by Emanuel Levy, published on July 8, 2010|
With "Inception," his most ambitious (and outlandish) film to date, Christopher Nolan continues to demonstrate that he is one of the most audacious, inventive, and original filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
As writer and director, Nolan proves that it's possible to make a big-budget, effects-driven movie that's not mindless and vacuous in the way that "Transformers" and the others of its ilk are. Dislocating time and space, the two most distinctive dimensions of cinema as a medium, "Inception" quickly plunges the viewers into a loopy, trippy ride, unlike any they have taken before.
The most eagerly awaited picture, in what's so far a weak summer season, "Inception" is an impressively mounted blockbuster that's driven by ideas rather than action set-pieces, though there are plenty of the latter. Both complicated and complex in narrative structure, the movie may benefit from repeat viewing by spectators wishing to unravel the labyrinth plot that, at first sight, might not entirely make sense or appear coherent.
Combining elements of a sci-fi, thriller, and actioner, "Inception" is globe-trotting travelogue that digs deep into the subconscious, or more specifically into the intimate and infinite world of dreams. The tale moves swiftly from the striking skyscrapers of Tokyo to the crowded markets of Tangiers to the interiors of a bizarre hotel with surreal corridors to a snowy mountain compound in an unnamed setting.
As he showed in "Memento," a more modest but terrifically entertaining feature, Nolan is intrigued by constructing (and deconstructing) disturbing puzzles for his viewers, mysteries that are both metaphysical and allegorical, tales that are rich in their texts and subtexts, stories that contain ambiguity and are open to debate and interpretation.
Like his previous films, "Inception" is a classic film noir with a twistmany twistsbeginning with its (anti) hero, who answers to the noirish name of Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. This year may be designated as DiCaprio's exploration of his subconscious, for "Inception" is the second film, after Scorsese's "Shutter Island," which largely takes place within his mind (though Nolan's is a much better movie on any level).
That said, overall, "Inception" is more admirable in intellectual ambition and technical execution than in sustained dramatic momentum and emotional impact for reasons that will be explained below.
It's not easy to dissect "Inception" without disclosing elements of its intricate, multi-layered plot. We quickly learn that, haunted by a turbulent past, Cobb is a skilled thief, boasting to be the best in the dangerous art of extraction. Cobb specializes in stealing valuable secrets from within the subconscious of a person during a dream's state, when that person's mind is at its most naked and vulnerable.
Cobb's rare, distinguished abilities have made him a coveted player in the new, treacherous world of corporate espionage, which seems to be the new frontier for movies. But at a price: His career has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved, most of all home and family.
When the tale begins, Cobb is being offered a unique opportunity at personal redemption and reconciliation with his past. This highly challenging job, which promises to be the very last (it's always the last one in such stories), might give him his life back if he can accomplish the impossibleinception.
In most adventures, the goal is to accomplish the perfect heist, conduct the perfect crime. It's therefore to the credit of Nolan as a scribe that he plays with generic conventions. In this tale, Cobb and his team of specialists, all eccentric and outsiders in one way or another, have to pull off the reverse. Their task is not to steal ideas but to invade the dreamscape of a competitor and plant ideas.
Members of the team include Ariadne (Ellen Page), the new, bright recruit, suggested by Miles (Michael Caine), who also serves as the stand-in for the viewers. The dashingly handsome Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Arthur, Cobb's reliable buddy and right-hand man. Tom Hardy has the showiest part as Eames, the crafty, shift-shaping forger who enjoys his work and delivers his witty lines in a smart-allecky way. Rounding out the crew is Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who provides the powerful sedatives.
The road is full of obstacles, and no matter how carefully the planning or skillful the expertise, they have to face dangerous enemies, which, among other gifts, can anticipate and sometimes predict their moves.
