Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Director: Christopher Nolan

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.)


  1. thanks Mike, been waiting to see what you thought. Last 2 sentences sum it up for me as well. I wish they either chose to make some elements more believable or less to the point where your not trying to validate some concepts. Which as you said would have given time to elaborate on the characters. Ellen Page was there to give info, but I would give her a little more credit, I thought she brought more to the film then just keeping audience up to date. But overall agree with you, glad your able to craftily write some of the things I subconsciously felt. Thanks bud, Id give 4 stars

  2. Neil, thanks for commenting. Glad to hear it.

    You know, there's another thing about the movie that bothers me a little: the fact that it glosses over the morally treacherous concept of fundamentally changing human psychology and behavior for the benefit of a massive global corporation. It's treated so matter-of-factly, as a simple means to an end!

  3. There were really only two things that took me out of the movie. One is the fact that Ellen Page's character gets hired because, after drawing two rectangular mazes on graph paper, she decides to draw a circle that somehow manages to blow Leo DiCap's mind. The other was the third dreamscape, which was basically the Hoth battle sequence from Star Wars without the AT-AT imperial walkers. Actually, that part where Saito throws the grenade in the hatch might as well have been a shot-for-shot homage.

    But on the hole (sic), the movie definitely elevated my pulse. Yes, there was a lot of exposition, but it seemed like a necessary evil in a movie where the director is essentially creating multiple whole universes, each with its owl logic and sense of time. If a major movie studio was going to let this be anywhere near a big-budget summer flick, all the explaining was probably a necessary evil to make the casual filmgoer not feel stupid. Which isn't to say I think the talking dumbed it down, just trying to get meta with it.

    I wish I'd gotten to see the whole team interact more, as the movie in places reminded much more of Ocean's 11 than the Matrix, but with a bigger brain, less shine and even less Carl Reiner.

    Also, I'm sick of seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt in vests and skinny ties. But that's not a comment on the film, just a personal gripe.

    I don't see the Kubrick comparisons in Nolan's work. What I do see is a man who for 10 years has made his bread and butter playing with psychology, from amnesia to sleight-of-hand to the perception of heroes to dreams.

    4 stars.

  4. @Neil and @Grote: Are those four stars out of five or four?

  5. Great review, Colonel!

    I've read a bunch of reviews that mirror your impression of the emotional content of the film. I felt very emotionally engaged by Cobb's story, so I don't identify with your reaction. But you and so many others feel that way, so it must have some validity.

    For me, Cobb and Mal's story was accessible- even if it was not fully explained until the third act. And the Mal we saw was almost a villain (Cobb's subconscious gone dark) but I thought Cotillard kept a level of humanity to that persona, even if it was a projection of a "real" character.

    But you hit it square on the head re: the 4 dream wake-up sequence. That was marvelous editing- damn near perfect filmmaking. So, while we reacted differently to the emotional content, I think as film fans we can applaud Nolan for showing his stuff in this movie.

  6. Meh.

    It wasn't that intelligent. It didn't make me think too hard (no "Donnie Darko" or "Eternal Sunshine" mind-benders that had me compulsively watching them over and over again until I feel like I *finally* figured the damn plot out). Maybe it was all that exposition that you so aptly pointed out. I like the idea of shared consciousness, the whole idea of collective reality and the ability to subsequently manipulate that reality .... but I figured that out about 15 minutes in and then what? The implications of the open-ended ending were, frankly, less interesting than a final distinction between the many layers of dreams and reality.

    The visuals were impressive (very element-heavy with all that ocean, fire, rich wood and snow (which I loved even if it *did* look like Hoth) but the music was overbearing and the emotions were unsatisfying. Who are these people? What's their relationship? Why do they give a shit about each others' well-being? And how do four memories of one dead wife and one memory of two children somehow constitute emotional depth?

    Lastly, since when did escaping into memory to cope with the guilt of one's beautiful, suicidal wife's death become an archetype? Damn.

    Two stars.

  7. you're under-playing the greatness of Ellen Page in this movie.


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