'Inception,' that ending, and where critics go wrong

inceptionImage Credit: Melissa MoseleyHere’s something cool coming off the first weekend of Inception: Excited moviegoers are spending a lot of time talking about Huh? and Wow! and What’s up with that ending? Here’s something less cool:  Critics and bloggers and blogger-critics and readers who like to post on Internet comment boards about those same critics and bloggers are spending a lot of time trashing one another.  The argument is about the early raves, and the critical backlash citing those early raves with disdain, and the reader backlash to the critical backlash, and the tyranny of aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes, and on and on and zzzzzz….

I wish I were dreaming this. Instead, the bickering is a waking nightmare at a time when professional movie criticism is being viewed more and more as a rude, elitist intrusion on the popular preferences of a public with greater opportunities than ever before to be your Own Best Critic and let the world in on your thoughts.

Discuss! Right now, below, discuss! In the meantime, I want to discuss three words that signal when a movie critic (professional or amateur, dead-tree publication or cyber-format) has lost his or her authority.

1. Overrated.
2. Underrated.

3. Disappointed.

None of these words has anything to do with the movie under discussion, whatever it is. (Some critics who don’t like Inception bolster their arguments by declaring that The Dark Knight, also directed by Christopher Nolan, is overrated — which begs the questions, By whom? Obviously by someone other than themselves in their finer, more rigorous judgment.) All of these words circle back to the writer, rather than the work. At the very least, they hint at a conversation the writer is having with someone that writer wants to impress, or wants to inflame, or wants to enlist as an ally or adversary.  You can be sure that someone isn’t the reader.

Both “overrated” and “underrated” stink up the place with egotism. “Disappointed” and its cousin in pain and self-regard, “I’m sorry to say,”  do something creepier still: The phraseology is a tip-off that the whole review is rigged. Certainly a professional or otherwise serious critic can be as excited about an upcoming movie as any civilian. She can anticipate, or doubt, or even (being human) just plain not look forward to seeing New Movie X or Y.  And hype doesn’t help. No movie could possibly live up to the hype that builds not only as a result of shrewd marketing, but as a byproduct of the very same blog-and-buzz culture that makes everyone his Own Best Critic. But once in the theater seat, the critic’s job is to analyze the movie that is, not the movie  that critic wants it to be. The great plus of fanboys (I use that term to embrace fangirls, too, because it sounds so hearty) at a movie is their built-in enthusiasm. Their great minus as critics is that they have more difficulty objectively analyzing what’s on the screen, rather than the movie already playing, in previews, in their imaginations.

So, back to Inception. Can we agree that those who love it aren’t brainwashed? Those who don’t like it aren’t snobs? And can we agree, too, that you won’t Google me into a gotcha! position, because you’ve discovered instances where I, too, have succumbed over the years to the vanity of using “overrated,” “underrated,” and “disappointed”? I’m only human, and dreaming of a perfect world.

Comments (202 total) Add your comment
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  • Dwight K Schrute

    If you don’t like Inception, perhaps Paul Blart Mall Cop is more of your speed, Scooter.

    • MovieMan

      All I have to say is trust the ‘art’ not the ‘artist’.

      • H Dawg

        This coming from the EW critic that gave Twilight the same grade as Inception.

      • Esther Greenwood

        Lisa reviewed Inception; OWEN reviewed Eclipse. Two different critics. Do I think they deserved the same grade? Personally, no. But I’m really tired of reading that the “same critic gave Twilight the same grade.” Two people; two opinions.

      • Jason

        Besides, in all honesty, have the people who on here are complaining about this seen the Twilight movie to know it’s quality? This coming from someone who watched the first one out of curiosity, couldn’t stand it, and decided not to see the rest. Regardless, that does not make me worthy of judging the quality of a movie I haven’t seen.

