Levy’s Anatomy: Nolan’s Inception

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The recent debate among film critics regarding the overall quality, merits and flaws, of Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-awaited sci-fi-thriller-actioner “Inception,” raises some interesting questions for reviewers as well as spectators.

While most critics (86 percent according to Rotten Tomatoes) liked the picture and recommended it to their viewers, 14 percent faulted the film along several dimensions, and some dismissed it completely.
Two of Nolan’s previous efforts have received much higher scores: “Memento” in 2001 and “The Dark Knight” in 2008.
Complex or Convoluted
For some critics, “Inception” is complex; for others its plot is unnecessarily complicated and even convoluted.
Original or Hybrid
For some critics, it is original, while for others it is too much of a hybrid, borrowing and mixing elements of various genres, including Nolan’s previous works (specifically “Memento,” but also others).
Visionary or Manipulative
For some critics, Nolan is a visionary director, while for other he is a manipulative director, relying too much on tricks and gimmicks.
Artist or Craftsman
For some critics, Nolan is a genuine artist, while for other he is a skillful craftsman with good command over film’s technical aspects (cinematography, sound, special effects).
Ambitious to a Fault?
We often fault our film critics for repeating themselves by using conventional format and formulas, for not being ambitious, for not taking risks. But when they do some or all of the above, we criticize them for producing a work that is incoherent, too ambitious, lacking in feeling and impact.                                              
In my capacities as critic, scholar, and film professor, I have been struggling with issues of film evaluation for the past three decades. Some of these questions derive directly from the multi-faceted aspects of film as a mass medium of communication, as an art form, and as an ideological construct, inevitably reflecting the times in which it is made.
                       
Criteria of Evaluation
What follows is a list of criteria in evaluating a particular film made by a particular director in a particular historical time.
1. Aesthetic evaluation; the dimension of beauty
2. Realism and authenticity: Does the narrative make sense? Is it plausible?
3. Morality: Does the film deal with issues of ethics and morality, such as good vs. evil?
4. Is the work personal or impersonal? Could we identify the personal touch or the singular vision of the director?
5. Complexity of narrative structure and themes versus simplicity
6. Original and innovative versus mainstream and conventional
7. Coherence, or levels of articulation. Are the film’s parts related and interrelated in a clear, logical way? Do the parts add up? Is the whole more significant than its constituting parts?
8. Intensity of Effect, and what kind of effects (cerebral, emotional)
9. Overall quality: Is the film well-made
10. Technical aspects: Level of special visual and sound effects; does the film take full advantage of the prevalent state of the art?
11. Historically and/or politically significant: Does the film address or tackles socially relevant issues, timely problems
12. Is the film entertaining? (and what exactly we mean by entertainment?)
13. Short run or long run impact: Does the film (images, sounds, ideas) linger in memory after the viewing experience? Or is it a trashy (summer) popcorn movie that’s easily digestible and just as easily disposable?