Director: Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight)
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Starring: Leonaro DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Pete Postlewaite, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 148 min
Inception is Ocean’s Eleven taking place in The Matrix with a dash of 007 and a tease of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A convoluted heist film that takes place in dreams within dreams within dreams. The job is to plant an idea into a rich industrialists subconscious (so-called ‘inception’) and get out undetected. The team leader brings his own baggage into the complicated job, and there is danger of the whole operation getting stuck down the rabbit hole as the dig deeper and deeper into the layers of the mind. Made with sharp suits, big guns and practical landscapes and sets, this is the first big budget blockbuster to come along since The New World with a sense of both scale and tactility.
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After all the hype and expectations, I finally got a chance to sit down and watch Inception (on IMAX for maximum visual impact) and I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, it’s possibly the boldest, most original blockbuster I’ve seen, but on the other it has its fair share of flaws.
Inception’s main concept of dream infiltration makes for a fascinating story with some bold, striking visuals. Although it shares similarities with a couple of films, Paprika in particular (cheers Kurt for the recommendation), this still feels like a type of blockbuster I haven’t seen before. As is expected from Nolan, the plot is intelligent and solidly constructed. Even with the layers of complexity inherent in the narrative, it still makes sense and seems hole-free even if some details can go over your head from time to time. Unfortunately this level of complexity comes at a price, bringing up my main gripe with the film. There’s so much to set up in the film and so much to explain that the first half or two-thirds are exhaustively filled with endless exposition. Generally this would be a huge problem for me and I’d penalize a film quite harshly for it, but what is being explained here is so cleverly thought through and the concept is so mind-boggling that it feels necessary. I do wish more could have been explained visually though, because it did start to give me a headache after a while and I was close to losing interest at around the hour and a half mark. The film’s final act drew me back in though and more than made up for it.
As expected from the director that brought us The Dark Knight and Memento, the film is incredibly polished and meticulously well crafted. The performances are all solid too. It looks gorgeous of course, not only in the dream sequences which we caught glimpses of in the trailers, but throughout the film the cinematography and production design is eye-candy of the highest order. The dream sequences were the main draw for me though and they didn’t disappoint. The gravity-defying hotel scenes in particular were gob-smacking. My only concern was that the trailers showed clips from almost all of the most elaborate set-pieces, leaving me wanting more from the film itself, but that’s not necessarily a problem. I found the standard shoot-out sequences (especially those in the snowy mountain) were a little bland and over-used though, stretching out the film’s finale a little too far.
Watching Inception was an experience slightly marred by the extraordinarily high expectations I and most people had for the film. Flaws such as the heavy use of exposition and some pacing issues towards the end felt crushing whilst in the theatre, but when I think back to the film it’s hard to deny that it delivered exactly what I wanted, a thought-provoking yet thrilling summer movie, the likes of which you rarely see in Hollywood.
As my most anticipated film of 2010, Inception had a hell of a lot to live up to in my head, and I haven’t even been paying attention to any of the marketing barrage that’s been going on the past several months. I went in almost completely blind, and I’m glad I did. Was the film quite as transcendent as I hoped it would be? Maybe not, but it was certainly an awesome ride all the way through, and there are so many things it does well that it deserves to be near the top of my 2010 Favorites list, without question.
Nolan’s strength is in his ideas and use of interesting narrative structures to communicate his ideas. In Memento he told it backwards. In Inception, he tells it as several different layers of dreams which also each involves a different scale of time passing (5 minutes in reality is an hour in a dream, etc). By the time you add in multiple layers of dreams, each with an exponentially greater time scale, you’re dealing with what could be a total nightmare of comprehensibility to the viewer, but Nolan does a great job all the way through of making this extremely complex scenario pretty easy to follow without an excessive amount of pandering.
The story is built rather predictably, and a lot of events you could see coming, because despite the multiple layers, the flow of events is still structured very classically, with plenty of foreshadowing and thematic parallels. Despite that, the setting itself and the rules of that setting are compelling enough (though obviously derivative of The Matrix and others) that it still felt fresh. And it doesn’t hurt when you have actors of the caliber of diCaprio, Cotillard, Gordon-Levitt, and Page to pull it off. It’s difficult not to want to compare Leo’s role here to his turn in Shutter Island earlier this year, because there are a lot of similarities between the two and the demons they have to face, but the fact that this truly is an ensemble makes that a little less distracting. My feelings on Cotillard are no secret – I think every movie is better for having her in it. In this case, the film around her is good as well, which hasn’t been the case for the past few of her movies I’ve seen. Gordon-Levitt establishes himself as able to carry a mainstream action film here, and I really loved seeing Page take on a fully adult role and do it well, with none of the ironic hipster cynicism that she’s often called to give.
