Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception - written & directed by Christopher Nolan

The movies of Christopher Nolan are dark, oddly-shaped jigsaw puzzles. They can be ponderous because of his deliberate pacing, but they are never uninteresting.

Nolan's moviemaking career went wide with Memento and developed through a remake of Insomnia (whose original is fantastic) and an adaptation of The Prestige. Nolan then delivered his blockbusting masterwork in the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Throughout these works, Nolan has shown real skill in crafting serious thrillers with deeply flawed heroes. He favors tricky plots, and he sure does love crashing vehicles into things.

Inception is a logical next step in Nolan's career. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a mercenary dream thief who longs to return home safely to his kids. And it's yet another intricately-plotted action thriller with an interestingly compromised protagonist. Unlike Memento, however, Inception had a very large budget for CGI effects. Other than that, it's in many respects the same essential story.

Here's the setup: Cobb works for large, multinational corporations, and he steals secrets for them from the sleeping minds of his victims. To do this, he uses a bit of cutting-edge technology, some illicit chemicals, and a practical understanding of dream mechanics. But a troubled history is beginning to erode Cobb's skills just when he needs them most. Oh, and he seems to be a fugitive who can't come home to America for fear of getting arrested for something.

Here's the hook: When a prospective client makes Cobb an offer he can't refuse, Inception becomes a nested tangle of plots as our hero works to complete his mission while navigating shifting dreamscapes that give the director plenty of opportunities to engage in breathtaking special effects, including what's become something of a trademark since Nolan's Batman movies: a large, incongruous vehicle (like the Batmobile or a train) bashing its way at high speed through inner-city traffic.

In assembling a team while dodging pursuers from a previously botched job, Cobb temporarily becomes enmeshed in an episode of Mission: Impossible, bringing together a cast of underground specialists including Ellen Page as Ariadne, an "architect" of dreams, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, Cobb's long-time junior partner.

The rest of the team is nicely rounded out, and these secondary characters are unburdened with the weight of carrying a whole movie on their shoulders. This allows them to perform as humorous foils to DiCaprio's brooding, distracted dream raider. Though none of them steals scenes the way Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight, they leaven this heavy loaf of a movie nicely. This is a story that needs its injections of wisecracks, few as they are.

As I suggested above, the complications in Inception arise as much from Cobb's own troubled past as from the machinations of his rivals. His wife, played by Marion Cotillard, keeps popping up at the most inconvenient times, and he is continuously haunted by visions of his children playing in the yard. That all of this comes to have a direct bearing on the success of his mission will surprise no one.

Originality is over-praised as an artistic attribute, as no work of art comes without its precedents and contexts. In other words, every work of art has a history, and its components are drawn from other works, whether the artist is conscious of those works or not. Artists steal as much as they make up, and Christopher Nolan is no exception.

What I'm saying is, Inception isn't as original as it may first appear. (But what is?) For the two-and-a-half hours of its duration, Inception uses well-established tropes from espionage thrillers, heist movies, action movies, and science-fiction. In fact, as its characters reason their way through their ever-changing circumstances, they begin to resemble nothing so much as Star Trek characters stuck on a strange planet and having to use their wits to cobble a way back to their ship.

Its worst parts come when exposition is needed, as in the first few conversations between DiCaprio and Page, the intelligent ingenue who figures out how Cobb's past is impinging on their present. Instead of humor, these scenes (full of DiCaprio's ruminations on the nature and use of dreams) are punctuated with visual derring-do, including the signature scene of a Paris neighborhood folding over on itself.

Inception's best parts are some of its action sequences, including Gordon-Levitt's fight in a tumbling hotel hallway. Maybe I'm too jaded nowadays, but CGI-created vistas don't really do anything for me anymore, no matter how paradoxical and supposedly mind-boggling the view is. But this fight, which ends in weightlessness, is a nice display of combat choreography.

And, as impressive as some of these scenes are (and, truthfully, most of them are pretty run-of-the-mill), I don't think I missed anything by not watching this movie in 3-D or IMAX. Until such technologies have a direct bearing on the story being told, I can't help thinking of them as gimmicks, as nourishing as a handful of popcorn, with similarly short-lived implications.

My biggest criticism of this movie is its too-narrow treatment of dreams. Forgetting all the psychobabble hokum that always seems to accompany any serious artistic depiction of dreams, what struck me as most telling in Inception is the lack of any real strangeness in Nolan's dreamscapes. They're almost all city settings, and the people in them (besides the main characters) are as ornamental as street lamps. They do turn out to have a plot function, but it's a mechanical one. These bystanders might as well be robots.

And when I complain about these dreams, I'm not talking about the props and setups that allow for the movie's fights and chases; I'm talking about real, lifelike strangeness. While Inception makes much of the lack of physics in these dreams, there's very little that's organic or vital in them. In my own dreams, images and people pop in and out in unexplainable but emotionally true ways. My friends' dreams seem to operate the same way. This is why using logic to explain dreams is always a dicey proposition.

Yet the dreams in Inception are almost mechanistic, such as their insistence that secrets are always locked in safes. They end up being more like the simulations in The Matrix than like actual dreams. Cobb attempts to gloss this over with some exposition about the difference between dreams and memories, but it rings hollow, more of an excuse than an explanation.

The best dream detail in the movie comes from an explanation of why it's raining heavily in one character's personal dreamscape. I won't ruin it here, but it's the one detail that rang the most true in the whole movie. And it turns out to be funny.

But how ridiculous is it to expect a movie that uses dreams as tools of corporate espionage to use them realistically? It's like asking the director of a vampire movie to make sure his vampires act like real vampires.

Having said that, I enjoyed the movie, and I have to recommend it. The plot of Inception moves expertly (if not quickly) to a resolution that ties everything neatly into a finished package. There's even an evocative final shot that rife with implication. In all, Inception is a fun ride and a cool way to spend a hot summer afternoon.

written & directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page


  1. The dreams being more blandly realistic than what actual dreams are like (surreal, illogical, incomprehensible) was intentional. As far as I remember, in the story, these "architected" dreams were designed so that the subject would think it was real the whole time.

  2. Point taken about the "manufactured" nature of the dreams in the movie. But I think Nolan missed a great opportunity when the ONLY uncontrolled aspect of the movie's dreams turns out to be Marion Cotillard's character. It's a reduction that lessens the movie, and it could have been easily addressed by allowing more benign "intrusions" to proliferate as well.

  3. Must of been a good thing I haven't seen memento (from the close similarities) because it seems that I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much otherwise. Movie of the year imo =D

  4. The similarities between Inception & Memento are more thematic, so they're not obvious.

    But I agree that Inception is one of the best movies so far this year...