Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Best Picture: The King's Speech versus Inception

Why am I writing this, you ask? What do The King's Speech and Inception have in common? If you are asking this question, then clearly you are one of those not following the Oscars this year. Of the Best Picture nominees, The King's Speech and Inception stand out (to me, at least) as the two top contenders.

I bring up this match-up because I've talked with a lot of friends and family recently about it. Truth is, I hope that Inception wins, and I'm about to make the argument why it should. I'm going to do this by summarizing the awesomeness of the respective movies, then analyzing their pros and cons in terms of their overall greatness and their likelihood of winning. I watched both of them again recently, so my accuracy should be pretty spot on. Well, at least in terms of my own opinion on the movies!

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is a dramatic rendition of Prince Albert's (Bertie!) rise in becoming King George VI of Great Britain around the time of WWII's beginning. The primary focus is on Albert's speech impediment, and how he overcame that through the unorthodox ministrations of failed Australian actor Lionel Logue. Being a standard feel-good period piece of a movie, one can gauge from the trailer alone (and history) that Prince Albert succeeds in overcoming his speech impediment in a manner that makes you smile, encouraged all the way by his caring wife.

What makes The King's Speech brilliant is two things in particular. First, the acting is great. Prince Albert (Colin Firth) alternates between inducing pity, making you laugh at his temper, and showing a quiet inner strength that speaks to his future as a king. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is spectacular in how open, blunt, encouraging, and teasing he can be with teaching the Prince how to speak properly; his role is the funniest and I think Mr. Rush deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it. Prince Albert's wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and brother, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), round out the cast superbly. Arguably, The King's Speech has the best acting of any movie out there this year.

Second, The King's Speech nails the feeling of the old cultured high British society perfectly. I'm not sure how historically accurate it is, but the movie seems to capture the very essence of what makes the best of the Brits so likable. There is the upright, well-bred politeness and there is the deadpan, subtle dry humor. The detail of the sets and the awesome costuming only help to support this atmosphere of refinement and charm. I've never seen a movie that just feels so British. However, that might be because they portrayed all the stereotypes so cleverly, hence my wondering of historical accuracy.


Inception, on the other hand, is a whole different kind of movie. First and foremost, this is a movie about dreams, the subconscious, and the psychology of how people work. It is a science fiction film taking place in a near future where technology has been invented that allows one to travel into people's dreams. Through this, people can cleverly take away people's most private secrets, extracting them from the deepest corners of the dream. In addition, though much more difficult, it is possible to insert ideas of your own into people's minds, though this process is significantly harder.

Inception has a plot that is so multi-layered that it is much harder to explain in a short space than that of The King's Speech. It follows one man, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his companions as they seek to, essentially, pull off an incredibly difficult heist. But instead of taking away secrets from this man's dream, they try to implant an idea of their own; they want the man (heir to a vast corporate empire) to dissolve his recently deceased father's business. This is because, if Dom Cobb and his team can do it, he will be allowed to return to the United States where his children are.

That is the barest bones plot summary I could come up with, and that glosses over a truckload of details. I would advocate this as one of Inception's greatest strengths. The plot is so rich with depth and design that there is never a boring moment. Dom Cobb's own psyche and past play a central role in the movie, as the memory of his deceased wife actually serves to work against him in the dreamscape. The psychology of the corporate empire's heir, Robert Fischer, is also examined and worked in immense detail. Because the movie deals so heavily with dreams and psychology, one is able to get a much more intimate view of the characters than is typical for a film. If the theme of The King's Speech is expressing the difficulty of overcoming a fear of public speaking, the theme of Inception is how difficult it can be to let go of memories and how people and their motivations can be incredibly complex yet always ultimately good.

The other thing I found impressive about Inception was its strength in taking an incredibly new and tricky concept (being able to travel through multiple layers of dream in order to manipulate human psychology) and portraying it to the audience in a way that made it easily understandable and ultimately very intense. The inception of the idea ends up taking place across what is essentially five different levels of reality, and tying them all together sounds horrendously difficult, yet was done successfully just the same. The writer in me also appreciated how incredibly interesting the concept is; with the ability to enter people's dreams and alter the way they think, the storytelling possibilities are endless.