I said Nolan’s strength is ideas, and though he doesn’t necessarily put a lot of weight and ethical/social conundrums behind them here, the creative design and execution is spot-on perfect. Nolan’s weakness, however, remains his lack of any sense of cinematic space in shooting action scenes. If he (and other filmmakers, this is a pandemic issue in Hollywood) would just step back and realize that putting the camera in the thick of the action and editing a million times a second does not actually make the audience feel more connected but actually has the opposite effect, he could be a sci-fi/action director of the highest order. The one fight scene that really worked was the shifting-gravity one – that was utterly brilliant on every level, and felt very original. But because I wasn’t really expecting comprehensible action scenes, I was content with everything else being far better than your average blockbuster film, which it was.
There are a few times the script takes it a little too direct and obvious, and a few times where it gets a little over-earnest, but there’s enough humor here and there to offset it, and most of the time the film is simply moving too fast and showing us too much awesome stuff for it to really matter. The way that they’re able to explain coherently how certain things about the dream-state work and why they do or don’t work in this particular situation while never losing momentum is something other action film writer/directors need to take to heart. I also thought the central object of the mind-heist was a little mundane, but perhaps that’s intentional – in this capitalistic world of business suits and skyscrapers, the characters have the creative power to do just about ANYTHING within the dreams (that’s the heady possibility that draws Page into it in the first place), yet the job on the surface is dry corporate infighting. But what’s required to accomplish this task is the highest order of creative design, planning, acting, fighting, and improvisation. So the process outweighed the goal in this situation, and ultimately that process was so awesome that I didn’t really care.
Ultimately, the film is not without its flaws, but it’s still pretty damn good and a ton of fun every second (it felt like half its actual running time to me) much better than most everything else this year so far, and accomplishes that thing that all blockbusters should aim for – being awesome enough that you don’t care about its flaws.
Because Leonardo DiCaprio is now making it a habit of playing damaged characters with all the answers and none of them (simultaneously) it is difficult not to look at Inception without it bringing to mind Shutter Island (and a touch of Revolutionary Road.) There is even twin scenes of a rattled and ill DiCaprio leaning into a sink and splashing water on his face to either steel his nerves or wake from the nightmare. Whereas Scorsese moulded his film on the noirish Val Lewton films from the 1940s with Gothic sets, character driven and macabre imagery, Christopher Nolan is building off the new millennium blockbuster of the Wachowskis, Michael Mann and Michael Bay. While he certainly adds a lot more brains to the proceedings, the film is all steel and glass and clean geometric lines. Nolan as a screenwriter is not above the classical mythology name-dropping (Ellen Page’s dream architect is so named after Ariadne, she who helped Theseus out of the Minotaur’s maze) favoured by slightly more pretentious writers along the lines of Richard Kelly, The Wachowskis or the creators of Lost. Do not get me wrong, Inception is head and shoulders above the big budget science fiction extravaganzas of the early 2000s, but seems far more interested in connecting its own dots and shooting off its big guns rather than goosing its audience with the subconscious ugliness that Marion Cotillard represents in the film. Contrast Natasha McElhone’s suicide and confused-yet-aware construct in Soderbergh’s Solaris or the hyper-conscious meltdowns of Naomi Watts or Laura Dern in the two post-millennial David Lynch films. They are all gut punching, heart-ripping moments that crawl up into your brain and lay eggs. Inception is far more concerned with watch-building and origami and telling you the trick before showing you. But dang are those pretty and complex baubles crafted here! As the directors film following the wildly successful The Dark Knight, there is no Joker to put a dangerous and ribald anarchy into the mix. To use another belaboured filmmaker analogy, comparing Nolan’s Inception to the far more down and dirty The Prestige is like comparing David Fincher’s pretty but frivolous The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Fight Club. Maybe it says something about me that I prefer sticky and mean and darkly funny over comforting and visual and slick.
