Christopher Nolan won himself a great deal of opening weekend cred thanks to The Dark Knight; he is likely going to need it for Inception. It’s not that Inception is a bad film—the movie is actually one of the most original major releases to come along in ages—It’s that the film feels too cerebral for its invariably massive budget. The trailers have made the film out to be a summer actioner in the mold of The Matrix, which is only half true. Inception does share some of the same concepts as The Matrix, but where latter film was a pseudo-philisophical, kung fu hodge podge, Inception is actually a clever psychoanalytical heist movie. No matter what you think you know about the film, viewers should prepare to have their expectations dashed. Can we have smart blockbusters in 2010? I guess we’ll find out on Monday.
Spoilers to follow.
In the near future, massive corporate conglomerates have power rivaling that of nations. The world of corporate espionage has evolved to the point where agents can now enter a mind to steal the secrets it holds, a process called extraction. Experts at extraction sedate their targets and enter their mind through dreams, shaping their thoughts as if they were clay and tricking the target into revealing information; One such extraction expert is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Cobb and his team botch an extraction job they are offered an opportunity to make amends by their target, Saito (Ken Watanabe). Instead of extracting information, Saito wants Cobb to insert an idea into a target, a process called inception. Inception is believed to be impossible because in all cases the target is never convinced that the idea being incepted is their own. The target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of a dying energy mogul, whose company is the primary competitor of Saito’s corporation. With the help of a brilliant young architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), Cobb and company must enter the mind of Fischer and convince him that the idea to dissolve his father’s conglomerate, the implanted idea, was his own.
One major qualm many are likely to have with the film is how much time the characters spend explaining things. There are rules that need to be followed when you’re trouncing around in someone’s mind, and the viewer needs a character to explain all of these rules in order for them to have any idea what is going on. There is a great exposition sequence (the one with the folding city in the trailer) where Cobb explains to Ariadne how she can architect other people’s dreams, this one scene should tell the viewer everything they need to know about dreams—except that it doesn’t. When things go awry later in the film, all new rules are introduced and explained. Ariadne fills in for the audience, asking a question at just the right time—though the answers she gets are not always the truth, there is always the hint of truth. Nolan manages to keep the viewer challenged, if a little confused, for most of the film. This makes the moment when things click in your head that much more satisfying.
The setting Nolan has created essentially gives him complete narrative freedom—anything is possible because the backdrop is the unconcious mind. A convenience for any filmmaker to be sure, something that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker could be a bit of a cop out, but Nolan takes full advantage of the dreamscape he gets to play in. Dreams within dreams within dreams, time meaning nothing and yet everything. The characters can be at once sleeping on a plane, in a van plummeting off a bridge, in a hotel room and battling soldiers in the frigid mountains. Nolan could have gone wild with this concept, in fact, I was kind of disappointed that he didn’t let loose a little more. The dreamscapes he creates, though fantastic in their own way, feel mostly sterile and boring. I confess that I wanted to see a more surrealist vision of a dream, but for the sake of the story Un Chien Andalou this film is not.
Dream imagery and Freudian psychoanalysis do play a an important part in the film though—Cobb’s dream world is full of tall skyscrapers collapsing, and his main character flaw is that he believes he has failed his wife. Draw your own conclusions from that one. Not only do Cobb and company need to be well versed in weaponry, combat and driving, but they also have to know their target’s psychological profile inside and out. The team needs to gather intelligence about Fischer’s relationship with his father and godfather, his fears and his anxieties, in order to use these against him in his dreams. Fischer’s biggest issue is that he believes his father is disappointed with him; Cobb and company use this to their advantage and, in order to get his guard down, literally ask Fischer to tell them about his father.
The visual and practical effects in Inception are stunning, but Nolan never actually hits you over the head with them. The cast is solid all around, with DiCaprio doing most of the heavy lifting. Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), is especially effective as a tormented dream stuck in his head. Cobb’s team is made up of standard bank robber archetypes, and all the actors do a good job filling those roles. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have a great back and forth rivalry, and this film is a great star turn for both of them. Watching Ellen Page acting with Michael Caine and Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s easy to forget that she was starring opposite the Trailer Park Boys just a few years ago. As for Ken Watanabe, he was good, but a little mumbly at times.
Inception makes an interesting companion piece to Nolan’s first feature film, Memento, in which the main character’s reality is also constantly being called into question. You may not know where Cobb stands by the end of the film, but you’ll want to know. A good film leaves you wanting more and a good director knows how to make a film like that. Inception is not without flaws, but it is certainly Nolan’s best film since Memento. At times you’ll be as amazed as you are confused, and like most dreams you may not get the resolution you wanted or were expecting.