Note: The review contains some minor spoilers, but attempts to address the major themes of and questions posed by the film, without explicitly discussing any major twists or plot developments.
- Rarely before have I sat in a movie theater and experienced complete and utter silence from the crowd for two and a half hours. Rarely have I watched a movie so enthralled, so captivated, that I barely dared to breathe for its duration. Few filmmakers possess that innate ability to create such engrossing, mind-melting entertainment ... but Christopher Nolan is one of them, and Inception is right up there with his best films to date. Let's face it - it's been an off year so far for movies, and it's been a summer filled with mostly brainless crap and overhyped, assembly-line cash-ins. Enter INCEPTION. It's wholly original, and it's something we've never quite seen before. And yet, it's the culmination of the many recurring themes that have obssessed Christopher Nolan throughout his directorial career. Inception contains echoes of Memento, of The Prestige, of The Dark Knight. It seems influenced by everything from James Bond to Blade Runner to The Matrix to Munich. It's a heist film, an action film, a mind-%$#&, and a meta-movie about movies. It's quite possibly the best film of the year so far, and maybe the best that we'll see in 2010. It's a movie I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. This is one we'll be discussing, theorizing about, pondering, for years to come. It can be confusing, and frustrating, and hard to penetrate. It might just be a masterpiece.
I'll be honest - there was a moment after seeing Inception where I was, more than anything, annoyed with the movie. The ambiguous ending had left me feeling slightly cheated, as I thought the movie was above what seemed to be a cheap "or is it ...?" type of ending. Afterall, it was only a few months ago that Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Shutter Island, a twisty but flawed movie that was hurt by the fact that it contained perhaps one twist too many. There are, I think, a number of similarities between the two films - even aside from their star. But Inception is, by far, the more complete and ultimately satisfying of the two movies, and I'll try to explain why.
The thing with Inception is that - and I think people will come to realize this more and more as time goes on - you can't look at it as a typical "is this a dream or is it real?" type of story. It isn't that, not at all. I think that the commentaries I've read that say that it is, in fact, a movie ABOUT movies have it largely correct. Inception is a movie about the power of fiction to affect reality, about the power of ideas, and the transference of ideas, and how those ideas can take root in our minds and legitimately affect the very way in which we live. At first, I was frustrated by Inception because it seemed to create a world steeped in rigid logic, and yet also left a lot of the "rules" unexplained or ambiguous. I was filled with logic questions after leaving the theater - and on some level, the movie invites us to think about its dream scenarios in this manner. Dreams - especially a portayed in fiction - tend to be messy, random, and surreal. But Nolan recognizes that many dreams have their own warped logic. If you view the entirety of the movie as a dream world (even the parts purported to be "reality"), then the bigger picture makes a lot more sense. There is sometimes a very specific logic to how things work in this world, but ultimately, things happen that are contrived, convenient, and unexplained. Inception takes on that higher level of meaning when you look at it - at THE MOVIE - as a shared dream that we, the audience, partake in together. We as an audience undergo the very same rollercoaster ride that the characters in the movie do. We THINK we are convinced of a certain narrative, a certain universe, but ultimately we realize we are not so certain of what we've been seing. Ultimately, we are the marks, the movie the dream, and the narrative of the movie was itself the "inception" - the idea planted in our minds. That's what makes the movie so brilliant - it works on a metatextual level in which its entire narrative folds back around to comment on itself and the shared experience we've just had. For that reason, I think the movie will be talked about for years. Its screenplay will be analyzed, its editing choices scoured for hints and clues. My initial frustration was in part because I was looking at Inception as just another movie with a couple of twists thrown in to mess with us. Soon enough, it occured to me that this was most definitely NOT just another movie.
But let's back up for a second, and look at the dreamworld that Inception presents to us. In this world, certain people have become experts in dream manipulation. They create shared dreams - realities within the sleeping mind that can be navigated in order to influence one's subconcious thoughts and desires. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a tortured soul who's on the run from his own checkered past. He's fled the U.S. to escape criminal charges, and now works as a dream-maestro for hire. As it turns out, dream-invasion is a particularly useful skill in the world of corporate espionage: Cobb is hired by the enigmatic Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of the Cobal corporation, to go into the dreams of a corporate rival. Saito wants Cobb and his crew to implant an idea into the mind of the rival (played by Cillian Murphy), via his dreams - a risky and rarely-attempted process called inception. To do this, Cobb's team must carefully craft a multi-layered dream, consisting of multiple dreams-within-the-dream, in order to convince their target that the planted idea came of his own conciousness. Aside from all the other dangers inherent in such a complex plan, the x-factor is the instabilty of Cobb's own subconcious. Haunted by dreams of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard), Cobb's own demons are difficult to keep out of the shared dreamscape.
