Be forewarned, very mild spoilers are included about the content and story of Inception. I’m not going to reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, but I heartily recommend you see Inception without reading too many key details. Trust me. It’s better that way, and Inception is a must see film. On with the show:
There are a lot of ways to look at Inception. It is a Rorschach for the audience; you are able to impart your own prejudices and preferences on how you interpret it. For example, the conclusion can be seen as a concrete happy ending or part of someone else’s illusion. The answer is beautifully unclear, and I for one hope it’s never definitely revealed in some director’s commentary down the line (knowing Nolan, this won’t happen anyway).
My take is that Inception is a heist film of the first order, with many unique twists and variations. (A little “con” film thrown in for good measure, primarily a heist piece.)
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert “extractor” who specializes in infiltrating dreams and acquiring the dreamer’s most guarded secrets. The opening features a dynamic sequence that is a dream heist of energy mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe), perpetrated by Cobb and his team. The heist introduces the rules: how real world happenings impact the dream, how your subconscious can infiltrate the dream even if you aren’t the dreamer, the manifestations of the subconscious that resists intruders, etc.
At one point Cobb is given a “kick” to wake him, where he is dumped in water. At that moment in the dreamworld of Saito’s fortress, water begins to rupture through the walls as the dream “collapses.” Breathtaking visuals mixed with captivating thought.
After failure of the Saito brain drain, Cobb is left with few options. He’s a wanted man in the U.S., unable to go home and visit his children. His angry previous employers are looking for him as well. An offer comes from an unlikely source, Saito. Saito’s challenge is inception. Rather than acquiring knowledge from a dream, Saito wants Cobb to plant an idea in a key competitor’s noggin that will allow Saito to stay in business.
Cobb takes the job with a promise from Saito that he can make Cobb’s problems in America go away (allowing Cobb to see his family once more), and goes about the task by recruiting a team. There’s a forger (Tom Hardy), a chemist (Dileep Rao), and an architect (Ellen Page).
One of the difficulties with the heist film genre is the moral quandary you place the audience in. You are asking the audience to root for someone taking ill-gotten gain from its rightful owner. Many heist films work around this by various gimmicks. For example the protagonist is stealing from worse criminals (Italian Job remake), or the victim a real jerk (Ocean’s Eleven remake), or the thief is trying to reform and gets pulled back into one last job (The Score, Absolute Power).
Inception is saturated with shades of gray, although populated with compelling and likable characters. Saito wants his business to be able to compete against a rival behemoth, about to pass from father to son on the impending death of the father. Understandable, but is it wrong to put an idea in the head of the son to break up the company? Are Cobb and crew morally challenged for taking the assignment? Maybe, but they aren’t physically harming anyone and the end effects may be ultimately beneficial toward their mark, the heir Fischer (Cillian Murphy).
The closest to villains in Inception are projections from characters’ subconscious. There’s Cobb’s memories of his late wife Moll which keeps penetrating the dreams as well as a security force representing Fischer’s mental defenses.
Inception grips the audience in the same way the best heist films do: You want the thieves to get away with it. Which, in this case, means plant the idea and get out cleanly.
Inception is not a perfect film (is there such a thing?). There is a certain lull between the recruiting of the Forger and the entry of Fischer’s brain, and slashing ten-fifteen might have helped. I thought the establishment of the “oh by the way don’t die in this dream or there are dire real life consequences” was a bit strained, but I accepted it and moved on.
One of the areas where Inception is drawing critical fire is for its emotionless characters. Not so, methinks. Christopher Nolan films are plot driven with obsessive men at the center, and this is no different.
DiCaprio is the protagonist, haunted by his late wife whose image he cannot shake. Cobb’s right hand man is Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in what could prove to be a breakout performance (particularly if rumors of JGL as the Riddler in Nolan’s next Bat-film prove true). Ellen Page is Ariadhe, the Architect of the dreams who serves as the point of view character, a sweet girl next door type lured into the dream world though with her own reservations. Tom Hardy is Eames, the smooth and cool Forger, who competes with Gordon-Levitt for show-stealer title.
It’s fun to watch the crew operate. It’s fun to root for them. Nolan wisely makes the mark, Fischer a sympathetic man attempting to live up to his Daddy’s daunting shadow rather than a nefarious corporate tycoon. It adds an extra level of complexity to the piece, already intricately woven and filled with layers.
Another of the criticisms levied against Inception is that it’s a special effects driven film. I think the dreamworld effects are the icing on a great cake.
Many of the effects-driven scenes are literally jaw-dropping. Unlike the Matrix (revolutionary at the time), the line between digital creations and reality is uncertain. The scene where DiCaprio gives Ariadhe a lesson on dream manipulation (featuring a cityscape folding on itself) springs to mind. The highlight for me is Gordon-Levitt’s tumbling fight scene in a twisting elevator lobby, which is achieved through the construction of a rotating set and filmed with Gordon-Levitt doing his own stunts. I generally don’t talk in theaters (unless I cannot restrain a snide remark to a cohort), but I couldn’t restrain a series of “Oh wows!” during that particular scene.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan has found a nitch, with smart, accessible to a large audience, creative, and still commercially viable. This is an entertaining roller coaster that makes you think, leaves much to be interpreted by the audience, and should inspire much debate for years to come.
There is nothing less than a good movie to Nolan’s name thus far. From his indy debut Following to my favorite film ever Memento to Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and now Inception, Nolan is in my view the best director of the last twelve years. I’d put Nolan’s least up against Martin Scorsese’s best in that timeframe (which would be The Hottie and the Nottie, if memory serves).
I have a feeling Inception will wind up on my favorite movie list down the road. I usually give films a year to gestate before I qualify them for a “all-time favorite.” This policy prevents future embarrassment, such as the time I walked out of the theater in 1996 and proclaimed Independence Day the greatest movie I’d ever seen. *Shudder*
What are you waiting for? Go see Inception! You’ve already seen it? Go see it again!
Daniel J. Roos
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