Christopher Nolan’s Inception was perhaps the most widely anticipated movie of the summer; a summer besieged with lackluster remakes and sequels; a summer filled with mediocrity. Acknowledging the depth of Nolan’s past work (in particular, Insomnia and Memento), I too was looking forward to seeing this new sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard, though I remained cautiously optimistic. Now, the film has had an impressive opening weekend at the box-office and has received a tremendous amount of critical and public acclaim. And though it is at times an engaging and entertaining film, it falls well short of its pre-perceived hype that had already declared it a “masterpiece” before it was even released. In fact, there is no reason to even be thinking of throwing around the overused “m” word in this case – the word is so recklessly thrown about too much as it is. But, I digress…
Inception is an easy enough movie to explain, however hopelessly wearing and nearly impossible to follow. That is because this is a film about dreams and nearly everything that we see here is a dream, or a dream within a dream — or as arduous as it sounds, a dream within a dream within another one. It’s an easy out for Nolan and he takes full advantage of it, believing that he is giving the public something to mull over and analyze, when really, he has a full-proof “out clause” for any perceived hole in the story, of which there are a few. Nothing needs to be logically explained here — it’s all surrounded by dreams…the writer’s ever-tempting “fall back.”
Set in the near-future, technology has now advanced to the point where people can enter into and access the dreams of others. Enter Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a thief who specializes in entering people’s subconscious minds and extracting their ideas and thoughts. Cobb is fighting his own personal demons which build in the various dream sequences throughout the course of the film. Living from job to job, he wants nothing more than to be able to enter his home country once again and be reunited with his two small children, who he hasn’t seen in years. Enter the mysterious business tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe) who presents Cobb with a very intriguing proposition and the chance to return to his children for good: rather than extracting an idea from someone’s mind, Saito wants to hire Cobb to implant the seed of an idea into the mind of the wealthy heir of a gigantic business conglomerate (a wooden Cillian Murphy). This process — called “inception” — has seemingly never been done before, though Cobb insists it can be done and takes this one last risky job for a chance at redemption. “Assemble your team!” Saito shouts out from his private helicopter and with that, we are introduced to Cobb’s team of professionals.
Let’s start with that team, shall we? A fine collection of actors who are given very little to do. Nolan is not interested in giving these characters any depth whatsoever and we learn almost nothing about the entire lot. The result is that we are left with uninteresting, 2-dimensional characters who we have no emotional connection or investment in. His right-hand man and trusted associate Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), meticulously plans out all the intricacies of the mission, his forger (Tom Hardy) takes on various identities within the dreams, and Yusef (Dileep Rao) is their chemist who makes sure that everyone is properly in a deep sleep. But Nolan needs someone to explain all of his rules about the dream state to the audience, so he has Cobb hire a new architect (Ellen Page), someone who creates the structural design of the dream world. The dialogue in these parts, is a bit stiff as it really only exists to explain and narrate to the audience what is actually going on. Rao and Gordon-Levitt are fine, though kind of just “there.” Hardy actually brings a charm and certain suavity to Eames, the forger. Watanabe, though very fitting, is very hard to understand throughout because of his thick accent and a lot of dialogue is lost. Clarity is always a good thing. Ellen Page is simply a complete misfire here and brings almost nothing to the role of Ariadne. She plods along throughout the movie with little emotion and I just never bought into the silly idea that Cobb’s associates, who have worked with him for years, aren’t aware of his volatile mental state as it concerns his wife (who haunts him in each and every dream) — but the girl who has been on the job for a few days knows all about it and continues to pester Cobb to let the others in on his little secret. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s wife, and as we come to expect, she is quite captivating here and keeps our attention on her whenever she appears. The scenes between husband and wife are very well done and it’s the only time DiCaprio really gets to work his acting chops. Cotillard’s presence is pervasive, even in those scenes which she is not in. Michael Caine is wasted in his two scenes and it is a wonder why he even needed to play such a thankless role other than having worked with Nolan before.
Of course the special effects here are remarkably impressive, but at this point, isn’t that to be expected? I don’t really count that as such a major plus at this point, knowing how far technology in film has come. We watch DiCaprio and Page calmly sit outside a Parisian bistro as the city is blowing up all around them. Very cool to look at indeed, but when you know the two actors are sipping cappuccino in front of a green screen, it takes something away from the experience. The art direction truly stands out as does Hans Zimmer’s score. Lee Smith has the very tiring and impossible task of making sense of all of this and does a commendable job.
I must say that I was very much engrossed in this movie for the first hour. I loved the dynamic of Cobb and his wife and the idea of inception struck me as original and compelling. Everything is set up pretty well and I’m waiting to see how this mission will take shape. It’s when the team puts their “mark” (Murphy) under sedation that the film slowly begins to go south…and boy do I mean slowly. I have never minded a long film in my life, so long as it’s engaging and worth the time. The last hour of this movie just lumbers along at a painstaking pace you can’t wait for it to end – and that is never a good sign. What takes 40 minutes here can easily have taken 20 minutes, but I fear that Nolan falls so in love with his own vision that it comes back to bite him. Memento is the much tighter, smarter film; not to mention, the more entertaining of the two.
I have read a number of glowing reviews over the past couple of days and I wonder to myself if they were watching the same muddled mess I was watching. There is the idea that people were going to fall in love with this film no matter what they saw (which certainly happens). Perhaps compared to nearly every summer movie out there, this simply looks more impressive than it is based on comparison alone (which happens as well). I know that Nolan has a devout following and this is yet a third hypothesis. Look, I don’t think this a bad movie by any stretch — and I will certainly give it another viewing, which I feel it deserves. But I like to remain truthful and honest in my criticism and as much as I wanted to love it too, I cannot get past the many flaws that are quite clear in this work. In many ways, this is a cold movie — in mood, narration and approach to its audience. In areas it has remnants of The Matrix and Dreamscape, two films that I would give much higher recommendations to. In the end, I know this film will wind up on nearly every critic’s Top 10 list of the year, and I know when I see that, I will still be shaking my head wondering why….hoping that this too will be a dream that I am suddenly waken out of.
Director: Christopher Nolan