“True inspiration is impossible to fake,” explains a character in Christopher Nolan’s existentialist heist film Inception. If that’s the case, then Inception is one of the most honest films ever made. Nolan has crafted a movie that’s beyond brilliant and layered both narratively and thematically. It requires the audience to take in a collection of rules, exceptions, locations, jobs, and abilities in order to understand the text, let alone the fascinating subtext. Nolan’s magnum opus is the first major blockbuster in over a decade that’s demanded intense viewer concentration, raised thoughtful and complex ideas, and wrapped everything all in a breathlessly exciting action film. Inception may be complicated, but simply put it’s one of the best movies of the year.
“I’m asking you to take a leap of faith.”
Inception requires so much exposition that a lesser director would have forced theaters to distribute pamphlets to audience members in order to explain the complicated world he’s developed. During my first draft of this view, I realized I had spent three paragraphs simply trying to explain the plot. I will simply avoid this exposition and present the movie’s basic premise. Inception centers on a team of individuals led by an “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, through the use of a special device, construct the dreams of a target and use those dreams to implant an idea so that the target will make a decision beneficial to the individual who hired the team. To say that scratches the surface would be an insult to both scratches and surfaces. But since it takes Nolan about fifty minutes to set everything up, I hope you’ll forgive my brevity.
Why is it so difficult to explain the plot in depth? First, I don’t want to spoil you. Secondly, the film layers dreams on top of dreams to the point where a unique keepsake called a “totem” is required in order to inform a character as to whether or not he or she is still dreaming. Then you have people in particular roles like “The Architect”, “The Forger”, and “The Chemist” in order to pull off the job. Furthermore, dreams have rules: dying in a dream forces the dreamer to wake up, delving too deeply into a mind can cause an eternal slumber called “Limbo”, using memories to construct dreams is dangerous because it can blur the line between dreams and reality. In addition, intruding in the dreams of another will cause the dreamer’s “projections” (human representations created by the dreamer) to attack the intruders like white blood cells going after an infection. And these explanations only represent a fraction of the terminology, rules, exceptions, or details that are necessary for creating the world of Inception.
But it’s not a confusing movie if you provide it with your full attention. There are a lot of summer movies that ask you turn off your brain and enjoy the persistent-vegetative-state ride. Inception is not one of those movies. There’s a lot to take in, but the imaginative and thoughtful delivery of exposition keeps the viewer riveted despite the amount of information required in order to understand the premise, setting, and plot.
It tends to be the case that lots of rules create lots of loopholes. Filmmakers can use these to cheat and let audiences fill in the leaps of logics. But Inception always plays fair. It will twist your mind but it’s not a film built on twists. It’s a film built on possibilities and the boldness of pursuing those possibilities. On my first viewing, the film experienced a technical malfunction where a misplaced reel skipped the movie forward by twenty minutes and then played the scene upside down and in reverse. Inception had already sent the audience through such a strange narrative labyrinth that almost everyone in the theater wasn’t sure if something had gone wrong or if Nolan had just made another bold decision.
The film deserves, demands, and rewards repeat viewings, but from your first viewing you can grasp the events on screen and how they interact with each other as long as you force yourself to be an active viewer. But with set pieces so intricate, so jaw-dropping, and so breathtaking, you’ll find that there’s no exertion needed to stay focused. You’ll already be swept up in the whirlwind.
“And I will lead them on a merry chase.”
Inception features one of the best fight scenes of all-time. Take a moment to consider that: in the entire history of cinema, of every fight scene that has ever taken place, the one in this movie is among the best. Watching a fight without gravity is incredible. It’s not like in The Matrix where a character can defy gravity if they choose. The fight scene in Inception has no gravity to defy and Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the team’s point man, has to figure out how to achieve his objective while fending off projections. I can only hope that someday in the distant future, when people with free time are on a space station in zero-gravity, they will re-enact this scene. In the meantime, Nolan’s spectacular visual effects will have to suffice.
