The director Christopher Nolan has a knack for making movies that demand to be seen twice - at least twice. I use the word “knack” instead of “gift” because seeing a movie a second time isn’t always a blessing. So far, though, it’s been a treat to re-watch Nolan’s films, from Memento to The Dark Knight. That’s also the case for Inception, a film that’s very good but not quite great. Like Nolan’s other efforts, repeat viewings allow us to understand the plot better, but we don’t necessarily become more emotionally attached.
Movie Review: Inception
By Matthew Huntley
July 21, 2010
This is a thick, multi-layered thriller that combines action, drama, science fiction and tragic romance into one mind-bending puzzle. It’s absolutely imperative you go into the movie alert and attentive because it’s easy to get lost. Whether that’s a credit or flaw to Nolan as a writer-director is up for debate, but as much as I admired certain aspects of this movie, its elements do not always come together seamlessly and for all its ideas and innovations, it leaves us at a bit of an emotional distance from the characters. Yet, as a pure endurance and intelligence test, we haven’t seen a movie like it in a long time.
In the movie, "inception" is the process whereby an idea gets implanted into someone’s mind via a dream. On the other side of the coin is extraction, in which a person’s own implicit idea is stolen by an intruder, or extractor, also via a dream. The latter is what we find Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doing at the beginning. They’re trespassing in the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of a global energy company. They’ve been hired to infiltrate Saito’s mind in order to uncover plans for his company’s expansion.
Saito, however, discovers what they’re up to, but rather than turn them in, he offers them another job. He wants Cobb to enter the dream of his dying competitor’s son, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), and convince him to sell off his father’s company, thus giving Saito a monopoly on global energy. In order to do this, Cobb and his team must convince Robert that the idea to break up his father’s empire is his own.
In return, Saito, a very powerful man, will arrange for Cobb to safely and legitimately return to the United States. Cobb has been charged with killing his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), but before he could be arrested and sent to jail, he fled to Europe. As Cobb tells his father-in-law (Michael Caine), this last job could be his ticket to freedom and allow him to reunite with his two children.
There is, of course, a lot more to this story and the plot gets increasingly complex as it speeds along. I’ve only provided the set up. Ellen Page plays Ariadne, an architecture student in Paris whom Cobb recruits to be the dream’s designer, and Tom Hardy is Eames, a thief with a gift for impersonation. His talent comes in handy because once the dreamer’s subconscious is aware a foreign body has entered the mind, it creates projections to attack it. Eames’ job is to assume the identity of Robert’s trusted godfather, Browning (Tom Berenger), so that even Robert’s subconscious won’t start fighting back and the team can carry out its mission. They have enough trouble fending off Mal, who constantly invades her husband’s subconscious and begs him to stay in her non-reality.
Like The Matrix, to which this film will no doubt be compared, Inception contains a lot of dialogue about heavy subjects like the mind, the sub-conscious, the rules and regulations of inception, and its limitations and consequences. All the while, we work hard to keep track of them and make sure the screenplay doesn’t cheat. From what I can tell, it doesn’t, and I’ve seen the movie twice, but I’m ready to be proven wrong. Inception is the type of movie that sparks a lot of theories, not only about what really happened but also why certain things happened. It’s a trip.
Even after a second viewing, I can’t say for sure why certain things happened. I can, however, tell you the movie is definitely worth seeing, but be prepared to be lost and frustrated as you try and remember how many dream levels the characters have entered and why the laws of physics are being broken. To Nolan’s credit, everything gets explained at one point or another, but the dialogue is so fast and sometimes delivered so casually, we forget to let our own mind register what each person is saying and forget that their words are extremely important to our understanding of this world. This is one movie where brains cannot be checked at the door.
As usual for a Christopher Nolan film, Inception is loaded with special effects, but they’re all top notch and seamless. There’s an incredible sequence where Arthur must find a way to get the other team members to fall down (this is the “kick” that would eventually wake them from the dream), but for reasons that I’ll let you discover, gravity is no longer working in his favor, and with the help of some astonishing practical effects, he improvises. I would really like to know if all the actors took part in this sequence simultaneously because it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
Another Nolan trademark is the expansive cityscape photography, which is put to full use here. The look and design of this film is vast and hypnotic, and although it’s a bit showy, it’s done at the service of the story, not as a substitute for it.
But as ambitious as this film is, and as highly anticipated by being Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight, it’s not perfect. I found some of the movie to be exhausting, and not because the plot was so intricate, but because it overshadowed the emotions of the characters. It has a hard time balancing intelligence with heart.
There is a tragic love story at the center and it’s meant to drive Cobb, but it’s strangely distant and we don’t feel or sympathize with his pain as much as the movie thinks we do. The performances are strong and enthusiastic, but they seem less driven by human passions than by the requirements of the plot. When characters cried or gave looks of deep understanding, I wasn’t with them. I was too busy trying to remember specific plot details. The movie packs a mind punch, but not an emotional one, which is really what we need to be fully involved.
Perhaps I’m due for a third viewing, but I’m not convinced my heart will ever be as exercised by this film as much as my mind. Don’t get me wrong - it’s great when your mind gets a work out, but when a story depends on such a strong emotional crux - Cobb wanting to return to his kids - we need more than Inception provides.
Nevertheless, this is a glorious film to behold. Nolan is an astute, serious filmmaker and it shows in all the technical aspects of his work, but we can’t deny he still has to work on his characters’ pathos. That limitation prevents Inception from fully enveloping us. With its plot and design, Inception is one of distinguishable films of the year, but because we feel too removed from the people, it’s not one of the best, even though many of us were convinced it would be.