Reviewed by: Edward Douglas
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur
Ellen Page as Ariadne
Tom Hardy as Eames
Ken Watanabe as Saito
Dileep Rao as Yusuf
Cillian Murphy as Robert Fischer, Jr.
Tom Berenger as Browning
Marion Cotillard as Mal
Pete Postlethwaite as Maurice Fischer
Michael Caine as Miles
Lukas Haas as Nash
Tai-Li Lee as Tadashi
Claire Geare as Phillipa
Magnus Nolan as James
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dream thief who has mastered the art of "extraction" - being able to steal ideas from people by entering their dreams while they sleep. A new client (Ken Watanabe) now wants him to do the impossible and put an idea into a target's head, a process called "inception," so Cobb assembles his strongest team, including a young new member named Ariadne (Ellen Page), in order to pull off the most complicated job of his career in espionage.
Those who've been anxiously awaiting Christopher Nolan to be the summer's "Great White Hope" needn't lower their expectations as much as alter them, since "Inception" is not the type of summer fare we're used to by any means. Instead, this is the type of personal filmmaking we've only seen from the world's most intelligent filmmakers when they chose to do something that challenges themselves as much as it does the viewer - a cross between Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" and Tony Gilroy's "Duplicity" immediately comes to mind in terms of the complexity of its storytelling.
As effectively or gratuitously as the dream sequence has been used in movies to throw viewers off their game, Nolan deconstructs the very concept of dreaming with a movie that is essentially one long extended dream sequence. Nolan's many influences are on display from crime noir to Bond to Escher as he strings together a number of ideas to form the concept of how dream sharing--literally having multiple people inhabiting the same dream--can be used as a form of corporate espionage in order to get into competitor's minds and extracting their most well-guarded secrets.
As much as some will immediately compare Nolan's latest to "The Matrix" in that it also plays with the concepts of reality, "Inception" is like "The Matrix" times 10, as if you took that meeting between Neo and the Architect from "Reloaded" and stretched it out across an entire film.
This is established almost immediately as Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb and his accomplice Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are in the midst of trying to persuade Ken Watanabe to use their abilities to prevent his own mind from being invaded by corporate "extractors." From this first series of sequences, Nolan creates a timeless look and feel with both aspects changing regularly depending on whose dream we're experiencing. Once things go sour on that first mission, Cobb needs to find a new "Architect," someone who can create believable dream environments for Cobb's elaborate dream to bring their targets in order to extract ideas, being introduced to Ellen Page's Ariadne, who quickly masters that skill.
There are many big ideas at play here, some that will be familiar to those who have read up on lucid dreaming, but it's the way Nolan uses this dream theory within the context of a corporate espionage setting that makes "Inception" so infinitely fascinating. It immediately gets into the idea of having dreams within dreams, and that's where things get a little harder to follow as it creates a complex story that cuts between these layers. More importantly, the film deals with dream addiction, something we've all experienced at one point or another, where the real world just doesn't compare to the ones we can create in our minds as we sleep. There are also a few specialized concepts involved with shared dreaming called "totems" and "kicks," both which would take up way too much time and space to explain.
We don't want to give everything away, and believe us, we haven't. Knowing the above is like a chef placing random ingredients in front of you and letting you try to guess the final product he's trying to create. In that sense, Nolan acts like one of the magicians from "The Prestige" to create a rich, layered story disguised as an espionage thriller, delving into territory both Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis have explored in comics, but making it work on film. That being said, you don't have to understand every single idea being explored or explained to be able to follow the story. Almost as soon as Nolan has established the rules, he immediately throws a monkeywrench into the works as soon as the team attempts the even more complicated process of inception with the son of a mogul who recently passed, a character played by Cillian Murphy. This is where things get interesting as we see how much Cobb and his team have to plan everything down to the minutest detail.
As far as what Leonardo DiCaprio brings to the mix, "Inception" is everything that "Shutter Island" should have been, as he is playing a similar character with demons related to being separated from his wife and kids, something that starts to affect the mission. The fact Leo seems dressed and coiffed like Nolan makes you wonder where the filmmaker's head may have been at while conceptualizing this. Considering how many original ideas have been spawned from Nolan's brain, it's surprising he might use himself as a model for a man whose job it is to steal ideas from others.
Those who can only take Leo in small doses should be equally entertained by the exemplary work by everyone around him, Marion Cotillard being as amazing as ever, making just enough appearances to make a serious impact every time she's on screen. Similarly, Cillian Murphy is quite impressive with a far more well-rounded role and performance than in Nolan's Batman movies, playing the corporate target of Cobb's team. It's a role that could have been phoned-in, but the character has enough layers to give Murphy more to work with. The rest of the ensemble is just as impressive, playing a bigger part in the story than just being there to bolster Leo. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are great, and Tom Hardy brings some humor to it while playing things down compared to "Bronson." You know you have a great cast when a small appearance by Michael Caine isn't the most memorable moment in your movie.