Assessing the Two

Now I'm going to end up repeating myself a little bit, but this is to further pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of each film.

The King's Speech Pros and Cons -

+ Superior acting that dwarfs the competition. Inception's acting was great, but even I have to admit that it wasn't quite at the level of The King's Speech. The King's Speech made you feel like you genuinely knew Prince Albert and Lionel Logue. By contrast, Inception had a great cast and, even though you get an intense psychological look at a number of them, you never really feel like you 'know' them to the extent that you get in The King's Speech.

+ An atmosphere of British class and humor that can easily resonate with anyone. Everybody knows the archetype of the polite and droll British gentleman. By contrast, the complex nature of Inception and its dreams, while portrayed in a manner that made it easy to understand, has the capacity to hoodwink a significant portion of America's daft populace.

- It is a typical period piece and a predictable feel-good drama. Did it surprise anyone that Prince Albert overcame his speech impediment? And I'm not talking about those who knew the history ahead of time. The King's Speech's weakness is that the movie does not have much depth; watching it again lets you see and enjoy the funny scenes again, but ultimately does not stick with you. There are not many details to it outside of the main plot of overcoming the speech impediment and then becoming king. By contrast, Inception has more subtle complexities and details than you can shake a stick at.

Inception Pros and Cons -

+ Does something we've never seen before. Have you seen a movie that juggles so many different scenes/levels of reality at once? And does so in a manner that makes it readily accessible, yet with depth enough to keep you wondering and thinking? I don't think I've ever seen a movie as intense as Inception; the personal/psychological depth to it and fervid balance between multiple levels of dream and reality keep you on the edge of your seat for the majority of the film.

+ Portrays an incredibly detailed and fluid setting where architects can shape dreams and manipulate reality in order to do extraordinary things. The special effects of this movie are almost beyond compare, and it isn't just eye candy. Everything that the characters do in this film make you think about how we perceive reality, dreams, and each other. Deception, conning, persuasion, fooling the senses... All of these things help to make every moment in Inception both exciting and intellectually engaging.

- At times it can be difficult to follow, and the acting is not quite at the level of that of The King's Speech. Not much I can add further to this one.

My Argument

While I'm hoping that, from reading these details, you've been able to come to the same conclusion as I, I'm going to spell it out for those still rooting for The King's Speech.

In a match-up where both movies are fantastic, we have to choose the one that does the most extraordinary things. I think that, in this case, that movie is Inception. While The King's Speech has stellar acting and a brilliantly snarky atmosphere of British style and humor, it is, as a story, unexceptional. By contrast, Inception gives us a setting we have never seen before that is both incredibly nuanced, with multiple layers, and with a stunning attention to psychological and physical detail. You could probably watch Inception a dozen times and still pick out things you didn't notice before; there is just that much going on in the film. And it portrays this complicated dream structure in a way that makes it easily understood, which can't be understated as an impressive accomplishment.

I won't begrudge the acting of The King's Speech, but I think that the Best Picture Academy Award should go to the movie that challenges our perceptions, does something new and innovative, and tells a great and incredibly elaborate story that is not difficult to follow.

However, despite my argument, I fear that Inception will probably lose. Fact of the matter is that Inception is a science fiction movie, which automatically makes it less likely to succeed given society's stigma against the sci fi genre. Additionally, The King's Speech came out more recently, resulting in the seeming outpouring of critical acclaim for it. It seems to be sweeping every other award ceremony out there, which is bad news for our dear Inception. But I still have hope that Inception will be chosen; if it is, then that will encourage the industry to make more movies that take on innovative concepts that we have never seen before. And that would be magnificent.

Of course all of this could be moot and The Social Network might sneak in to grab the award and crush my dreams. Bastard Facebook...

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