Oh Christopher Nolan, how do you do it? Here is a man I can't help but admire: First he manages to capture the attention of Hollywood with a movie that's told backwards, then he completely reinvents a major comic book franchise, makes one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and if that wasn't enough, manages to make one of the most personal large-scale films I've ever seen produced, particularly at the studio level.
Inception was an idea that had been gestating in Nolan's brain since he started working on Memento, his breakthrough hit where Guy Pearce has lost his short term memory, and the story is told backwards through elliptical moments of the main character's clarity. It's taken a full ten years to see the film realized, but it has finally materialized, and I don't know how else it could have happened. Nolan needed a decade to develop the material, climb the studio ladder to be able to fund it properly, gain respect of the filmmaking community to garner the impeccable cast, please audiences with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in order to ensure that it would be a profitable venture, and last but not least, develop his own visual style and directorial skill to master the technical requirements of such a labyrinthine story.
But he did it, and now it's here to be viewed by the entire world. Go see it. Go see it now. Go see it more than once.
It takes a special individual to be able to think outside the box on such a large scale, but Nolan makes it look easy in Inception, with multiple layers of story and character. Much like a cinematic onion, the more layers Inception peels back, the deeper you go into the story, the more fascinating the whole thing becomes and the more engrossed you are as a viewer. Looking at it objectively, you might think it would be a hard film to follow, but it's not.
Basically, the story involves Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) as a high-tech theif who enters people's minds, with the help of his team, who are responsible for building and controlling the dreams in which they con their marks, to steal precious and highly guarded information without ever being detected. It's kind of a sci-fi Ocean's 11, except the tone is much more serious, the technical aspects much more complicated, and the goals much more elaborately detailed. It seems like a much more mature film in many ways, but still manages to have fun from time to time.
Dom has been exiled from the United States for reasons which are not immediately clear, and is tasked to do one last job to basically buy back his freedom and return home. The job involves something very difficult- inception. Instead of stealing an idea from someone's mind, Cobb must plant one. It's apparently very hard to do successfully, but if one man can do it, it's Dom Cobb. Despite his better judgment, he takes the case and assembles his team, which, like any good con job, are a motley crew of thieves and technical wizards, who all serve different roles. There's the chemist, the point man, the architect, etc., etc.
What follows is a truly special journey into the mind, and into the mind of the mind, and on and on. While it seems staggeringly complicated at first, Nolan leaves the jargon simple enough for most to comprehend, creating a some new slang for certain processes. If there's one criticism that can be had of the movie, it's that it spends a little too much time building the complex concepts that will come into play in the finale. However, they're done with such gusto and woven so well with the characters that it's hardly an issue at all. Once you're into the action, the pace is relentless, and even though several stories are cross-cut at once, the action all remains perfectly intelligible.
Performance-wise, nothing here is going to scream Oscar, but everyone is perfectly cast and clumsy moments are nowhere to be found. Despite the wild subject matter, it's all played earnestly and it's all believable. The suspension of disbelief in this film really relies on the acting, and Nolan passes the test with flying colors. Leonardo Di Caprio is engaging as the brooding Cobb, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt comes into his own as Arthur, Cobb's right-hand man. Tom Hardy turns in a cheeky performance as the point man Eames, and I'm sure we'll be seeing more of him on the silver screen. Ellen Page is perfectly implemented as a young newbie architect with a great knack for creating dream worlds and a pesky desire to sniff out the truth, while Cillian Murphy finally gets a chance to chew some meaty dialogue in a Nolan film as the mark, a bratty heir to a large conglomerate empire with daddy issues. Ken Watanabe rounds out the main cast as the rival businessman who tasks Cobb with the challenge of inception, and it's good to see him play a substantial role again.
The cinematography and scoring work well to tell the story and sell the dream world, a lot of the visual aspects seem to be in-camera effects whenever possible, limiting the amount of digital work necessary to tell the story, which is still a large amount. Hans Zimmer's score is bold and well-integrated, although it's missing that iconic flavor of his earlier work, and even the last two Batman films.
But what would a movie about dreams be without special effects? Well, there are plenty, and they all sell exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that you can't really tell what's CGI and what's not. There are the obvious moments, like when everything on a city street corner in Paris explodes into zero gravity, or when the city folds in onto itself. But all the digital effects are done with such detail that they're perfectly believable, even when they're so outlandish they could be nothing but a dream. And that's where the movie really has fun- in the stretching of time, playing with gravity, large-scale explosions, and escher-like visual gags. One particular sight gag that's set up early on in the film elicited cheers from the audience when it was paid off in the third.
Sure, there are moments where the characters add small bits of dialogue in order to explain what happened to slower members of the audience, but it's all done with great precision that it at least feels organic. The twists and turns of Inception, though easy to follow on the whole, beg for multiple viewings. I suspect even more layers will be uncovered the next time I see it. And I do intend to see it more than once.
Inception is the kind of film that only comes around once in a decade or two. It represents a milestone in not only the career of its creator, but of American cinema as well. If only there were more filmmakers who strive for such well-developed material and technical mastery as Christopher Nolan, then I could justify spending $15.00 to go see a movie in the theater. Hell, I'd even be willing to fork over ten bucks for a small popcorn and small soda, too. Sadly, Nolan is one of only a handful of contemporary Hollywood players that are capable of delivering on such a grand level, and that's a shame.
With any luck, Inception will eclipse teenybopper junk like Twilight and revive my faith in the American studio system. I just wish it wasn't the exception to the rule.