Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION is out, and it puts me in a bind. I tried to go into the film with as little information as possible, reading no reviews and only knowing what the occasional TV promo told me. This worked really well for me, but here I am writing a review which someone might read before seeing the film and- wait, who am I kidding? My traffic is in the teens on a good day. For those few who haven’t seen it and are here, I’ll steer clear of spoilers as best I can.
I, and I suspect a lot of critics and film buffs, are inclined to be favorable to Nolan’s latest; not just because he’s a director with a strong track record including one of the most highly acclaimed films of the past five years or so, but because he used his clout to get Warner Bros. to bankroll a big-budget thriller that is not in any way based on an existing property. INCEPTION is as close as you can get to an original movie at this level, and it’s extremely refreshing. A slick, well-oiled machine, the movie rushes through parallel plotlines and subtle surrealism with remarkable agility, and if it isn’t quite as powerful as it could be, it’s still a superb experience.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a kind of espionage agent who specializes in going into the dreams of important people to steal their secrets. Cobb lives away from his home and children in the United States, unable to return because of an outstanding criminal charge. A businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) makes him and his team an offer, which would include pulling strings to clear his name, if they do one job for him. But it’s a unique job, in which the crew will be putting something inside the target’s mind- in this case, convincing Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a communications empire, to split up the company.
Creating an idea inside a dreamer, known as “inception”, is thought to be impossible, and to make it work Cobb hires an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design three separate levels of dream. When he takes his team- including muscle Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), disguise-artist Eames (Tom Hardy), and pharmacologist Yusuf (Dileep Rao)- inside Robert’s head, they find a more-hostile-than-usual dreamscape, where they are stalked not only by elements of the man’s subconscious reacting to outsiders, but Cobb’s own memories of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard), who killed herself and framed him for the death. There’s a ticking clock in each dream-world, as each layer contains a “kick” to bring back people from the next. If they miss it, they could get lost in an eternal, collective limbo.
This is essentially a caper movie, at least in structure. The objective isn’t that important; we don’t have a stake in whether or not some corporation breaks up. Rather, we’re interested in the process itself, from the construction of dreamscapes to manipulating them for the purposes of a smash-and-grab. The architecture is fascinating, especially when the main caper starts and the dreams start to interact with each other in complex ways.
The film’s images and action setpieces are also pretty spectacular. The highlight, shown above, is a battle in a hallway where gravity is shifting due to a car chase in a higher-level dream. The technique is as old as Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling (if not older), but the blocking is complex and the illusion is seamless. Nolan has been getting steadily better at this action thing, and there’s much less jumping around and rough cutting than in THE DARK KNIGHT. There’s quite a bit of CGI, but it’s rarely obvious, and the visuals have an austere, minimalist beauty.
The true emotional draw is Cobb being haunted by his dead wife, and here the film falls prey to bad timing. Earlier this year we had SHUTTER ISLAND with Leonardo DiCaprio also playing a man haunted by memories of a departed spouse, and if you saw that it’ll be hard to put out of mind. It’s a solid story, but somehow lacking in intensity; it may just be the familiarity of the trope. Ellen Page is likable enough, but I think more could have been done to develop her character as a contrast to Cobb’s. I will say that this is the first time I’ve seen Levitt in an action role, and he’s terrific; he has a nice comic deadpan which helps offset how dangerous he can be. Tom Hardy also has some terrific scenes and displays a sardonic sense of humor.
INCEPTION accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, and if it’s not quite as powerful as some of Nolan’s other films, it still shows off his skill and imagination. It’s the kind of film whose details you can pick at for days, weeks after seeing it, and it doesn’t fall apart on reflection either. I wish more had been done with the dream worlds, and at times it concedes to the demands of the blockbuster by favoring action sequences over plot and character development, but those compromises don’t ruin the film’s effectiveness. It works, even if it could have worked better, and it aims higher than a lot of movies even try.
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan