Originally Published: July 18th 2010
How do you capture a dream, something so surreal and fleeting, that we barely remember it five minutes after waking up? People talk about the dream-like qualities of films by Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, but few directors approach the things we really dream about. For as much as we think about the impossible while we sleep, it’s seems just as common to conjure up ideas based on ordinary, everyday life. Just think about how many times you’ve had that dream about an upcoming exam or a previous event in your life that you’ve all but forgotten. Filmmakers tend to focus on our more whimsical fantasies but with Inception, director Christopher Nolan dives into the dreams that really stick with us, the ones that seem so real that it’s only after we’ve woken that we realize it was all a mirage.
In the presumably near future, corporate espionage has risen to a level where morally flexible parties resort to extracting secrets from their rivals by accessing their mind through dreams. Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), a pair of such extractors, are propositioned by a wealthy industrialist to do the exact opposite, insert an idea into a subject in order to control them. The operation is known as Inception. Without much care as to the science or technology driving the plot, Inception quickly establishes the ground rules for dream-invasion; an architect creates the world of the dream while the subject inserts their subconscious into it, whereby their knowledge manifests itself as documents often hidden in secure locations. Akin to what we’ve all experienced, death or a feeling of falling snap participants out of the dream. Simple enough, until it’s revealed early on that there can be dreams within dreams, operated by different architects at each level. If that weren't enough, time grows exponentially with every level, each layer feeling longer than the last.
Only thirty minutes in, Nolan makes it clear that he’s not going to make it easy for the audience. Like much of his previous work, Inception is an elaborate movie, one that drip-feeds you just enough information to keep up. The exposition, rather than forced, feels like a cheat-sheet as the film constantly dares the audience to keep up with it. Things only get more confusing when Cobb’s unbalanced subconscious begins to take over. As it turns out, living in dreams is a dangerous proposition, after all, how can someone exit one reality and accept that the new one is real? While there are themes similar to that of 1999’s The Matrix, Nolan’s take on multiple realities is far more haunting because most people have experienced that feeling of a dream so real that it becomes accepted as the truth. The constant question of what’s real pervades the entire film and will leave it open for wide interpretation in the future.
As convoluted as the plot may be, the film itself clicks along at a methodical pace. At one point planned to follow up 2002’s Insomnia, the complexity of the subconscious spanning plotlines are handled with such timing and precision that it’s clear Nolan knew his story inside-out. Despite the multitude of storylines occurring at varying real-time speeds, the script locks together with a military precision you wouldn’t expect to exist in something as unwieldy as the subconscious mind. The idea that you convert the length of real time minutes into near exact dream world hours seems a bit of contrivance but it’s beautiful to watch in motion. Such an unusually rigid approach to dreams may frustrate some viewers, but it’s intriguing to see how Nolan tries to wrangle together rules and principles based on things most of us have experienced from our own dreams.
Inception barrels forward at an unstoppable pace, especially near the end where just as it seems there’s no way things can get any more hectic, the film one-ups itself.It’s during the many action sequences that the audience may find the time to figure out just how each dream stage affects the others, which is alright because the more complex the story gets, the less enticing the action becomes. There’s an early shootout in Japan and a breathtaking chase through Mombasa which mirror Bond and Bourne respectively and this is where Nolan’s action is best; on a smaller scale where he can use the talent he’s shown directing the action sequences of the Batman franchise. When things get bigger, such as in a traffic jam shootout or the assault of a frozen hospital, the action becomes decidedly more muddled and it’s easy to check out. That’s not to say that there’s an absence of late set pieces; there's a particularly unusual fistfight in the third act that is jaw-dropping. By using the freedom of dreams to full effect, each layer consists of a wholly new locale, from a New York hotel to the previously mentioned hospital in the mountains. The film is consistently entrancing even when the action isn’t because of Wally Pfister's crisp cinematography and the responsibly balanced use of CGI and real stunts.
In many ways it would seem that Inception is a film more concerned with spectacle than narrative but it's a film that continually defies expectation. While the actual plot of the film is just a heist film with a unique objective, the world of Inception and the characters that populate it are entrancing because it seems like Nolan is just scratching the surface of a much bigger universe formed over the last decade. Aside from the two mind invaders, there’s a young architect played by Ellen page who is recruited to both design the dream of the subjects and share the audience’s ignorance as to the specifics of the Inception program. Marion Cotillard appears as Cob’s dead wife but don’t let the trailers fool you; she’s not just some distant memory of Cob’s past. As Mal, Cotillard gives a weighty and surprisingly terrifying performance. There’s also an illusionist, a chemist and a number of Batveterans who make up the rest of a large, star-laden cast. It might seem a bit crowded but the performances are stellar throughout, particularly DiCaprio who finds a perfect balance between being suave and constantly on the breaking point.
Like many heist films, some of Inception’s best scenes come from the group of thieves preparing the assault on the mark’s mind only to see their plan go horribly wrong. Yet most of the characters give indication of a much deeper back-story than is being given, as many of them appear to have a long history with mind manipulation. There are references given to old jobs performed by the extractors and the training undergone by marks to withstand mental invasion, all while the mysterious Cobal Engineering is given brief mention as the owners of the government developed Extraction program. It seems like there’s so much more to this universe than one film could possibly cover and even after two and a half hours, my appetite was not satiated. That’s not to say I want Legendary pictures to fast track a sequel for two years from now, but the world of Inception feels so rich that it has replaced the Batman franchise as the property I want Nolan, and only Nolan, to come back to.
Considering how frequently his name appears in this review, you’ll have probably noticed by now how difficult it is to separate Inceptionfrom its creator Christopher Nolan. Like a lot of people, I see Nolan as one of the most reliable filmmakers working right now. In the last decade he’s made five other movies and by my count at least four of them are great films. It’s not just that he makes entertaining movies; it’s that he makes entertaining original movies that perform well with mass-audiences. Even with established properties, such as Batman or The Prestige, Nolan’s worlds are always worth visiting. He in many ways seems like a beacon of hope in an industry where the unoriginal succeed and the the crap usually rises to the top. Inceptionchallenges a lot of things; the notion that original ideas are unprofitable, that carte-blanche direction is dangerous and the idea that a blockbuster has to be zero-recalcitrance fluff. While Inception may have a few faults, Nolan has created a wholly satisfying and original film that's as entertaining as it is audacious. I can't wait to experience it all over again.
Five out of Five
Directed by Christopher Nolan