I’m a glass half-full type of person…I think.
But after a third viewing of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest puzzle narrative, I’ve begun to question the feelings I have about that idiom and perhaps even my own – shall I say it – reality.
It is a very rare film that incorporates the action to titillate, the plot-line to contemplate, and the emotion to captivate – the trifecta of movie making. Inception absolutely nails it.
The protagonist is Dominic Cobb, a metaphysical sort of thief but a thief nonetheless who has more than a few problems. His most pressing one is that he is hired by one corporation to steal a thought from another corporation; an energy conglomerate led by a man named Saito. You read that right. Cobb makes his living staging heists not of money or materials, but of secrets and ideas. How does one steal a secret? Through dreams, of course.
The first plot twist comes when Cobb is confronted by Saito, who chooses to hire Cobb rather than kill him for his attempted robbery. Only Saito doesn’t want Cobb to steal an idea, he wants him to plant one – Inception.
If that makes any sense at all to you, then congratulations! However, you aren’t alone if you’re a little bit skeptical of that concept. I know I was.
But Nolan is so adept at filling in the blanks as you go that by the time the movie nears its finale you are so convinced that dreams are access points for mind-theft that you are afraid to fall asleep ever again. I know I was.
As the plot thickens and the characters become more entangled and more entrenched into different levels of dreams, the line between REM and reality is beyond blurred. It’s like trying to remember the beginning of a dream.
This is where Christopher Nolan is at his very best. Rather then tell a story on a chronological timeline, Nolan tells the story using layers of information and then lines them up at exactly the right moment, which allows the viewer to mentally connect the dots themselves and feel the full weight of the story simultaneously. This process is brilliant to some and maddening to others, but none can deny the director’s skillfulness as a storyteller.
Partly what makes this formula work in Inception is the pacing, which doesn’t plod but is in no hurry to get ahead of itself. As soon as a new concept is presented, plenty of time is given to proper explanation of the “rules.” There may be some who walk away perplexed but I can’t see anyone being very confused. The story and ideas presented are blatantly complex but not complicated; a distinction that needs to be made between words that are often used synonymously.
Even the Sci-Fi concept itself is not really all that difficult to understand, accept, or believe even for the simplest of viewers. Though the concept could seem difficult as you enter different layers of dream, Nolan never lets it get messy. And it easily could, with all those terms like “kicks,” “dreams-within-dreams,” and “limbo”, but all of the terms are so well devised, structured, and explained that all you have to do in order to understand them is pay attention. The idea you must accept is that it IS possible with a little anesthesia and a box with IV tubing to achieve a shared dream experience. Of course, it’s not very scientific, but that is the function of Nolan’s macguffin, and honestly, what Science Fiction film ever leans heavily on the science?
The beauty of Inception is that once you accept the premise, everything feels completely logical, and perhaps natural. This is another Nolan trait; no line is uttered, no camera shot is framed, no event takes place without purpose. There are no gratuitous “blow crap up” scenes à la Michael Bay, no clearly “CGI for the sake of CGI” shots from the likes of a Stephen Sommers (or more realistically half of Hollywood) or even moments of “Unnecessary elongated dialogue” that occasionally comes from (though it pains me to say it, and to even put his name in the same sentence as those previous names) Quentin Tarantino. Every thought has been fully formulated, every idea has been fleshed out, every word has been fitted into place, in order to help the viewer understand and make sense of what is happening onscreen. The running time is nearly two and a half hours and there isn’t a proverbial “ounce of fat” in this movie. Everything is essential.
This has always been Nolan’s strong point: his attention to detail. Anyone who has seen any of his films from Insomnia to The Prestige to The Dark Knight can’t say that something wasn’t properly explained or that it was excessive.
The acting isn’t too shabby either. Though the film lives and dies by Leonardo Dicaprio’s Cobb (and does it ever live), the other characters are so complimentary that they are at times, “scene stealers” if not completely enjoyable in their casted roles. There may be some complaints about a lack of back story for any of the characters other than Cobb (though I have my own theory for that and if you’ve seen the movie and would like to discuss it sometime, I’d be more than happy to reveal it) or that the story doesn’t allow the viewer to connect emotionally with any of them either. While it’s true that Dicaprio is the only role that is given any heavy lifting, there is something impressive about how well each of the actors perform at roles that are outside their typical hemispheres. Ellen Page would be the last person I would have thought of to play Ariadne, Cobb’s dream-space architect, but aside from one line that felt a little too much like Juno for my taste, she was spectacular. Relative newcomer Tom Hardy plays Eames, a thief and forger in Cobb’s team. His dry British wit is a welcomed addition to the film, and it just wouldn’t be as much fun without him. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most underrated actors on the planet turns in another solid performance that will go largely unnoticed, though he has one scene that takes place in a hotel hallway in one of the dream levels that instantly tops any other action/sci-fi sequence ever created. Yes, it’s better than The Matrix.
That said, no one is more convincing than Dicaprio’s Cobb, who comes off a bit like a nuanced version of his role as Teddy Daniels from this winter’s Shutter Island though the comparison is not so similar as to detract from either performance. In fact, I would be shocked if Dicaprio is not nominated for Best Actor from either role. In Inception, there is one scene in particular that I can’t be too specific about, in which Cobb, after witnessing a tragedy of the highest degree, erupts in such anguish that I instantly felt a lump in my throat. That look alone would win him Best Actor by my standards.
Inception is so fundamentally sound that you can’t help but not be in awe of it, even if you didn’t like the story or the characters or how long it was etc. etc. It is a clinic on how to make a movie (and some have pointed out that it’s actually an allegory of how to do so) and if you don’t walk away from it going over that ending again and again in your mind, you can at least recognize the filmmaker’s craft on display.
Watch Inception. And if you already have, watch it again. And if you can’t sleep the night after because you are spending too much time thinking about your dreams, or you can still hear Hans Zimmer’s blaring score pounding in your ears, or you can’t get Dom Cobb’s face out of your mind – don’t worry. Plenty of other viewers had the exact same thoughts.
I know I did.
I give this film 5 out of 5 stars.