With the exception of one set piece (which I’ll get to in a moment), the action scenes in Inception are spectacular. Visually lush and imaginative, Nolan transforms car chases into countdowns, fistfights into puzzles, and shootouts into…well, shootouts. There’s a mission on a snowy mountainside that doesn’t work as well as the other set pieces because there’s a poor sense of location, a lack of visual diversity, and sloppy editing. But that doesn’t really halt or hurt the film because Nolan brilliantly placed the car chase, the fistfight, and the shootout on top of each other. You would think this would cause action fatigue, but by cutting between three set pieces and having what happens in one set piece affect the others, the action climax of Inception isn’t exhausting—it’s exhilarating.
“If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination.”
You can be the best action director around but you can only get so far if you lack characters worth caring about. With Inception, every character not only has a particular skill and task, but has a personality that mirrors their job description.
We learn about the characters of Inception not from long monologues about their past or even (with the exception of Cobb) delving into their dreams and memories. We learn about them by how they interact with each other. The small moments between Arthur and Eames, “The Forger” (Tom Hardy) indicate years of working on j tolerating each other on jobs but with no animosity between the two. Neophyte “Architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page) is a total jerk towards Cobb, but she’s the only one who’s willing to cut through his bullshit. Cobb’s relationship with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the heart of Inception. The interactions among the supporting characters are standard for a well-made action movie, but the relationship between Cobb and Mal is yet another reason why Inception stands apart.
DiCaprio will take some flack for playing a similar character to his one in Shutter Island from earlier this year. Both Cobb and Teddy Daniels have become separated from their families, suffer from unbearable guilt, and have a tough time handling the nature of reality. Here’s another similarity: DiCaprio is great in both movies. I wouldn’t worry about him getting typecast as tragic-figure-with-tenuous-grasp-on-reality-as-a-result-of-intense-guilt-and-regret.
Two of the film’s stars will (hopefully) find their careers at the next level after this movie opens. Their names are “Joseph Gordon-Levitt” and “Tom Hardy”. Gordon-Levitt has excelled at playing lost boys, tortures souls, and recently a charming male lead in (500) Days of Summer. You can now add “bad-ass blockbuster action star” to that list. Gordon-Levitt’s versatility is why I will be excited for any movie that lists him as one of its stars.
Hardy’s critically acclaimed performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson brought him to Hollywood’s attention. His performance in Inception will bring him the attention of countries. He brings a light-hearted touch to the film and while the script forces other characters to remain serious, Eames takes a more laid back approach to the mind-heist game. But he’s not comic relief and he’s not around to comment on absurd circumstances. Like everyone in the cast, he’s there to help the team achieve their goal (although the script functions in such a way that you could see each character as a representation of a specific idea).
The only actor who’s a little shaky is Ken Watanabe who plays Saito, the team’s employer. His performance is great. He pulls off the impressive feat of being threatening without being menacing. The only problem is that Watanabe’s Japanese accent is so thick that it’s sometimes difficult to make out what he’s saying. In a movie where the dialogue is as delicately crafted as the rest of the film, it’s unfortunate to lose a few lines due to something as simple as pronunciation. And it’s only noticeable because everything in Inception is so finely crafted.
The physical scope of this movie is astounding. Worlds fall on top of each other, a freight train can burst onto a city street, hotels can lose all gravity, and everything that we know is impossible appears completely natural. It’s not enough to say that the cinematography is gorgeous, or that the sound design is sensational, or that this is one of composer Hans Zimmer’s all-time best scores. There aren’t “supporting” elements in Inception. Just as the film layers its narrative structure and thematic subtext, so it does with its technical elements. You will notice the cinematography and the art direction and the sounds and the score. It’s like hearing beautiful solos mixed together in a glorious anthem.
“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
As you’ve probably guessed, when I said at the beginning of this review that Inception was the first movie in over a decade to mix breathtaking action with thoughtful subtext, I was referring to 1999’s The Matrix. The comparisons are inevitable. Both movies deal with the nature of reality combined with pulse-pounding set pieces that will be included in any action-scene highlight reel. But The Matrix is a freshman level course compared to the doctorate held by Inception, and it has nothing to do with how far special effects have come in ten years. It’s about taking multiple genres, settings, ideas, emotions, and questions and weaving them into a rich tapestry that will have folks talking long after the credits roll. But then you throw in those advanced special effects and you have a summer blockbuster that will blow your mind.
You’ve never seen anything like Inception, and you’ll want to see it again and again.