I'm so bummed that you didn't like Inception, John. I just saw it last night and am trying to figure out when I can see it again. I didn't swallow the film hook, line, and sinker, but there was enough that I liked to more than make up for what I didn't. Your point about Page's flat performance is well taken, but I think that asking for well-developed characters, a well-developed complex philosophical premise, and exciting and convincing special effects is asking too much of a film. I can't think of any that have all three off the top of my head; if they exist, I would be happy to be proven wrong. But all three elements take time to accomplish in a film, and even the best films are hard pressed to manage to do two of them well. Take Shutter Island, for example. It has well-developed characters and exciting effects. But the philosophical premise is quite straightforward- the guy is in denial because of a staggering loss. This doesn't make it a lesser film- it's just a film that is not trying to be too many things at once. Inception is choosing to sacrifice character development for a complex idea and exciting special effects. The fact that it tried at all to make as much of DiCaprio's character's psychological/emotional situation as it did is one of the few shortcomings of the film. The dead wife subplot was interesting to a degree (comparisons to Shutter Island notwithstanding), but not essential to the success of the story, in my opinion. But it didn't ruin the film, either. It just Hollywoodized it. So, in response to John's post, I will respond with a top ten list of my own. So here are the Top Ten things I liked about Inception (in no particular order):
1) The shifting gravity fight in the hotel. It was so skillfully done- graceful and fluid. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride.
2) The sets in general, but specifically the post-apocalyptic limbo setting.
3) The notion of dreams-within-dreams and how one could use them in an extraction-type scenario. I could probably get a couple points from this one, but I felt that Nolan set up and executed logically and clearly how something like that could work. Which brings me to...
4) The exposition. I knew precisely when certain scenes were written to explain what was going on, and I appreciated them. When a premise is simple, I don't need a film to explain to me what's going on, and it's irritating when it does. But the idea of exploring dreamspace in the way the film does was new to me, so I liked hearing the characters explain what they did. And even though I knew it was exposition, I felt that it was inserted naturally into the course of events. I went to see Inception because I wanted to see a movie that explored the subject of dreams and their relation to reality in an exciting way, and not an action movie that used it as a hook to get me to see an SFX fluff piece. I was not disappointed.
5) The special effects. You can have a movie about the strangeness of dreams without them, but grandiose effects in a dreamworld setting can really engage me in a way that telling me something is a dream and throwing a midget in there to prove it doesn't. I especially liked the scene where Page's character folds the street on top of itself and then they walk around it like an Escher drawing. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is another good example of effective SFX to create a visually compelling dreamworld.
6) The fluid nature of reality throughout the entire film. Nolan throws a dream-within-a-dream scenario in there right from the start that makes you question throughout the entire film whether or not anything that's happening is real. And he doesn't answer that question in any kind of definitive way ever.
7) The discussion potential the film. I felt that Inception contained a number of events around which substantial conversations could be formed. I love and could discuss over again many times the nature of reality and what that means, so the fact that this was a central theme of the movie makes it all the more attractive to me.
8) The cast. Granted, not a lot of time was spent on character development, but the actors did an excellent job within those constraints. Yes, Page was a little flat, but only a little. And I don't blame her for it. Joseph G-L is always fun to watch, and Tom Hardy's solid performance was a nice surprise.
9) The director. I like Nolan's style, and have enjoyed so far everything of his I've seen. It was nice to see that post-Batman (straightforward premise, great SFX, inconsistent character development), he could still tell a compelling story.
10) The ending. When the camera panned towards the spinning top, I knew that Nolan was about to wedge himself between two cliches for the sake of a dramatic ending. That final minute was going to affect in a huge way my perception of the film: a crappy ending will undo for me two hours' worth of enjoyment, and my anxiety at that moment had almost more to do with whether or not the ending Nolan chose was going wreck the whole thing than the question of whether or not what was happening was real. I don't think he could have executed it more deftly. Everything from the timing of the pan, to how long the camera rested on the spinning top, to the slight wobble just before cutting to the credits was just perfect. The response of the audience was wonderful (gasping, chuckling) and, as I found out in a discussion with Adrienne, it wasn't as straightforward as I thought (I thought that it was obvious that it was meant to be "real" and Adrienne was sure that it wasn't).
Finally, John, please tell me you didn't mean it about Jonah Hex. There's no way Jonah Hex could have possibly been better than Inception. Come on, man. You're just being grumpy now.