In many ways, Inception plays out like a heist movie of the highest order. Cobb leads his team as they carry out a carefully-constructed but risky plan, and each member of the team brings a unique specialty to the table. That, of course, is where the movie gets to have a lot of fun in a more conventional sense than the complex meta-narrative might indicate. Indeed, the surface-level of the movie's first act or two has an old-school "gathering of the team" feel that reminded me of movies like Spielberg's Munich. Of course, the potency of these scenes, and the characters we meet, is helped greatly by the fact that Nolan has assembled a truly impressive cast.
Leonardo DiCaprio does a very nice job, as always, as the lead protagonist, Cobb. I can see how some might dismiss his performance somewhat, in that it's similar in some ways to past roles that the actor has played, including his recent turn in Shutter Island. But DiCaprio really does help anchor the movie as Cobb, and lends some real power and emotion to some scenes, and a cool, all-business approach to others. DiCaprio really has to carry the emotional load of the film, and he does an excellent job. The only other character that really gets that same level of dramatic intensity to play with is probably Marion Cotillard as Cobb's wife, Mal. Cotillard is haunting and at times terrifying in the part, and has some truly powerful scenes. When I think about the film's most memorable overall performances, Cotillard's may be tops. It's a mysterious yet unforgettable turn, similar to that of Carrie Ann-Moss as Natalie, in Memento. It's an award-worthy turn, to be sure.
Getting back to the heist aspects of the film though, the other supporting performances in Inception are especially impressive in that most of the film's characters don't get a lot of fleshing out. To that end, the actors have to really make an impression in order to quickly get you invested in their characters, since the script only has so much room to give them depth. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great job of doing just that - he has a great back-and-forth chemistry with DiCaprio and the other members of the team, and without a ton of dialogue, he creates a compelling character in Arthur, Cobb's right-hand man who collects all of the intel on a mark prior to a mission. Arthur gets to star in some of the film's most visually-spectacular scenes, including a soon-to-be-iconic sequence in a zero-gravity hotel corridor. Gordon-Levitt's physical presence in these scenes is really pretty incredible - the choreography, in which the actor plays a big part, is astounding. Gordon-Levitt has steadily been proving himself as one of the better young actors in Hollywood, but an unexpected standout is Tom Hardy, who plays Eames. Eames is a "forger," a master of dreamworld manipulation who can effortlessly change his appearance within a dream by playing off of a shared dreamer's perceptions. Hardy as Eames is effortlessly badass, and quickly becomes a fan favorite for cool-factor alone. I have a feeling we'll be seeing Hardy in a lot more big movies after this one. Dileep Rao is another guy who I'd only seen in one or two movies before, but he does a nice job as Yusuf, a chemist specializing in ultra-potent, sleep-inducing serums. And of course, there's Ellen Page, rounding out the team as its newest recruit - a student prodigy named Ariadne who becomes the team's "architect" - the builder of the dream worlds that will be used to navigate the mark's subconcious. As the newbie to the group, Page's character is the audience's proxy, but Page is much more than just an exposition-machine. She provides a lot of the movie's heart and soul, and its through her that we begin to realize the true extent of Cobb's longstanding issues. Rounding out the main cast are Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine - each veterans of past Christopher Nolan films, and each doing their usual bang-up job here. Watanabe is just plain cool and kickass as Saito, and his initial introduction in the film's opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Sure, it can be a tad difficult to understand Saito's English at times, but in a way that only adds to the cool-factor. Cillian Murphy's character, Fischer, is perhaps the movie's most troubling. Fischer is the rival businessman whom Saito hopes to influence via inception, and the mission to plant a non-native idea in Fischer's head is the key to the film's elaborate heist. Murphy does a great job with the role, but if you interpret the film straightforwardly, then it seems like an awful lot of work just to plant a fairly simple idea into someone's head. If, however, you look at Fischer as some sort of misdirection in what is ultimately Cobb's dream, well, then it's difficult to figure out how the characer fits into Cobb's story, exactly. A similar problem exists around Michael Caine's character, Miles, a father figure to Cobb. It's easy to guess that there's more to Miles than meets the eye, and I'm betting that many interpretations of the film will place more importance on Miles than the film might initially indicate. But again, to the great Caine's credit, he's able to make an impact as Miles even though a lot about the character is left to our own imagination / interpretation.