The plot contains enough twists and turns to qualify as a thriller, though the film is more than that in trying to explore the line between illusory and realistic versions of existence, the nature of dream time versus real time, the difference between memories and dreams, the operation of dreams within dreams and the various kicks that it takes to wake up from them.
Narratively, the film deals with at least three subplots that are unequal in importance and effect. The first and most emotional one describes Cobb's marriage to Mal, initially based on passion and love, until it ends with her tragic suicide. (I am not spoiling anything here because it's established in the very first reel that Cobb's wife is dead).
Mal is a ghost, a memory that represents a fresh wound, an open sore in Cobb's heart. Unfortunately, she has the habit of appearing in Cobb's subconscious when least expected, wreaking havoc on his tasks through destruction. Mal's personal evolution, devolution and then demise, which represent the key to the film's central puzzle, are shown in brief flashbacks and snippets of dialogue (some of which are repeated more than once)..
Less successful is the subplot of the Freudian conflict between Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), a billionaire heir and innocent dreamer and his dying father (Peter Postlethwaite). The team's goal, initiated by the wealthy businessman Saito (Ken Watanbe) is to dissolve the empire of the unsuspecting Fischer, who suffers from a severe father complex.
What unifies the episodic tale, other than Cobb (who is the only one who interacts with all the others) is the recurrence of a visual motif, a small gray metallic dreidel, which almost every person uses at one point or another. It's a single, captivating image that somehow reflects the film's ideas.
Nolan's body of work (about six films) shows consistency as well as evolution. There is a direct line from "Memento" (his second work), the breakthrough indie that put him on the map, to "Insomnia," "Prestige," "Batman Begins," and "The Dark Knight," to the new feature. "Inception," like his earlier work, deals with a troubled man, haunted by his previous life, who's determined to correct his ways and repent for his past, only to sink deeper and deeper as he goes along.
As noted, though intellectually intriguing throughout, "Inception" can't sustain dramatic or emotional involvement for the duration of its running time. Overextending its welcome by at least 20 minutes or so, the film gets repetitious and overwrought, especially in the last reel.
Ultimately, Nolan deserves the greatest credit for trying to reconcile many elements that are seemingly contradictory. A big-budget, CGI blockbuster that's also an intimate, even personal tale. A movie that blends big mainstream stars (Leonardo DiCaprio, three-time Oscar nominee) with character actors that are more associated with indie features, such Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("500 Days of Summer") and Ellen Page ("Juno").
Thematically, too, Nolan borrows and mixes elements, not always successfully, from Freudian psychology and Jungian psychoanalysis. In moments, it feels that Nolan the scribe is not precise enough to distinguish between the subconscious and unconscious levels of the mind's operation.
Even so, with one exception (Ellen Page), Nolan is very good with his ensemble, from the leads all the way to the supporting actors.
Bringing gravitas to his role, DiCaprio is excellent in conveying the essence of a wounded man, longing to go home after decades of absence. He literally carries the movie on his shoulders.
Too bad that there is no strong chemistry between him and Ellen Page, as the new, eager recruit to his team. Page is a superb actress ("Juno"), but she is disappointingly under-whelming here, though some of the problems may be in the writing. In the first hour or so, as a trainee, Ariadne gets to ask questions about dreams and architecture, and DiCaprio provides the answers (or lectures) in a manner that's necessary but too expository.
In contrast, Gallic actress Marion Cotillard shines in a graceful and haunting performance, claiming the most emotionally touching and disturbing moments. I don't think it's an accident that Nolan uses as a motif the famous song, "Je regret de rien," sung by Edith Piaf, who Cottilard played in an Oscar-winning turn in "La Vie en Rose."
Impressively heady and visually striking, if not always dramatically compelling, "Inception" is not an actioner in the conventional sense of the term. Nor is it a summer popcorn picture. Indeed, it's a testament to the film's power and originality that certain images continue to linger in my mind long after the screening. For example, you will marvel at the tribute that "Inception" pays to virtual reality, and more specifically the "Matrix" movies.