        Lisa, I think you made some excellent points in your article. I studied theater criticism in college, and have been appalled by some of the level of professionalism exhibited by so called “critics” these days. Anything being written about critically should be judged exclusively on the merits of the thing itself. That isn’t to say, though, that it should be viewed in a vacuum. To not criticize within the context of the rest of the medium is ignorant and makes the criticism invalid. For instance, if a supposed movie critic were to watch Inception and comment on its special effects without being aware of the Matrix, that would make the criticism arguably less valid than one that could comment on the progress of effects since that film.

      • Jason

        Wonderful – my first sentence got chopped off and now I have no idea what it was.

      • @Esther Greenwood

        lisa reviewed New Moon, and she gave it the same grade as Inception. obviously, you don’t know that, so you need to look it up.
        And you know what Esther, i’m tired of people coming on to this site to tell someone else off when they themselves are wrong.
        So in the end Esther, it IS one person, two opinions. I suggest if your going to try to tell someone off, it might help to get your facts straight.

      • CHILL

        Chill out “@Esther Greenwood”… it’s just a movie blog.

      • Shannon

        @Jason, thanks for the intelligent comment! I’m not a huge Twilight fan, but I get irritated when people bash a series or a movie without even giving it a try.
        I also like what you said about judging movies according to their own merits while still knowing about the circumstances that surround them. Isn’t that how we should judge all art?

      • Sean Elliott

        Listen, coming from somebody who hates “Twilight” and all that coy mooning crapola, we should all stop saying, “Coming from the critic who gave Twilight a B+.” We don’t know the corporate pressures that impugn Lisa and Owen’s daily job that impel them to give those movies slightly higher ratings. And besides, a movie’s grade is on its own genre terms. You can’t compare grades on two entirely different animals.

      • Jimbo

        “Anything being written about critically should be judged exclusively on the merits of the thing itself.”

        @Jason: It surprises me, Jason, that you would say this for two reasons. First of all, for someone who took theatre criticism in college, you should know that the kind of criticism you describe above only one type of criticism (textual, or formalist, criticism). A critic may certainly look at film in ways outside the the film text itself: structuralist, feminist, Marxist, reader-response, reception theory, etc. So, a critic doesn’t need to make their interpretive and evaluative statements based on the text alone.

        Secondly, your comment doesn’t reflect an understanding of what Lisa says in her article. What she she says is: “[…] the critic’s job is to analyze the movie that is, not the movie that critic wants it to be.” Lisa’s comment seems to represent a distinction between our viewing/immediate perception of a film and our pre-conceived notions of a film before viewing. This is a little different from what you were trying to suggest, I think.

      • Karl

        “Criticism” and “professionalism” are two terms that are slowly becoming mutually exclusive. With so many media outlets, critics have to be more aggressive to be noticed, and that tends to manifest itself in writers going over-the-top in verbally abusing those who produced what was just watched or listened to, as opposed to providing a coherent critical commentary. If it sucked, say it sucked and explain why it sucked; too many critics seem too willing to stroke their own egos by coming up with different ways to say something sucked instead of putting any thought into why it sucked. And if something is good, the majority of the positive reviews all seem to plagiarize the first two or three positive reviews that were available. And of course, there will always be the folks who can’t seem to get off of the backlash bandwagon, as seesm to be the case with the folks who seem to dislike movies like “Inception” solely for the fact that t received as much positive buzz as it did before it opened. I prefer criticism that is objective and says more about what is being reviewed than what it says about the reviewer.

      • Lisa didn’t review Twilight

        You should read the name of the writer, not just the article. EW does have more than one writer on their staff.

    • zzzz

      already been used on a comment board there sparky.

    • Riggs

      Inception should have been called “Eternal Sunshine of an Italian Job’s Matrix.” There was no reason to root for this protagonist. Dream or not, real or fake, he manipulated others to account for past mistakes. The Ocean’s 11 construct hardly accounts for the nifty “It was all a dream” motif. Sorry, but it was unoriginal and cliche. Explain the magic X-Box that links dreamers. Explain how not one other subconscious crept in from other characters. The film was weak, but enjoy clapping at the “top spinning” and congradulate yourself for being so darn smart.