And by the way, one clue that nothing in the movie is to be taken for granted is clearly the highly evocative names of each character. I think it's safe to say that the names provide a lot of hints as to the mythological and other hidden meanings of the characters and the overall narrative.
Now, I think the greatness of Inception has a lot to do with the stellar cast, but it can be most directly attributed to a.) the incredible screenplay by Christopher Nolan, and b.) the incredible direction by Christopher Nolan. I've already talked about how the screenplay is a mutilayered stunner, so let me gush for a minute about the direction. Look, I'll be honest about Nolan - there are a couple of signature directing tricks in his playbook that still sort of annoy me. His action scenes are still too quick and choppy at times, and he tends to make things so chaotic at times that some of the emotional impact is lost in the shuffle. But, in other ways, Nolan is the absolute best in the biz. His films always look gritty yet sleek and epic. There is a sense of grandeur that he creates in certain scenes in his films that few others can match. And he just has an innate sense of how to do badass and mindblowing without ever really winking at the audience. Sure, there are small moments of humor in most Nolan films, but the intensity and narrative momentum NEVER lets up. Nolan crafts films in which you cannot stop paying attention for even a second, and you don't want to. He hooks you in, and envelops you in his moody, atmospheric, all-encompassing worlds. Inception is filled with traditional action - chase scenes, gunfights, brawls, and shoot-outs. But you don't watch them like you would in most movies. Here, the action is so closely tied to the unfolding narrative that you're as invested in *how* and *why* the action is happening as anything else. It's pretty remarkable, and it's why, again, audiences seem to be watching this one with wide-eyed, unflinching intensity. I should also mention the pulse-pounding score by Hans Zimmer. The droning tones of the music give the movie a mythical, apocalyptic feel. Like most of Nolan's work, the movie deals with the grandest of themes, the very nature of reality itself. This is a heist movie, an action movie - but it's also an essay on life and death and perception and existence. This is some seriously epic stuff.
We all know the cliches - as soon as we hear that a story is about dreams, we wonder whether the time-honored questions of "was it all a dream?" will surface. From The Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland, entering a fantasy world, a dream world, is a persistant myth in pop-culture. From Narnia to Newhart, from The Sandman to Blade Runner - we've always told stories in which we question the nature of reality. Is what we think we know really truth? Is what we perceive actually reality, or is truth simply in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps we've been oversaturated with this idea, to the point where we're all weary of movies that hinge on twists and last-minute reveals. Inception is tricky, because on some level it is tempting to dismiss it as inconsistent, illogical (despite so much of the story being based on logic), and frustratingly ambiguous. If we do in fact view the movie as a straightforward story, there are countless questions that we have to ask about the story. We don't have a lot of information about these characters, and what information we do have might be unreliable. We are told a lot about the "rules" of shared dreams and dream manipulation, but we don't know *all* the rules. We don't know how Eames can change appearance, or what, exactly, the architect's mazes are supposed to accomplish. We don't know what Miles teaches, or even if he's Cobb's father, or Mal's father. We don't know what sort of corporation Mr. Saito runs, or why he's willing to go to such lengths to sabotage his competitor. But, when you look at the movie *as* dream, most of these concerns disappear. How many times have you woken up from a dream, only to realize that what seemed 100% logical and plausible in the dreamworld makes no sense in the waking world? In dreams we assign logic to the illogical, and I believe that's exactly what's going on in Inception.
Aside from all that, Inception is jam-packed with memorable scenes and moments. People will be talking about the zero-gravity fight scene, the videogame-like winter fortress raid (shades of Metal Gear and Call of Duty - emphasizing the film's game-like aesthetic), the train tracks, the totems and their meaning (and that damn top) for a long time to come. On another level, there will be endless discussion about the film, endless attempts to interpret the narrative, and endless theories about what *really* happened. The brilliance of the movie, however, is that it seamlessly allows for all those interpretations to work, to have validity. It's never simply a question of "was it all a dream?" That question is planted for us to consider, but the details are also ours to work out. Nolan, I think, knew damn well what he was doing. He aimed high ... and it worked, brilliantly. Inception is shockingly ambitious, and for that reason alone it deserves the highest praise. This is one to see twice. This is one to discuss. This is one that will, I think, haunt many dreams.
My Grade: A