The film wrestles with a concept it explicitly states within the film, “How do you translate a business strategy into an emotion?” You see a $200M dollar venture cannot go to the ickier or weirder places without alienating the size of an audience it needs to earn its moolah back. So instead of the gonzo awesomeness of Paprika, Synecdoche New York or The Fountain we are left with something just a little too polished and linear to truly rattle those transfixed eyes in the dark. It is kind of baffling to criticize a movie for articulating its concept so elegantly to its own viewership, not to mention astounding in its construction, but the parts that should niggle at your soul and vex the brain are all in the structure and not at the heart of things. The trailer for Inception plays like that jittery subconscious video tape from Ringu, yet the film plays like The Matrix. One thing that differentiates Inceptions ‘reality’ from the red pill/blue pill (or going back further, Neuromancer’s ultimate closing bargain to the broken protagonist in William Gibson’s seminal novel – a pact to live in bliss, retroactively unaware of the artificially controlled construct that you have surrendered to) is that it postulates that reality is whatever we choose it to be. In a bull session over beers and wings (or port and brie) I am not going to convince you that God does not exist, or that liberal-libertarianism is the better way to live than the religious right, because both you and I see the world through such fundamentally different glasses that our reality is our own. As M.C. Esher clearly shows, perspective is a harsh mistress (and life is too busy or too comfortable to really face her.) It is Cobb’s greatest trick in that he very likely ‘incepts’ himself, not Cillian Murphy’s heir to boring old billionaire Kobayashi (the ever ubiquitous Pete Postlethwaite) or just happy to be a rich space-tourist, Saito (Ken Watanabe.)
Because nobody wants to build elaborate practical sets unless they can spectacularly destroy them, Inception is as much about tearing down and folding physical space as it is building up ideas. As with any effective dream, we enter in the middle of the fray and stay the duration because the movie stays in perpetual motion, like the spin-top talisman constantly used as a plot barometer. Inception is an admirable collection of practical set-pieces (go go Zero Gravity Hotel!), exposition on dream theory and M. C. Escher writ large as a science fiction heist flick. Yet for all its hubris about the idea as a virus (one explored with more casual humour and paranoia in last years micro-budgeted Pontypool) all the hard science fiction takes a back seat to the popcorn munching. Sure this may be one of the more ambitious and thrilling blockbusters to come along in years, and it rightfully expects its audience to pay attention, but since the platform has already been built with The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all you need is a very fancy train to pull into the station. There sure is a lot of hand-holding exposition that hamstrings its talented cast, particularly Joseph Gordon Levitt who is reduced to slick clean-up operator, Ellen Page as more of a pathfinder than an architect and Tom Hardy as dead-pan comic trickster and sniper (looking so far different from last years serial crazy Bronson that it is uncanny – here, he is essentially James Bond, darling). Michael Caine cameo-ing for less than 10 minutes of the films 2.5 hour run time walks away as more of a human being than just about anyone else caught up in the Rube Goldberg corporate ploy. I will concede the out of left field casting of Tom Berenger who is a bit of a hoot to see as pudgy and a clueless corporate player. And Marion Cotillard, is sexy and sad, but even icier than Samantha Morton in Code 46. (Tangential aside: co-incidence or not that the song to pull people out of dreamland was Édith Piaf’s iconic “Non, je ne regrette rien” where Cotillard has an Oscar on her shelf for the 2007 biopic of the diminutive french vocalist? The song is of course ironically appropriate to the films themes of guilt and manipulation and hermetically sealed happiness.)
So in the end, Inception is more interested in wow-ing you with cleverness, conforming your imagination by showing off the abundant brainy craft, all the while having your plug together the plot and guess the reality rather than searing your soul. There is not a boring minute in the whole enterprise, but it is more of a ride than a consciousness expander. See you at the Party, Richter!
Christopher Nolan defines what a grown up summer blockbuster should be with Inception. So many summer movies rely on turning the intelligence down a notch with the hope that this will draw in a larger audience. It truly is a breath of fresh air to be challenged while watching buildings rotate on top of themselves. Yes, no expense was missed with the special effects which are truly stunning but unlike most blockbusters the special effects help to tell the story and draw you into the world as opposed to just being there for the wow factor. This is something that Michael Bay has no understanding of. So many times over the last few years I heard about giant f’ing robots but when you ask anyone how the story was they get a glass eyed look and say its not important cause of the the giant f’ing robots. Well, Nolan shows us with Inception that you can have the huge special effect and tell a wonderful story.