      • MaxPowers82

        Everyone has their own opinion and I respect that. You’re more than welcome to not like Inception. Maybe it didn’t draw you in emotionally or maybe their were some pretty big plotholes…whether the movie is a ‘good’ movie or a ‘bad’ movie is completely subjective. However when you use words like ‘unoriginal’ and ‘cliche’ to describe Inception then you just sound bitter and render all your other comments meaningless. ‘Unoriginal’ is not subjective and whether you liked the movie or not, it doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the most original movies hollywood has put out in years.

      • Bubba

        Thank you MaxPowers82, you actually understood what Lisa was trying to say.

      • AQS

        I agree with almost nothing that Riggs said, but again, that’s my PERSONAL opinion on “Inception.” I think Lisa is getting at something wonderful, that is being completely disrespected on this board (i.e. compared her grade for “Inception” to that of “New Moon”). At the end of the day, a film critic is just another human being – they have a certain taste for specific films, and make judgment calls that years later might seem odd. Haven’t YOU gone back to a film you once loved, and discovered something completely different? Lisa is one of my favorite critics; we disagree ALL the time, but I always find her reviews interesting and intelligent. I thought “Inception” was a blistering, original, and a true masterpiece… But that’s just me. I find the critical reception to “Inception” (woah) almost like a game, and am saddened that the film industry has reached a point where critics feel like they need to play an elaborate game. I don’t post on EW boards a lot because I usually find the myriad conversations flying around kind of exhausting. Here’s hoping, eventually, that we can change that.

      • Snarky’s Machine

        @MaxPowers how is declaring the film “original” any less subjective and how is your opinion on the film any more valid than someone else’s. The film does trade in some well established tropes and one doesn’t have to be “bitter” to acknowledge them. Perhaps you missed the part in the original post explaining folks who differ in opinions aren’t bad or wrong. Or the part where fanboys tend to judge the film in their heads rather than one on the screen.

      • Didi

        HAHA. That is the best way to describe it, but maybe with a little Minority Report thrown in. Although I personally loved the movie. Go figure.

      • Lauren

        Too funny. Throw in a little “What Dreams May Come.”

        I agree with both. Things I liked and things I didn’t. I can’t say the Matrix-esque “projections” were handled the way I would have liked. Good idea, but too much like henchmen for my taste. Michael Caine should have also been a projection at some point. Can’t say it was anywhere near great, but I had fun.

      • Regretfully

        LOL! Thank you! I love the “Eternal Sunshine of an Italian Job’s Matrix”! Leo’s character could also have a spin-off movie called “Catch The Blood Diamond That Departed From Shutter Island If You Can”! And his role in the upcoming (horrifying) ‘Akira’ remake demands that the movie change its name to ‘Alex’ and his character to ‘Kenneth’.

      • Aly

        Uhm Max, what is or isn’t original is totally subjective. There’s no unit of measurement for originality. I also don’t know why you bother to throw in a disclaimer about respecting the opinions of others if you’re going to pass judgment on them because of their opinion.

    • Riggs

      Inception should have been called “Eternal Sunshine of an Italian Job’s Matrix.” There was no reason to root for this protagonist. Dream or not, real or fake, he manipulated others to account for past mistakes. The Ocean’s 11 construct hardly accounts for the nifty “It was all a dream” motif. Sorry, but it was unoriginal and cliche. Explain the magic X-Box that links dreamers. Explain how not one other subconscious crept in from other characters. The film was weak, but enjoy clapping at the “top spinning” reveal. Lame.

      • Shannon

        I think the movie borrowed some ideas from past films, but I do think it put an original spin on it. First off, Nolan created this world so specifically, and it was more scientific than Eternal Sunshine or The Italian Job. As for the “It was all a dream” motif, who is to say that it was a dream? I think Nolan intentionally leaves that ambiguous to question if there is a distinction between dreams and reality. He may have taken some cliches, but he presented them in a way that felt epic.

