Once again a discussion on the Escapist has caused me to pit two films against one another in my metaphorical cage. Considering both are capers with teams of experts, I’ve had to weld extra grates onto the cage to contain all of the action. However, as I was hosing down the alien bits stuck to the cage from the last match, it was pointed out to me that picking the criteria myself waters down the credibility of the match. I know who I’d like to win, so objectivity is colored by choosing points of comparison where I know one film may be superior to the other. With that in mind, I turned to the Escapist and Twitter to help pick out the sticks I’ll be using to measure, and perhaps beat, these two films.
The Main Character
Danny Ocean is a charming gentleman thief. He’s a con man who seems to work his schemes almost subconsciously, always one step ahead of his unfortunate mark. He’s suave, confident, never seems terribly out of sorts and always has a back-up plan even if one is never discussed on-screen. This works within the Ocean’s movies to varying degrees for reasons I’ll discuss later. It is solely Clooney’s charm that keeps Ocean from becoming an uninteresting and intellectually invincible hero.
Cobb, as a character, is also professional, confident and invested in his plans and those of his team. However, he’s far more haunted than Ocean. He’s been deeply wounded but, unlike Ocean, he tries to bury that pain rather than focusing upon it. Rather than knowingly focusing on the subject of his emotional ire, he does his utmost to put it behind him. The fact that it bursts through his subconscious to mess up his job isn’t his fault – that part of him just wants out.
Both Ocean and Cobb are pretty badass, when you get right down to it. Both are portrayed by handsome actors and, more often than not, are immaculately dressed. There’s style and substance in both of them. The differences come in the fact that Ocean, like the movie he’s in, chooses to make style its primary focus. Cobb is more substantial, with his style acting as window dressing. Accuse me of reading more into the character than is readily apparent, but for my entertainment dollar, substance wins over style every time. I can see style in an issue of GQ. Substance is more difficult to find.
Ocean’s Eleven 0, Inception 1
The central set piece of Ocean’s Eleven is breaking into the shared vault of three Vegas casinos on the night of a big-name boxing match. The plan is not explained immediately to the audience, but referenced before-hand, shown in execution and then filled in afterwards. This allows for some good tension and great set-ups for later scenes, showing the ways in which Danny and Rusty pull off their gambits.
As for Inception, the premise is that in order to accomplish their goals, the team will have to enter the dreams of the mark. This doesn’t just mean getting the mark to fall asleep, but controlling what, how and in what way he dreams. It’s a somewhat delicate operation, as we already know not only how it works but how it can go wrong. The more the team discusses the layers of dreams being laid one on top of the other, the more the audience understands both the audacity and peril of the plan.
Both of these angles work for different reasons. In Ocean’s Eleven the emphasis is more on the fun to be had with the heist rather than any of the various apparent dangers. While the progression of the heist in Inception is equally exciting, the danger is a bit more palpable and the tension slightly edgier due to the more deadly nature of Cobb’s game.
Ocean’s Eleven 1, Inception 2
The Heist Within The Heist
In both films, for better or for worse, it’s all about “the girl”.
Danny Ocean’s ex-wife is shacked up with the guy the team’s about to rob. She apparently split with him while he was cooling his heels in the slammer. It seems her attraction to money and position overruled any actual affection she had for Danny. Despite this, Danny works getting Tess back into his life into his plan, much to the chagrin of his team, Rusty in particular. Things are clear-cut: getting in, getting the money and getting out is complicated enough. Danny’s pursuit of Tess might make the whole thing blow up in their faces, and should be avoided.
Cobb’s wife isn’t an apparent threat to the plan since she has an unfortunate case of dead. However, Mal still exists in Cobb’s subconscious, a malevolent force wishing to pull Cobb down into the perpetual dream-state of Limbo. She has an adverse and apparently unavoidable effect on the team’s operations, and in order to complete their job and also for the sake of Cobb’s sanity, she must be dealt with.
“The girl” adds an unnecessary wrinkle in the plan that could throw the whole thing out of whack. However, Tess in Ocean’s is more of an optional extra than anything else. She provides the impetus for Danny to craft his plan in the first place, sure, but Rusty’s right in that going after her makes the whole thing more complicated and could see all eleven of them tossed in jail. Mal in Inception, on the other hand, takes an active role in sabotaging Cobb’s work and life, and the question becomes this: What is the real purpose of the team going so deep into their dreams? Are they just trying to plant an idea in the mark, or are they also trying to help Cobb catch onto the notion that Mal must be allowed to fade into nothingness? Who is the real target of the inception? This ambiguity makes Inception a more thought-provoking work.
Ocean’s Eleven 1, Inception 3
Ocean’s Eleven is all about being cool. Its aim is to invoke memories of the golden age of Vegas: the glamour, the class, the gentleman entertainers called “the Rat Pack”. With its cinematography, its soundtrack and the fun the stars are clearly having with one another, it’s a fun little trip we’re invited to join. There’s nothing wrong with this. As a cute little exercise in weaponized cool, Ocean’s Eleven definitely works.
Inception is more cold than cool, an intellectual work using action and slick visuals as the hull of the experience. Its engine, its beating heart, is a journey into the minds of its characters and, in a way, our own. Sometimes, when you scrape away the top layer of a film, you don’t find much. Inception includes layers of nuance and meaning that have caused some people to call it ‘confusing’ while others simply refuse to see it as anything but another cookie-cutter blockbuster. It’s intimidating. It’s audacious, intelligent and haunting. As much as I enjoy having fun with a movie (like Ocean’s Eleven), being able to have fun and entertain intellectual discourse at the same time is a rare and delightful joy.
Ocean’s Eleven 1.5, Inception 4
Don’t misunderstand me: I still think Ocean’s Eleven is a good movie. It’s just that in terms of construction, execution, meaning and artistry, Inception is superior. I realize that no review or criticism is completely subjective and some of my points might be slightly colored by my own opinions and perceptions, but I’ve struggled to make things as balanced as possible. This ended up being more difficult than I anticipated, but at least now we can move on to-
A CHALLENGER APPEARS!
… *sigh* Dammit.