Inception (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

July 15, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Inception Poster

Undoubtedly, some reviews are going to describe Inception as confusing. Such a description confounds me, and may be more indicative of how accepting people have become of screenplays that allow for no ambiguity and traverse plotlines by blazing trails that even a blind man could follow. For those who pay attention, Inception is not confusing. It is smart, taut, and does not reward indolence. If you zone out or make a trip to the snack bar, it will lose you. All it asks of viewers is that they do something rare: engage the intellect. Details may elude even the most attentive viewer, but the big picture will remain in focus. Despite layering dream upon dream and blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, writer/director Christopher Nolan has meticulously established Inception in such a way that getting lost is not an option. Is it a mind fuck? Maybe, but not one that leads to endless frustration. Nolan has a story to tell and he tells it. His main goal - at least until the end - is not screwing with the viewer's perception. He provides enough clarity that we know where we are and what we're watching and that we don't founder.

In fact, one could make an argument that the straightforward nature of Nolan's approach to such potentially mind-bending material is one of Inception's weaknesses. By pulling his punches, so to speak, and keeping things mostly linear, Nolan disallows the possibility of the screenplay turning into a Mobius Strip. Influences include, most obviously, Dark City and The Matrix. There's also a sense of kinship with Martin Scorsese's recent Shutter Island, not only because that film also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, but because both productions toy with narrator perspective and the intersection of illusion with reality. However, the strongest synergy I can think of is with the TV series Caprica (the prequel to Ronald Moore's Battlestar Galactica remake), which uses a similar approach to the one employed in Inception to explore virtual realities.

Inception unfolds is a near-future setting in which devices have been invented that allow individuals to invade the dreams of others and, if they're clever and experienced enough, extract secrets revealed by way of the subject's subconscious. One of the best such thieves is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is being recruited for a job by corporate magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) after failing in an espionage attempt to steal one of Saito's secrets. At first, Cobb isn't interested, but then Saito offers a carrot that Cobb can't refuse: the opportunity for past crimes to be forgiven - something that would allow him to return to the United States and see his two young children. The nature of Cobb's infractions is not immediately revealed, but they involve his wife (Marion Cotillard).

What Saito wants is not an ordinary request. Instead of asking for an extraction, he demands an inception - the implantation of an idea deep in the subconscious that will bear future results. Most dream thieves consider this impossible, but Cobb disagrees, because he has done it. It's risky and dangerous, but possible. The target is Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who has just inherited the corporate empire built by his father (Pete Posthelthwaite). Cobb assembles his team, beginning with his frequent compatriot, Arthur (Joseph-Gordon Levitt). Together, they recruit an "architect" - the individual who builds the dream worlds. She is Ariadne (Ellen Page), a student studying under the tutelage of Cobb's father-in-law (Michael Caine). After Ariadne undergoes her training (which serves as a tutorial for the audience, as well), the final two members are brought on board: Eames (Tom Hardy), who can impersonate anyone in a dream, and Yusef (Dileep Rao), a chemist whose drugs can keep sleepers sedated or bring them back to wakefulness. Together with Fischer and Saito, these five travel into a dream-within-a-dream-within-a dream where, three levels deep, they attempt the inception.

Inception is a less challenging project than Memento, which brought Nolan to the world's attention. It isn't as convoluted and the payoff, despite toying with our expectations, lacks the boldness of the earlier production. Still, this is a very good film that involves the intellect while at the same time not ignoring the visceral. There are numerous straightforward action scenes, including Matrix-like gravity-free hand-to-hand combat and a car chase, that inject some adrenaline into the proceedings. In fact, the entire second half of the film amounts to one massive, carefully choreographed sequence of escalating suspense as dangerous circumstances unfold across three levels of dreamscapes. Hans Zimmer's pounding score and Nolan's careful cross-cutting tie everything together perfectly.

As intellectually involving as this material is, Nolan wisely does not ignore the need for the viewer to have a strong emotional attachment to the main character. Cobb's backstory unfolds gradually, with the screenplay dropping pieces, like crumbs, in front of the viewer at regular intervals. We learn the truth about his relationship with his wife and children during the course of the narrative and, as one might suspect given Nolan's apparent anti-happiness bias (his movies aren't exactly carefree and joyous), there are tragic elements. Cobb is the only character who experiences significant development - the other members of his team are secondary. They get plenty of screen time but we know little about them beyond their functions within the scheme.

Seemingly half of the Batman Begins/The Dark Knight cast is on board for this production: Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine. Of course, when working with actors of that caliber, it's hard to go wrong. Apparently, DiCaprio, in addition to being Martin Scorsese's current day Robert DeNiro, was always Nolan's first choice for Cobb, and the versatile actor brings the full weight of his talent to bear on a difficult role. DiCaprio has to hint at unpleasant secrets in Cobb's past while forging a bond with the audience. It's up to the performer to make Inception more about human beings than about special effects. He succeeds and that's one reason why this movie isn't only about challenging ideas and eye candy.

The special effects in Inception serve the story, rather than the other way around - which is a rare occurrence these days, when the emphasis seems to be on providing viewers with visual amusement park rides. In this case, we are presented with cities where streets defy gravity by arching overhead and massive cliffs that collapse into the sea. There is a point to everything, most often to illustrate how dreams distort the commonplace into something that defies the natural laws.

Is Inception cerebral? Yes. Is it too cerebral for mass audiences? I would argue that's not the case. In a sense, one gets out of Inception what one is willing to put in. Those looking for an action/adventure film can identify that, although 148 minutes is a little long for something so simplistic. Those willing to think and puzzle a little more will find that the twists and turns of the narrative aren't as labyrinthine as they initially appear. Inception is more accessible than obtuse. It proves, among other things, that Nolan has been unwilling to bask in the success of The Dark Knight. Looking for new and exciting challenges, he has found one here.

Inception (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 2010-07-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1