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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Why are critics blowing so hot and so cold over 'Inception'?

July 14, 2010 |  4:06 pm

Chris_nolan I think I've figured out why the critics are so bitterly divided over Chris Nolan's "Inception," which won't be out until Friday, but already has aroused a huge ruckus in the critical community, with opinion about the film's bravura dream-within-a-dreamscape waxing and waning with every new day.

At Rotten Tomatoes, the film's rating has gone from 100 to 96 to 88 in the past days, which still puts it 80 points ahead of "The Last Airbender," so I don't think Nolan has too much to worry about.

But here's my thought. The critics who love the movie aren't just Nolan-ophiles. They're the ones who are impressed by the movie's freshness and originality. The folks who loathe the film are the ones who see it as a tired (and yes, pretentious) retread of other groundbreaking movies, not a groundbreaking movie itself. It's why, when New York magazine's David Edelstein tore into the film, he found himself gleefully citing the movie's similarities to such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Mission Impossible" and "The Matrix."

The same goes with this provocative (but damning) review by Slant magazine's Nick Schager, who slags the film, calling it "Instruction Manual Cinema, a film that spends so much time explaining -- and explaining, and explaining -- the rules of its narrative conceit that it fails to either emotionally engage or, except in a few notable spots, viscerally thrill." Shager quickly makes note of the fact that the film "borrows liberally from all corners of the cinematic world," citing as rip-off objects "The Matrix," "eXistenZ," "2001." "Shutter Island" and "Last Year at Marienbad," not to mention the canons of David Lynch and Michael Mann.

On the other hand, Roger Ebert, who was bedazzled by the film, treats it as a work of refreshing originality, saying it reminded him of "playing blindfold chess while walking a tight wire." Ebert doesn't refer back to anyone else's movies in his entire review, which either means he was happy to judge "Inception" on its own merits or is secure enough as a critic that he doesn't need to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history.

In fact, Ebert makes a point of celebrating "Inception's" uniqueness, putting it this way: "The movies often seem to come from the recycling bin these days: Sequels, remakes, franchises. 'Inception' does a difficult thing. It is wholly original, cut from new cloth, and yet structured with action movie basics so it feels like it makes more sense than (quite possibly) it does.... Few directors will attempt to recycle 'Inception.' I think when Nolan left the labyrinth, he threw away the map."

I'm eager to see the movie for myself, but it sounds like this is one of those groundbreaking artistic efforts that divide the cognoscenti into warring camps. Whenever something vivid and outrageously new comes along, people either embrace it wholly or are repelled, keeping all that unsettling newness at arm's length. It happened to "Citizen Kane" and, for that matter, to "2001." The same thing occurred when Bob Dylan went electric and when Nirvana released "Nevermind." I'm not sure anyone's ready to put "Inception" in the same exalted company, but it does seem to be the kind of movie that creates a refreshing stir.


Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio, left, with "Inception" director Chris Nolan at the film's Los Angeles premiere this week. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press