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“Inception” Sets a New Standard for Filmmaking

Posted on July 18 2010 12:00 pm
Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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Movie trailers are an art form all their own. Common is the trailer which tells a film’s entire story, leaving you with no compelling reason to see the film. Worse are jumbles of random clips which misrepresent the end product. Effective trailers provide the audience with a sample of the experience they can expect without spoiling the payoff.

The initial teaser for the first Matrix film offered a glimpse into its world without explaining it. Audiences sampled titillating visuals with just enough dialog to suggest a story without revealing it. The tagline “What is the Matrix?” placed the viewer in precisely the same position as the film’s protagonist, unsure of their experience, but drawn down the rabbit hole.

The ad campaign for Christopher Nolan’s recently released Inception has been reminiscent of that first Matrix teaser. Both films portray an action-filled dreamscape, and set a new standard for visual effects.

My hope upon recognizing this correlation was that Inception would deliver as The Matrix did, while retaining an identity of its own. It is my pleasure to report Nolan’s effort not only succeeds, but excels. It serves as a new benchmark in the art of visual storytelling.

This is not a film to watch passively. Inception is dense – visually, cognitively, and emotionally. As throughout his career, Nolan gives his audience enough credit to follow an unconventional plot. There are no winks at the camera, condescending expository dialogs, or glaring narrative cues to hold your hand. Nolan expects you to catch on to his rules and apply them at an unforgiving pace.

Rules are important in a film like this, a science fiction fantasy where strange things happen regularly. Again, The Matrix stands as an obvious precursor. The hyper-realistic stunts and effects were eventually bound by rules which established the stakes. If you died in the Matrix, you died in real life. You could jump from rooftop to rooftop, because gravity was a programmed reality, and not a law of the physical world. Such rules provide a rationale for the implausible, what director Richard Donner calls verisimilitude.

Establishing these rules as a filmmaker, and abiding by them consistently, enables the audience to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. When a story has no rules, or flippantly breaks them, the stakes disappear as the world becomes nonsensical (writers of Heroes, I’m looking at you).

The rules of Inception are dispensed as needed throughout the first act, through example as much as dialog. This sets up a structure for the experience which follows. By the time Nolan embarks on the climactic dreamscape adventure, the audience is prepared to follow his increasingly intricate yarn.

A film like this runs the risk of confusing an audience, leaving them with doubts regarding what is “real” and what is not. A lesser auteur may pass off  such ambiguity as artsy. Nolan takes no such copout. He guides his audience toward the right conclusions without condescension. In fact, you come out of Inception almost edified, as if you have accomplished something by understanding it.

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