Last night I saw Inception. (You might have heard of it.) A friend called and offered us last-minute tickets to a screening at Marina Mall here in Abu Dhabi. Thursday night here is like Friday night in the west, and the malls and cinemas can be very crowded, especially at Ramadan when people are much more active at night. I wouldn’t likely have initiated such a plan myself, but I’d been wanting to see this movie and I could not turn down the serendipity of it, not to mention my friend’s kind offer.

She described the tickets as “Inception Gold Class” — and kept repeating that phrase: Inception Gold Class. I figured it was a reserved-seating screening, and maybe we had good seats, but I wasn’t sure why she kept emphasizing that.

Since my wife was tired, I invited a colleague from the film festival to take the other ticket. By the time we got to the multiplex, collected our tickets, and found our theater, we were in for some hilarity — and we found out why our benefactor was so specific. Turns out Gold Class is an entirely separate theater unto itself with special service, much like first class on a jetliner. The theater is rather small, with a small screen, and seats perhaps forty, in black leather reclining lounge chairs with little end tables for food and beverages. There are plenty of staff on hand to wait on the patrons so they don’t have to lift themselves out of those chairs. The overall vibe is like a Hollywood executive’s private screening room. There’s also a separate lounge along with separate toilets and more decadent snacks (did I see beer there too?) — everything to separate Gold Class patrons from the unwashed masses barring a private elevator from the parking garage up to the cineplex.

My friend and I were so beside ourselves with this patrician scene we failed to take much advantage of it; we didn’t order any nachos or put the staff out of their way at all. Honestly I think we both felt a little out of place. So the Gold Class experience for us was simply watching a good movie in very comfy chairs (with almost no company; there were only three other guys in the room with us). Anyway Inception is not exactly the kind of film you want to interrupt to call out, “Hey, could you get me some ice cream? Rocky Road?” A Judd Apatow film or something Bollywood, maybe.

Check out CineStar’s Gold Class page. The Filipina serving the Emirati guy a plate of nachos pretty much sums up the UAE.

As for the film itself: what can I say that hasn’t already been said? I thought it was terrific. It’s perhaps not the life-altering experience I was hoping for (dreaming of?) after all the hype. There are a couple of  weak points, especially during the clunky exposition where we find out all about the mechanics of dreams, and again during the almost A-Team-like mission planning. And of course a number of crucial plot devices make no sense. (And don’t tell me that’s because it’s about dreams. All films are dreams; we only ask that they are internally consistent.)

But all of it can be forgiven; Inception is a splendid artifact. It has everything we’re always looking for in Hollywood’s ceaselessly churning outpour and very little of the bad. It’s intelligent, fun, epic, sentimental, and disturbing by turn. The acting is fine. The filmmaking is as tight and smart as it should be — this is Chrisopher Nolan we’re talking about. It’s not based on an 80s TV show. There’s no gratuitous romance or R&B. The special effects serve the plot.

And what a plot. It’s conceived as elegantly and ingeniously as the dreamworlds constructed by its protagonists — as simple as a maze made for a child, but always unfolding and revealing new aspects. There’s a moment at about the start of the last reel — about the time a certain van is tipping over a certain bridge — when you have that spine-tingling feeling, so rare in commercial films anymore: the thrill of the plot as a thing of beauty, total involvement in suspense, and the euphoric certainty that they aren’t going to screw this up.

One thing occurred to me afterwards: people, including me, are talking up this film because it’s so much better, and especially so much smarter, than most blockbusters. But really, Inception is not revolutionary; it’s just what other Hollywood films should be. It only brings the bar up to where it belongs in the first place. I have a sense of entitlement: I deserve to see better movies. It reminds me of what Roger Ebert wrote about good cinematography. In a review of Jeremiah Johnson, a 1970s Robert Redford western, Ebert rejected the idea that anyone should see it for its spectacular mountain scenery. That’s like praising a car for having four wheels, he wrote — all movies should look good.

But I’m realistic enough to know that most movies aren’t this good, and I’m happy to see it doing so well. I especially like the way Nolan doesn’t play down to the audience. Like other great and popular filmmakers including Hitchcock and Scorcese, he seems to assume that most people will want to watch a smart, intricate film if they are given a chance. Inception gave me a feeling I hadn’t had for years but took for granted when I was younger, in the days of The Silence of the Lambs and GoodFellas and early Tarantino: the experience of plunging wholeheartedly into a big, bang-up American film, one that we can all agree on.

OK Hollywood, here’s an example of a smart blockbuster — how all the money and marketing can finally pay off. Now get back to work.

Other thoughts:

  • Ellen Page is hot. Or do I just think she’s hot because she’s Juno? I can’t tell. Whatever. Hot.
  • All of the tributes and references to The Matrix could probably fill up another post. Some may say it owes a heavy debt; but I find it’s a welcome riff on a theme. Inception is one of the very few commercial films since The Matrix with the insidious but delicious power to make the viewer ponder the meaning of perception and reality. You know the feeling when you’re on the way home and you’re still locked in the world of the film? Thinking about how your own life is like a dream? Nolan, of course, already showed that rare skill with Memento; with a big budget and effects at his disposal he does not let us down.
  • Di Caprio’s spinning top reminded me of the origami in Blade Runner — it became my totem, so to speak, for thinking of that film while I was watching this one; and again, I imagine it’s meant as a tribute to another classic.
  • The only major flaw is Hans Zimmer’s score. I had this problem with both of Nolan’s Batman films as well. I think there’s not a minute of screen time without music, but it’s not really interesting and doesn’t do anything. Neither is it ambient enough to ignore. It’s just sort of constantly wheezing and grinding away in the background, providing an unfortunate ongoing cognitive dissonance. It reminds me of video game music (especially the kind in first-person shooters) in the way it almost mindlessly keeps repeating the same portentious but bland refrain.
  • I loved the sequence in Mombassa because it shows the extravagance of creativity and storytelling verve that happens when a good thriller is really working. In all of the intrigue and artifice, there’s still room for an Indiana Jones-style chase, with an overturned fruit cart and everything — and it feels fun, not gratuitous, the way those kinds of scenes felt when I was a kid.
  • I just compared this film to Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Indiana Jones. Yep.
  • Why I think Nolan is a good filmmaker and storyteller: you’ve got this Byzantine contraption of a plot, but the entire thing hinges on a man wanting to see the faces of his children. We spend the whole film seeing the backs of their little sandy-haired heads in dreams and flashbacks, and eventually the unseen faces of those kids become the central motive, the thread that connects everything for us. A yearning for innocence, but also a queasy reminder of life’s disappointments. So many great films have something that simple (and visual) at their heart. It’s just the right amount of eerie and touching melodrama.