Christopher Nolan's Inception has got people wrestling with interpretation, which is terrific ... up to a point.
It may seem improbable, or even hypocritical, for a film critic to be waving the yellow caution flag when it comes to over-thinking a movie. Certainly it's more often the case that the American movie-going public is in little danger of thinking, period, let alone worrying about whether they're doing too much of it. As movie-oriented Websites have begun a cottage industry out of postulating which parts of Inception are in fact a dream, and discussion boards have overflowed with theories and counter-theories, it should be a delight to see people spending time on close analysis of a work. Maybe -- just maybe -- there's hope for the world if we're willing to make time for contemplation of a work of art.
At the same time, I wonder if folks are so caught up in the "what actually happened" that they lose track of the "why does it matter." Back in 2004, writer/director Shane Carruth's Sundance feature Primer introduced a mind-bending time-travel story line, and hardcore movie nerds devoted countless words to figuring out which version of which character was appearing in which scene, and to what effect. It all provided plenty of analytical fodder, but often it had little to do with what Primer was ultimately about. Carruth was exploring not just the abandonment of responsible scientific ethics, but the existential despair of trying to "fix" a causality loop. And it was perfectly possible to grasp those ideas without understanding -- or at least thinking you understand -- every particular temporal shift.
We're seeing a variation on this notion now with Inception, and once again it feels like a misapplication of the idea of artistic analysis. Plenty of critics and general viewers have been left unimpressed by Inception, and perhaps for them there's nothing to ponder except diagramming its "reality." But at its best, our experience of art should resonate most strongly in what it tells us about ourselves -- what we find beautiful, or frightening, or ennobling. Our DVD-extras film culture may be trying to convince us that it's important to see how a particular special-effects trick was pulled off, but the trick is only important to the extent that it provides an experience, or advances a story, or raises a question.
Is it possible that a moviegoer's understanding of what Nolan is trying to convey depends on understanding exactly where we're seeing reality, and where we're seeing a dream? Certainly. I'm just not convinced that's the case, nor am I convinced that the dissections of Inception's narrative are meant for any purpose other than their own ends: I want to "get" it, so I can "get" it. God bless a filmmaker in the 21st century who manages to get those synapses firing, but let's make it worth his while by applying them to understanding why he built the house in the first place, rather than trying to re-create his floor plan.