The word ‘pretentious’ gets thrown around a lot, co-opted and misused by unintelligent people who think they’ve found a catch-all to dismiss any work they weren’t able to follow. To such people, any complexity or high-minded discussion that goes over their heads is ipso facto just the condescending ramblings of those hated intellectuals.

This is not what ‘pretentious’ means. What ‘pretentious’ means is dressing up unimportant ideas with the veneer of importance, lending heft and gravitas to that which is unfit for such distinction. It’s pure self-unawareness – treating your material with more seriousness than it deserves.

Inception is a pretentious movie. Inception is an overwhelmingly pretentious movie.

A brief plot summation: Leo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a dream thief – he enters your dreams and steals your secrets, for the right price. For a righter price, he’ll attempt inception – not taking something out, but putting something in. The righter price is offered by Saito, a shadowy mogul who promises to somehow get our on-the-lamb Cobb’s heinous crime of some sort expunged, thus allowing him to reunite with his children in the US. So Cobb gets a team of experts together, and they set off into the dream world of Saito’s target, the young heir to a rival company of Saito’s, with the intention of implanting in his head the idea to break up his father’s company.

Director Christopher Nolan has crafted a technically precise and coldly impersonal tale headlined by a brooding protagonist with some serious personal demons – that is, he’s done with Inception what he’s done with all his films to date, to varying degrees of (never as great as the headlines would have you believe) success. But never before has Nolan allowed one of his efforts to become so weighed-down by endless amounts of leaden exposition. His characters spend pages and pages of dialogue setting up and explaining the totally arbitrary rules of the barely interesting dream worlds he shows us, and it is, needless to say, excruciatingly dull.

That’s the pretentiousness I was talking about. The unending, crushing bore that is one barely defined character talking at another barely defined character about the over-defined intricacies of the universe as constructed and obsessively loved by the filmmaker. It’s hopelessly self-indulgent, self-unaware and altogether uncommonly silly.

All of which would be almost forgivable if Nolan got the other stuff right. He doesn’t. I could look past the ponderous explications if Inception delivered on essential humanity, humor or depth of character – as with Nolan’s entire catalog, it does not. The man has never been interested in characters so much as dour ciphers that embody the more morbid of human emotions (with his Batman films it’s regret, with Inception it’s grief). The few attempts at humor are flat and perfunctory, as laughably out of place in Nolan’s otherwise relentlessly downbeat series of character beats as the similarly disingenuous scenes in The Dark Knight of Bruce Wayne playing at being a playboy.

There is no fun. There is no warmth. There is no character (not one member of Cobb’s team is ever anything more than the role they were recruited to fill). There is only the unending onslaught of noxious “reading of the rules” dialogue, joyless and banal. The action sequences fare better, and Nolan’s visuals are at times genuinely grand. But why even bother when your story seems to exist only as an exercise in seeing how many layers of unreality you can pile atop one another (A dream within a dream! A dream within a dream within a dream! I am awesome at narrative complexity!), your characters are dull and the entire world of your movie is barricaded by an almost impenetrable ruleset?

I found Inception to be wholly preposterous, at some times cacklingly self-congratulatory and at nearly all times a flat-out bore. This movie has been gestating in Nolan’s mind for a long time, and it shows in his graceless handling of feeding the viewer the necessary info to establish the rules of his universe (nothing is ever more interesting to a creator and less interesting to a consumer than the minute rules governing that universe). And if he does at points deliver on some mind-bending visuals, well, $160 million’s gotta buy you something, right? For Christopher Nolan it bought a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing something I couldn’t care less about. It sure as hell didn’t buy much of a script.

Nearly everything Inception wants to be (simultaneously heady and exhilarating) and tries to do (create an intriguing world revolving around our subconscious) was done over a decade ago and with far greater competence by The Matrix. Save a trip to the theater and a few $$$ and just pop that in instead.

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