Despite trailers focusing on all those wild dream-like images of cities turning to rubble within seconds, Nolan doesn't go overboard with using those images just enough so they're quite effective. Although the character's emotions are mostly kept to a minimum during the missions, there's an emotional resonance to the entire thing because everyone will be able to relate to allowing the subconscious to permeate their dreams. This ultimately plays a large role in the powerful emotional climax of the movie.
The James Bond influence doesn't come into full effect until the movie reaches the climax of the mission with the group ending up on a snowy mountaintop invading a stronghold guarded by hundreds of assassins on skis and snowmobiles. As fun as it always is seeing Nolan delve into action, that's very much a red herring for what the movie is really about. The results are a fully immersive experience with a resolution that's so much more satisfying than "Shutter Island," and it's likely to leave you questioning what is real for a long time afterwards.
The Bottom Line:
While this may not be Christopher Nolan's most immediately accessible movie--it actually requires you to pay attention and use your brain... yes, in the summer--it's certainly his most personal and most daring film, the type of summer movie that leaves you thinking well after it's over, immediately wanting to see it again in case you missed anything the first time. Being that "Inception" contains some of Nolan's most innovative ideas since "Memento," it's also his most successful movie in terms of being able to fully realize every nuance of such a rich concept.
Reviewed by: Silas Lesnick
Rating: 7 out of 10
In a great many ways, "Inception" is an exceptional film. It boasts a larger than life cast, a virtually unrestricted budget and a director at the top of his game both commercially and artistically. Action scenes feature mountain ski chases, zero-gravity fights and flawless special effect dreamscapes. So how is it that "Inception" comes together as such a bore?
"Inception's" problems stem completely from the screenplay. While we're meant to believe that the world Nolan has created is of the utmost complexity, it is nowhere near the level that the exposition affords it. "Inception" is a monstrous, all-consuming exposition that seems to devour character and emotion to the point that, on the whole, the film feels like the origin story for a much more interesting tale. That is, the dream-espionage set-up is wonderfully original and clearly well-researched, but far too much time is spent establishing the rules of the world and far too little twisting those rules into anything other than face value.
Ellen Page's Ariadne is the most clear cut example; Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, needing to pull a dream heist, brings her in as an "architect," someone skilled at creating realistic dreams. She essentially plays the audience for exactly one scene, letting Cobb give us the setup and then she's gone. Not physically gone. She's still in the rest of the film, she just, almost instantly, becomes like the other members of the team, void of history and emotion and little more than an extra warm body. A viewer would be hard-pressed to name a single personality trait of any character in the entire film outside the shallowest plot elements. We're told, not shown, every bit of how the world of Inception works, as though Nolan is deeply concerned that we're not going to get it. For a film about imagination that seemingly wants to rest on its cerebral laurels, it doesn't offer much respect for the mind of the viewer.
Moreover, for a film about dreams, there's a mechanical coldness to it all. It's raining in one dream because, we're told, a character did not go to the bathroom first. Time, in dreams, moves at exactly ten times the speed of real life. These are ideas understandable from a storytelling perspective, but suggesting that "Inception" achieves a realistic portrayal of dreams is like looking at a financial data as an artistic statement. Nolan treats the mind as plot and plot alone, divorcing dreams from, say, sex or any other baser instinct. There's something in this very reminiscent of Tim Burton's recent "Alice in Wonderland," ascribing real-world logic to a place where logic is oftentimes antithetical. It's far too much sense and not nearly enough nonsense.
While it may be unfair to criticize a film for what it isn't, "Inception" tries to make a break for itself on the same terms, asking audiences to "think but this and all is mended." The scapegoat defense of the film will be something along the lines of, "It didn't have to have characters. Dreams don't have them." Were the film a bit more delirious, it would be a lot easier to take solace in a such a shoddy narrative.
"Inception" works better, on quite a few levels, as a metaphor for the waking mind's creative subconscious than for anything to do with an unconscious dream state. Theories have and will continue to be tossed around as to the specific allegorical representations of each member of Cobb's team and, once the spoilers settle, there will be some fantastic arguments as to why some of "Inception's" more obvious faults may have been intentional (Intentional meaning both the result of a failed attempt to take the film in a specific direction and intentional meaning that they may, in effect, not be faults at all). There are interesting comparisons to be made between Cobb's heisting/idea planting and the human mind's creative process (most obviously in the case of Nolan, to filmmaking), but even if long-term analysis can win back the **** side, there's little that can be done in the short-term to save the plodding, two-dimensional narrative.
The Bottom Line:
What is most infuriating about "Inception" is how close it gets to being something really great. Instead, we're left with "Solaris" (but never as existential or as meditative) meets "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (but never as fun or thrilling). Compared to most of this year's releases, "Inception" should still impress and, at the very least, inspire some worthwhile discussion, but it's hardly the heady blockbuster summertime savior that audiences have been waiting for.