      • Kellie

        Inception was being worked on by Christopher Nolan for almost 10 years…exactly how does that make it unoriginal?

      • Rod

        I personally loved the movie. I thought it was original but saying that he worked on it for 10 years is not a justification. Look at Avatar James Cameron worked on it for ages and it was a good movie, but I am sorry to say that Avatar comes nowhere near original. Pocahontas and every other colonization story, just on a different planet. Still both great movies.

      • Brandon

        Except, Inception had nothing in common with those three films (I’ll admit I don’t have a very clear memory of the original Italian Job). Eternal Sunshine was about the deleting of memories and a man slowly recovering his own memories. Inception occurred almost entirely in dreams and mainly revolved around uncovering others information, or in the case of Leo’s character, the retention of memories. Nothing similar about that. The matrix is only similar in its very general presentation of a dark, gritty, intense, sci-fi story. The plots and concepts are completely unrelated. Inception is about infiltrating the mind to recover information. The matrix is about placing the mind in an artificial world so that machines can harvest the human body’s energy. If you see similarities there you might want to re-evaluate your ability to construct comparisons and film critiques.

        I don’t think the protagonist was manipulating anyone. He explained what he wanted to do and they all agreed to go ahead with it.

        As for the “it was all a dream” motif, I am not sure what you mean by that. Are you upset that the plot dealt with dreams? Do you think dreams are cliche and a film revolving around them is unoriginal? If you are referring to the ending and implying the end sequence or entire film occur within a dream, then you are foolish. There is little evidence given to say it was or wasn’t, so to make a claim either way is going beyond the story of the movie, is mistaking your opinion for actual plot points, and voids any claims of cliche motifs. The ending allows every viewer to decide for himself whether or not it was a dream.

        As for the method of dream linking, I beleive any attempt to explain it would not have sufficed. Seeing that we cannot do what they do in the film, the scientific explination would have been a strech. I feel it served the movie better to have just ignored the explination and make it clear to the viewers that such technology existed in the world of the film. This would minimize any complaints on the technical side of things that were guaranteed to distract from the rest of the film.

        The subconscious claim is a good point.

        The movie was good but not great. It had its issues. For me it was a refreshing film to see, something beyond the normal formula and rules abided by by most filmmakers, with a cinematic presentation that shows there can be an alternative to the straight forward direction seen in most films and that a film can be both commercially successful and artistically rich.

      • Higgins

        Everyone think what you will its only a movie but Brandon i agree with you – except i thought the movie was brilliant. You are correct – any attempt to explain the Dreamshare machine or tech would have been pointless as well as the state of the ‘political or legal’ environment. One has to go with certain assumptions here – the world and powerful people know there is this tech out there and as a result have put mechanisms in place for security – that basic concept is very logical and as a result it would also seem logical to assume laws governing the tech in existence. so why wade into that nonsense of bureaucracy – when you have a wonderful landscape of dreams as a backdrop – where you can literally do anything.

        Isn’t the idea of a movie to entertain and take you to a place of willing suspension of disbelief? if a movie doesn’t achieve that very primal storytelling principle then it really isn’t that good – unless a documentary or based on true story.

        Matrix was original too in theory but machines ruling humans? hmmm i think I’ve heard of that a few times… Italian Job? really? i just watched that again this past Saturday – out of the blue – saw Inception last night – no correlation out side of a heist.. so lump every other heist movie in there..psychics predicting human behavior like Minority Report – yep not a new one either. i.e. Why not mention Ghost too?

        But people planting ideas in your subconscious so deep via dreams as to make you believe they are original? To me – that is original – or maybe Chris Nolan has sent agents to ‘deposit’ the idea that his movie was great before i even knew it…

    • Alex

      If you don’t like Inception its difficult to believe you even like movies at all. Just aaw it a second time last night and it is just as effective as the first time.

      • ???

