Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine
"Inception" is quite simply a great time at the movies. It's as fun to watch its intricately designed and thrilling set pieces as it is to try to make sense of the convoluted rules and logic of the simulated dream worlds it depicts. Like director Christopher Nolan's previous works, particularly "Memento" and "The Prestige," it's a cleverly designed puzzle with lots of moving parts. A game, a magic trick, a mind-bending word problem. It can even be seen as a successful metaphor for film-making itself, but I'm just not sure it succeeds completely as art, though.
And you know what? That's not such a bad thing here. It's about time we got a somewhat original, intelligently made blockbuster action movie out of today's Hollywood. Nolan can continue to lazily fudge plot twists in Batman movies if it means more money for him to take on big, ambitious projects like this.
For his next puzzle picture, though, I'd like the director, who's been unfairly dubbed the new Stanley Kubrick by some overzealous fanboys, to put more effort into the human element of his story. Too much of "Inception's" running time and dialogue is taken up by the characters explaining the myriad rules of the dreams they create and/or invade. This dulls what could have been a profound emotional payoff (my mind was bent by the delightfully open-ended ending, not blown, as many have said), and it deprives us of what could have been a truly great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as master idea thief Dom Cobb, whose character's juicier moments are given to Marion Cotillard, who gives the movie's best performance as the "projection" of the character's wife, Mal. (Trust me, you'll understand when you see the movie.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Cobb's right-hand man, is also good, but he's yet another fountain of exposition. Ellen Page, as the group's new dream architect, is really just there as a stand-in for the audience, to have everything explained to her. She does have some good, funny moments, particularly with fellow rising star Gordon-Levitt (who'd make a great Riddler, by the way), but it's not really a memorable role for her. Tom Hardy, as the group's "forger," gets the most fun stuff to work with, though, especially when he messes with Gordon-Levitt. That the movie has any of that roguish, devil-may-care, James Bond-ish attitude is due mainly to Hardy.
So, why do I care so much about "Inception's" relative lack of emotional resonance? Because the plot centers mainly on Cobb's inability to cope with the guilt he feels about his wife's death and his desire to be able to see his children again, which he can't because he's not allowed back into the United States. A corporate bigwig named Saito (Ken Watanabe, whose strong Japanese accent sadly gets in the way of some important lines) promises to make Cobb's legal problems go away if Cobb invades the mind of Saito's corporate rival (Cillian Murphy) to plant an idea that will dissolve his business empire. Cobb assembles a crack team of dream invaders, and then the movie takes off, even if some of that pesky exposition gets in the way.
A friend of mine who absolutely loved the movie said all of that explaining is necessary since audiences are apt to get lost. Maybe that's what Nolan was thinking, sure, especially when you consider that the movie cost $200 million, but I really think he could have pulled it off without explaining everything to death, and he would have had an even jauntier, more exhilarating thriller on his hands. He certainly wouldn't have had to rely on Hans Zimmer's very good but ever-present score to provide all of the emotional cues, that's for sure. Moviegoers are prepared to suspend their disbelief, and they know you're dealing with dreams here, so why not let go a little? The city-folding special effects (some of the best I've seen), and the overall tone of the movie live up to the potential of the concept, so should the characters and their moral and emotional predicaments.
Fortunately, though, the expository muddle gives way to a massive climax that occurs on four levels of shared, interconnected consciousness. This masterfully edited sequence, which takes up a big chunk of the running time, is genuinely suspenseful and is worth the price of admission by itself, but, thankfully, "Inception" is more than just a stylish and well-made science fiction action movie. It's an intelligent, stylish and well-made science fiction action movie that has kept me thinking about it since I saw it Saturday night. I just wish that it kept me feeling something about it, too.
Rating: ***1/2 out of five
("Inception" is currently in theaters on IMAX and standard screens. It is rated PG-13 and is two hours, 28 minutes long.)