicated for you, enjoy the ride and wonder at the movie-making skills of wrestling in zero G.

  2. Great points, Chuck, and I agree that arguing over the details is part of the fun. (As Inception ended, I immediately smiled, knowing that – while I had come to what I felt was the “right” interpretation of the film – this would be debated vigorously among everyone who shared in the experience.)
    Of course, there’s a bit more leeway for “murk” when the audience investment is only two hours or so. Cutting to black at the end of a movie is one thing. Doing so to conclude a TV series after, say, an eight-year run comes with different (deeper?) risks and years of debate. As a viewer, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  3. Oh come on…Inception wasn’t that complicated to follow. Sure, there were a few unanswered questions, a few maybe inconsistencies, but in general, it followed the rules its world created.
    I’d say it answers a lot more questions than Lost ever did–there were no rules at all, and no, that doesn’t constitute good writing.
    You’re comparing three very, very different shows, also, which doesn’t help prove any of your points.

  4. My twelve-year-old and I had no trouble figuring it out. Maybe it’s a lack of substance abuse that makes us seem intelligent. The human brain is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s, which leaves plenty of opportunity to do irreparable damage during the “party” years. I never experimented, and I am careful to explain the documented (and permanent) risks of binge behavior to my son.

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