As this is a joint review I don’t really see any point in going into the story as I’m sure the others will cover it. What I want to write about it how Nolan is not afraid to go deep and complex and because he is willing to trust his audience he can tell a strong story. Not once was I ever lost during the movie and while I do feel that the ball was dropped a tiny bit on what “limbo” was Nolan was able to through complexity on top of complexity with multiple levels of dreaming all interacting with each other. I really do feel that this is the film’s strongest. Yes, the action is top notch, the special effects are something to be seen (I can’t wait to check this out in IMAX if I get the chance) and the acting is very strong.
In many ways Nolan has created a near perfect heist film with a great cast, excellent action and incredible special effects, but it is the complexities of the idea behind the heist and the world we are brought into that set it apart from other summer films. His ability to dig deep into the meat of the story yet still not lose the audience is something to be admired. While Cameron may have upped the bar when it comes to 3D and special effects Nolan has upped the bar with film making overall for mass audiences.
Much like the film that I am reviewing, I expect the next few paragraphs to be disjointed, strange… and extremely thrilling. Simply put, this is an awesome movie. A masterpiece? I don’t know. Christopher Nolan doesn’t seem to care about crafting a perfect movie. Just an awesome one. And this is what I know: Nolan is an extremely talented technical filmmaker and storyteller, but his specialty is in making films that have you standing up with a fist pump and yelling “Fuck yeah!” as you high-five everyone in the vicinity.
First things first – the acting. There is no doubt in my mind that Leonardo DiCaprio is the best actor of his generation. He proven it time and time again and with each movie of his that I see I feel worse and worse about myself because I realize more and more that I will never be even slightly as cool as he is. Even with that though, the rest of the cast also stands out. Joseph Gordon-Levitt particularly has shown us all what he can do with a major role in a major studio film. Many have been saying it all along, but I think we say it officially and with more confidence than ever: Joe is the real deal. The rest of the star-studded cast shines as well (Ellen Page drops the wisecracking shtick for a more subdued character and I’ve never enjoyed her more) and the amount of enjoyability from watching all these actors at work made the flaws of the film much easier to overlook.
The story is fascinating and complex, but rather straightforward and not difficult to follow. While it can be seen as criticism and I am sure that reviewers all over the internet are blasting the film for the telling, rather than showing aspect of the movie, it serves a purpose. I mean, the characters in the film literally explain just about everything, using Ellen Page’s “n00b” character as the plot device to let us viewers know what is going on, how these heists of mind-thievery function, and all the intricate details of the story. It is a necessity due to the nature of the story, although at times it still feels a bit forced, and one can only wonder why someone that is as closed off to other people as Cobb would open up to this young girl so easily and freely.
Nolan’s insistence on using the most intense of music during scenes of casual conversation can be a bit much, but it serves to keep up the tempo of the film and it is a great score, which makes it easier to swallow. It’s also used to up the emotional impact of each scene, which despite the technical genius of the film, it lacks a hard punch during the “hit your gut” moments. We do get to know the characters, but the intimate moments between them are scarce. We get a sense that Cobb and Arthur have been doing this together for a while, yet their relationship is rather cold and undeveloped. Same goes for the interactions between nearly all of the characters.
Still, none of the criticism matters much to me. The movie itself is a blast. With the majority of the movie existing inside dreams, there were no limits to what each scene could contain and Nolan took advantage of that, crafting some rather amazing visual moments. The movie is just damn fun and had my mind so engrossed in the idea of it all, I couldn’t help but leave the theater with a tingly feeling inside. Nolan is exceptional in his ability to craft a film that can be enjoyed superficially by those just wanting to get lost in a summer blockbuster and intellectually for those who wish to delve deeper. There are those rare times when I leave a movie and all I can think about is how much I want to walk back in and watch it again. This was one of those times.
By now you have probably heard that Inception is yet another ‘game changer’ to the narrative art of cinema, that it is Memento on steroids and it solidifies Christopher Nolan’s reputation as a master storyteller. It is, and does. I joked about writing this review prior to seeing the film, giving it five stars and heaping on the hyperbole because I was so damn confident that Nolan could pull-off everything people were saying he did. I have, in fact, seen the movie, and nothing about my opinion has changed; it is a rare and wonderful experience to have unbelievably high expectations and have them met and exceeded.
