The premise of ‘Inception‘ is easily explained in its broad strokes: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of professional thieves, whose particular brand of thievery takes place in the human mind. They attempt to gain information from a person’s sub-conscious that he would never give up consciously. Their current client offers them a different deal: Instead of stealing an idea, he would like Cobb and his team to plant an idea in a rival’s mind, a considerably more difficult thing to do. In exchange, Saito offers to clear Cobb’s legal troubles, which have kept him from entering the US.
To explain this film in detail is another matter. In this world, planting an idea in another person’s mind and convincing that person that the idea is organic is a very hard thing to do, and to explain the machinations necessary to achieve this would require three cross-referenced flow-charts and a couple of graphs with a great deal of footnotes. The film may take place in the world of dreams, but its logic is very grounded- there are rules to everything.
But I’m not convinced that it actually matters, because this is not a movie about dreams, or the sub-conscious. It is an awesome entertainment -awesome in both senses of the word- about heists, gun-fights, kidnappings, wondrous architecture, spectacular slow-motion. That may sound like I’m belittling the film, but I mean it as a compliment. So many films attempts to wow by visceral thrills. Nolan succeeds spectacularly, all the while distracting through the massive puzzle that is ever present.
This film has been criticized for being too literal minded- nailing down all of its concepts about dreams to real and concrete things. I think that wild surrealism is often overrated, resulting in many fascinating curiosities that cannot quite be recommended as films. If it’s great dream-logic you’re after, see Buñuel, see Lynch, see Gilliam. Nolan is the wrong man for the job. He may be a terrible surrealist, but he’s a wonderful literalist, creating a controlled chaos to which one feels comfortable surrendering. The knowledge that everything makes literal sense can be just as exciting as the knowledge that everything might make emotional sense- ‘Inception’ can reward those who try to figure it our to the nth degree, and convinces the rest of us that it knows exactly what its doing the rest of the time.
Nolan has the rare gift of making large audiences feel comfortable in his hands, a natural entertainer’s touch. His milieu may ostensibly be visionary sci-fi, but his screenplay is built around the structure of one of the most widely beloved genres- a heist film, with its requisite elements of con-men and espionage.
After a cold-open that will play a significant role later in the film, we see Cobb’s team on its first job. In his team is an architect (Lukas Haas) -whose job it is to create a dream that convinces the victim that what is happening is real- and a logistics man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) -who is in charge of the technical aspects of entering the dreams. The victim of their first job, Saito (Ken Watanabe) is so impressed by their ability that he hires them for the more difficult task of the inception of an idea in the head of the son of a business rival (Cillian Murphy). We then see the classic element of every heist film and Mission: Impossible type story: putting together the team. Cobb already has a great but unimaginative logistics man in Gordon-Levitt. He reteams with former associate Eames, played by Tom Hardy (who gave a magnificent unhinged performance in last year’s ‘Bronson’), finds a pharmacist that specializes in dream-related concoctions (Dileep Rau), and must find a replacement architect for Haas. For this he goes to Nolan’s standby mentor/father figure, Michael Caine (this is the fourth film in a row he’s done with Nolan), who plays Cobb’s father in law, and directs him to a young architectural student named Ariadne, who is played by ‘Juno’s Ellen Page.
Like every heist film, much depends on the likability of the cast, and this is one likable cast, all of whom have their moments to shine. These five are joined by Watanabe, who wants to personally ensure his investment. Nolan makes sure to set up the team dynamics in the first part of the film, as once they’re off, he rarely slows down to catch his breath. He does encounter trouble, however, when it comes to Page’s character. He seems to assume that we all accept Page as being the uber-precocious Juno in this film, as she immediately grasps every concept she is presented with regarding creating and entering dreams, and finds all the loop-holes and problems no one else has thought of. And Nolan also burdens her with being the audience surrogate- she is the only one who dares delve into Cobb’s personal life, and allows DiCaprio to rigorously explain every single thing Nolan wants to make absolutely clear.
The trouble in buying the huge stakes of Cobb’s past are confounded by an unfortunate coincidence- Martin Scorsese’ ‘Shutter Island’. Released a few months back, ‘Shutter Island’ is a film I severely underrated the first time (I hope to update my initial reactions soon). It stars DiCaprio in a role that is not dissimilar, haunted by a past that is far too close to ‘Inception’ for comfort. This coincidence robbed much of the impact of the emotional tract of DiCaprio in this film. That cannot be blamed on Nolan (though I do think that Scorsese got a stronger performance out of DiCaprio). Nolan, however, has another rather significant misstep that robbed ‘Inception’ of some of the power it could have had.
For all the faults of ‘The Dark Knight’– its stakes were always extremely high. It was a film that wanted to be epic, and had the fate of many lie in the balance. In ‘Inception‘, the bottom line of the job -the inception- is to get a businessman to do something that will help his competitor (Saito). When the epic and spectacular (and a tad overlong) parallel action sequence comes, I was reminded constantly that although this seems epic, it is in the name of some petty business rivalry, and an emotional pay-off to a troubled past that I just saw in another movie with the same actor. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the film’s climax, but the hollow values at its core dampened my excitement- the heist plot is every bit as earth shattering as your average ‘Mission: Impossible’ episode.
Still, it is pretty darn thrilling to see Nolan weaving the job itself. There is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream- and Nolan manages to keep concurrent action going on every single level, intercutting from one dream-level to another. He constructs it like a fugue- layer upon layer upon layer. Each one may be relatively straight forward (A truck driving off a bridge, a man trying to move 5 unconscious people at once, a firefight at an James Bondian ice fortress), but Nolan wrings the utmost tension out of the proceedings, and keeps all levels interesting in their own right (though the ice-fortress fight is a bit excessive and hard to follow).
The highlight of this sequence is the second level, where Gordon-Levitt is in a hotel corridor, facing two bad guys. As they fight in slow motion, the space they are in rotates, as if they’re inside of a rolling die. As the fight moves from the floor to the wall to the ceiling, one can’t help but think of Fred Astaire’s immortal 360 degree dance from ‘Royal Wedding’. Gordon-Levitt -not at all coincidentally dressed in a dapper vest and tie- gracefully navigates the rotating ground, creating a somewhat perverse (it is a fight scene after all) but wonderful tribute to classic film (Other references are in there- the last shot in particular is a delight).
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The trouble with all the joys one can find in ‘Inception‘ –and it is a feast, a classic summer film- is that filmgoers lacking context might mistake awesomeness for greatness. Maybe that isn’t even the problem- it can be argued that the film is great. But so many viewers -particularly more impressionable ones- are so overwhelmed by the visceral joys of great genre filmmaking by masters of the field (Nolan, Cameron, Jackson, earlier Spielberg), that they seem to have trouble accepting that these great achievements are not the be-all and end-all of cinema. This was even more evident with the reaction to ‘The Dark Knight’, where the argument very quickly became almost religious in its fervor.
This all-or-nothing approach of many fans is troubling, and greatly contributing to the ever widening rift between ‘serious’ films and ‘blockbusters’. It is a tribute to Nolan’s skill at gaining the audiences’ support, yet also a dispiriting sign of the times, when ‘awesome’ and ‘thrilling’ are the standard. ‘Inception‘ and ‘The Dark Knight’ are both, for my money, great parts of the cinematic diets. But we must be careful of mistaking the extraordinary entertainment value of these films for being the entire cinematic experience. These films deserve better than to be condemned because of the extreme fan reaction, but over praise can be just as harmful.