        This makes no sense at all. Seriously more of a Bond flick than anything purely innovative…but that’s just me. I for one thought Leo was phoning it in.

  • Dwight K Schrute

    If you don’t like Inception, perhaps Paul Blart Mall Cop is more your speed, Scooter.

    • Justin

      Amen brother. Amen.

    • Tobias

      You know, it is possible to understand something and still not care for it. Having a certain opinion is not the ultimate measure of intelligence.

  • Ben T.

    As always Lisa, you provide excellent insights and clarity in a critical world so jumbled it may never return to its purist intentions. Articles like these point out who we, the audience, should be listening to, even if we disagree with a film’s final grade.

    • AndrewJ

      I agree. Fantastic article, Lisa. Thanks for the insight. I find the comment boards on the internet so exhausting at times. I don’t understand how people can’t simply discuss a topic, any topic, and disagree without it turning into name calling and insults and demonization of the other person for having a differing opinion. I read movie reviews here and elsewhere to see what impressions the various reviewers had, but I usually figure that I am adult enough to make up my own mind about things.

      • Zombie Jesus

        You may now remove your tongue from Lisa’s a$$hole, it’s clean enough.

      • Felicia

        Zombie Jesus,I think you may have just proved Lisa’s point and, by the way, you’re a moron. See? I can prove her point too.

      • non

        Wow ZJ. Fantastic work. So funny!!!! Wow, I am really ROFL’ing right now! Grow up please. Proving point!

    • Mike

      Lisa, the same person that gave a crappy Twilight movie the same grade as Inception… What an unneccesary article.

      • Tic

        Ditto- Lisa, you’re not qualified to review this movie, see this movie, or even say this movie’s name since you gave Twilight the same grade. In fact, you’re not even allowed to think about this move. And don’t even think about reviewing any other movies either, now that we know how you graded Twilight. Except future Twilight movies, you can still review them and grade them.

    • Greg

      Hear, hear! Excellently said. I have to quote Charles Durning in “Home For the Holidays” here: “Opinions are like a$$holes: everyone has one and everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks.”

      • Tic

        Are you calling me an a$$hole for having an opinion?

    • Chris

      Lisa, I OFTEN disagree with your reviews, but this is one of the best articles EW has put on their website. I am really tired of too-cool-for-school people denouncing great movies, or having drivel pumped up by the look-how-smart-I-am crowd. It would be nice if we could go back to that kind of open, more direct method of reviewing. Rock on!

    • kartoon

      This article from the same critics who only gave it a B+. The movie kicked ass, and now that its made money, EW is jumping on the bandwagon. Niiiccceee

      • Shaun

        First time posting. Did you even read the review she gave for Inception? It was a well thought out review (I haven’t read her Twilight review btw), regardless of the B+ rating. I feel the movie deserved higher than a B+ rating, but who knows what her scale was, right? Her review read more like an A or A- anyway.

        In any regard, this comment section is relevant to this article, and this article was well written, EW’s motivations notwithstanding.

      • @Shaun

        Agree with you about Lisa’s Inception review. I don’t completely agree with it, and I’d give the movie a higher rating, but it was well-written and professional.

  • Meli Parker

    I thought it was good, but it didn’t push the trippy dreaming aspect far enough for me. There were really only two good scenes that were like that. But maybe that was the point.

  • Jackson

    You know, due to the heat, I had a chance to catch two movies this weekend; Inception and The Kids Are All Right. A funny thing happened. See, the critics have had their points to doubt Inception, but constantly rave about Kids. But, I felt more moved and engaged by fantastic nature of Inception, while I was left kinda cold by Kids (For me, the last half hour of Kids seems to throw away any good wills it was hoping to build). All in all, I give up on the critics. Inception is original filmmaking at it’s best.

