Brimming with nifty dreamscape set pieces, Inception is a complicated and occasionally thrilling psychic roller coaster built around the idea that a person’s dreams can be invaded and manipulated and that the thoughts, memories and ideas contained within can be extracted. Despite all its intricately layered puzzle box trappings however, it is at its heart the simple story of a grieving man who wants to go home. Had writer/director Christopher Nolan put as much care into that emotional core as he did the complex dreaming architecture that encompasses it, Inception could’ve been a great film instead of merely a very good one. As it is, it’s a smarter than average, visually inventive adult thriller and in a summer landscape where any one of those things is hard to come by, it is wholly welcome.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a top dream extractor approached by a mysterious industrialist (Ken Watanabe) who, instead of wanting information, asks him to plant an idea into a competitor’s brain that will potentially alter the course of events. It’s a difficult proposition complicated further by the fact that, unbeknownst to his team, DiCaprio’s skills are literally and figuratively compromised by his own dreams and memories [which I’ve excised here because it occurs to me they enter spoiler territory]. From this edgy, peril-fraught landscape springs an engrossing espionage tale that trots the globe with James Bondian panache while simultaneously plunging into the murky depths of multiple levels of human consciousness.
It’s a ballsy move on Nolan’s part to set an adventure story in a pliable world where anything is possible, but unfortunately he doesn’t take full advantage of the idea palate that he’s opened up for himself. There are a number of grin-inducing, brain-bending set pieces that make unusually excellent use of seamless special effects, but these are separated by long dry stretches of expository dialogue as one character explains to another (and thereby the audience) what just happened, what is happening or what is about to happen. Nolan’s conception of dreams within dreams is so complex that he has to hold the audience’s hand the whole way. The result is more guided tour than immersive world at times and this proves deadly especially in such a long film.
More than the fancy thematic footwork, Inception’s trump card is the core emotionality that ultimately provides its faint but steady pulse. Such as it is, it elevates the story beyond the usual visually interesting but ultimately empty summer extravaganza, yet it could and should have been even stronger. It flares up in the end when it’s ultimately needed, but there were plenty of missed opportunities to develop it along the way. Flawed though it was, Martin Scorsese seemed to understand this with his own (similar in many ways) DiCaprio film Shutter Island. That character’s sense of wrenching loss and longing was palpable and it helped drive the film around the other pot holes that might have sunk it entirely. With Inception, Nolan seems more concerned with the cleverness of his story than its heart and it falls short of greatness because of it.
Having said all that, Nolan is on to something here. The acting is terrific all around – DiCaprio especially turns in another strong performance and he gets solid support from Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy (who injects a few notes of humor and pizzazz into a film that is otherwise a little too self serious), Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page. The visual invention on display may not become as iconic as some of the sequences in something like The Matrix, but it’s still something to see. Finally, Hans Zimmer’s darkly urgent score goes a long way to keeping the dry stretches interesting.
Is Inception a $200 million art movie with genre leanings or is it a summer tent pole with artistic pretensions? I’m not sure it matters and frankly I welcome either one. Though it isn’t as smart as it seems to think it is, it’s the rare (these days) spectacular that aims for big, bright ideas and, while it borrows liberally from other sci-fi films on similar themes, it manages to feel wholly original. Despite a story that begs to have been more deeply felt, Inception remains a unique and frequently awe inspiring thrill ride. Maybe future viewings will reveal unexpected depths, but for now it is enough.
Inception. USA 2010. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Cinematography by Wally Pfister. Music score composed by Hans Zimmer. Edited by Lee Smith. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwait, Michael Caine and Lucas Haas. 2 hours 28 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout. 4 stars (out of 5).
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Tags: Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Ellen Page, Hans Zimmer, Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Lee Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lucas Haas, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwait, Tom Berenger, Tom Hardy, Wally Pfister