    • Carl

      This. This exactly. Words like disappointed, underrated, etc., etc. generally flow from critics mouths long before audiences even have a chance to see the movie. I loved the article but it should be directed at fellow critics even more than people on message boards. Especially the whole “Nolan is a genius”, “Nolan is overrated this movie is further proof” thing started flowing from the mouths of your fellow critics across the internet days before anyone had a chance to see it. Critics framed the terms of the debate for this movie, now they’re mad that people are engaging with them.

      • Michael

        Right, the fact is, at the end of the day, WHO CARES what the critics say?! People will either go and see Nolan’s movies or not, and the fact is, millions have gone to see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception, and others… so I think his work speaks for itself, regardless of what any person, “official critic” or not, says.

  • danrydell

    Very sensible, Lisa. Good column. I happened to really like Inception, and I’m not going to bag someone who didn’t. But the “overrated” and “underrated” stuff is already annoying. imdb.com’s board for the movie is a ridiculous minefield of trolls and snobs. Like it, don’t like it, fine. But be open to discussing the movie without laying down some lame ultimatum.

    • Jason

      I stopped going to imdb’s boards for that reason. Unless I’m looking for specific information, I stay far away from there!

  • harry

    great article Lisa.

  • Lisa Simpson


  • Matt

    If a film, or any piece of art, is this divisive it is almost always good that it exists. The contraian nature of some people is deeply annoying though, I’ll agree.

  • Lisa Simpson

    Time is the only true critic. Does a movie (or any other creative endeavor) hold up after twenty years or more? I liked “Inception” quite a lot, but it’s too soon if it will have the same resonance as, say, “2001”.
    As for Christopher Nolan, I loved “Memento”, though I haven’t been crazy about his two Batman movies. I was bored with “The Dark Knight”, though I recognized that it was well-made. I just realized while watching it that I don’t care much for superhero movies. However, I can understand why many people did like it. It’s the whole “my opinion is the only one that counts” mentality that is rampant out there that turns blog discussions into shcoolyard bullying matches.

  • Cole

    I just want to say that I loved Inception. It kept me captivated the entire 2.5 hours and I left the theater in awe. People are more than entitled to their opinions, but I feel that whenever something becomes a big success there are those who sit back and just bash everything about the movie and try to convince people that they are right.

    • Trixie

      Agree completely.
      I live in Los Angeles, trust me that’s all they do here.

  • Lisa Simpson

    Is there any particular reason why this article will not take my swear-word free post? Jeez, you guys let spam through all the time.

    • Wil

      Seriously, my posts keep disappearing.

  • mel

    That’s not what “begs the question” means, Lisa.

    • Jim

      I knew there would be one of you on the first page of the comments. Explain yourself to everyone instead of just being critical.

    • E.B. Berman

      Use it properly for us. Because I thought that usage was correct, too.

      • MaxPowers82

        Begging the question is a form of circular reasoning where you assume the premise you’re supposed to be proving is true.

    • ljolsen


      Apparently the phrase actually means a “logical fallacy”, basically where a statement is self-affirming but is meant to sound logical. Examples are “I think he is unattractive because he is ugly” or “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.”

      It does not mean “raises the question.” However, one might argue that Lisa’s usage was correct, in the sense that the argument “This movie is overrated because I think it sucks” is a logical fallacy as well.

      • E.B. Berman

        Thank you. That was enlightening.

  • DFSF

    Another one of EW’s space filling, non-issue commentaries. At least she’s more concise than Gleiberman.

    • DJ

      Then what does it say that you apparently keep reading this reviews and blog posts and feel compelled to comment on them? Talk about a waste of space.

  • Jordan


    You always jump Owen’s SH*T when he refers to the “critics,” needlessly pointing out to him that he is also a critic. It was uber annoying when you did that throughout the summer videos last year. As if you didn’t understand his logic behind using the term. I know you’re a smart lady, why be so petty? It came off as a bit shrill, and now you’re calling out the “critics.” No worries though, I understand your point.

    • Rob Grizzly

      Aw, I miss the summer videos. It was like EWs version of Siskel and Ebert

      • Jeana

        Your answer lifts the intellnigcee of the debate.

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