Inception is, first and foremost, an original movie, one that unfolds before the audience without much of an opportunity to see the puzzle from the top. The pace is fast, but never so fast that it blurred into a flurry of narrative nonsense. Nolan cleverly weaves the rules and stakes of this universe into the momentum of the plot, avoiding extraneous exposition. More so than almost any heady sci-fi film I can think of, Nolan pushes the boundaries of cinema using its malleable form to show, not tell, what is happening: a marvel considering the immensity of what needs expressing.
Admittedly, I did feel flashes of déjà-vu during the film. The most obvious would be the unavoidable comparison to The Matrix with their shared dependence on characters uploading into a ‘hyper-reality’ while leaving themselves vulnerable to attack in the real world. There is an also unintentional comparison to be made to Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the monumental score, the use of the same principle actor and some of the character motivations are eerily similar to make one sit up and take notice. Nolan calls Inception his Bond movie, and several layers into the dream espionage the similarities are impossible to miss. Yet despite these fleeting moments of familiarity, 98% of the time I was watching Inception I felt akin to the bathtub freefall DiCaprio endures in one of the pivotal scenes, completely at the mercy of whatever turn the movie chose to take, incapable of any reaction but the immediate.
And I realize I have said nothing about what the movie is about, and that is deliberate. The less you know the better the experience. Know only that it is populated with some of the best actors working today, it is written and directed by one of the best auteur filmmakers working today, and it will blow your fucking mind. Like he did with Memento, but here with a big budget, Nolan takes a kernel of an idea and exploits it cinematically in a way that nobody had been clever enough to think of before, not Hitchcock, not Spielberg, not Kubrick. It’s not enough that it is a clever trick exceptionally executed but it is also dramatically pitch perfect, reconciling the heady philosophical aspects with the intimate character development in a way that seems like a sleight of hand straight out of The Prestige. From the first to the last shot, Inception works on multiple levels, as a marvel of storytelling, of drama, of spectacle. The criticisms laid upon The Dark Knight, how it perhaps drooped in parts, unable to hold the load of ideas it contained, can nowhere be made here; Inception is Nolan’s graceful masterpiece.
It would be easy to chalk up Christopher Nolan’s newest mind trip as a bit derivative, borrowing from a bunch of sources but the truth is that Inception is, in many respects, a cut above the films it borrows from.
A film that has certainly been stewing for some time (word on the street is that he started writing this while working on Memento), this story of corporate espionage is a combination of smart sci-fi and taut mystery with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the centre of the action and at the crux of the story. It’s his mind, his subconscious, causing the problems and try as he might to stay on track, the memory of his wife and guilt over her death pierces into every dream so you see, this isn’t only a story about stealing (or in this case, inserting) ideas but also of personal salvation.
Nolan’s film works on so many levels that it’s difficult to pick them all apart. There’s this shared dreaming, dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream business which in and of itself provides some excellent fodder for discussion not to mention quite a bit of the story’s thrust. Then you have Cobb (with the help of his new Architect played by Ellen Page in her best performance since Hard Candy) trying to save himself while keeping the plan (which is already in motion) and the people involved, alive.
Things get progressively mucky as we move from one dream space to another but Nolan, a masterful storyteller, never loses track of the story and as deep as we travel down the rabbit hole (or in this case the subconscious), there’s never any confusion as to what’s going on unlike, let’s say, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Some will argue that Nolan’s film is not as complicated or ambitious as Kaufman’s but truth is, Nolan presents a lot of ideas to process and discuss. I’ll take the film I can follow over the film that loses me 40 minutes in any day of the week.
Much of the success of Nolan’s project is in the construction; the visuals (green screen be damned!), the editing, the sound design, the score (in and of itself a minor masterpiece from Hans Zimmer even if it too borrows a little [Vangelis comes to mind]) and most importantly, the script which is fully realized with most every stone unturned and nearly every question answered. Sure, it may not take full advantage of the dream space but then Inception isn’t really about that and Nolan gets full credit for choosing not to play in that pen for longer than necessary.
Is it perfect? No but then few films are. Inception is a rare bird in that it manages to entertain while still giving the brain a bit of a workout. It engages the audience from the opening scene and doesn’t let go until the closing credits, encouraging repeat viewings to grasp all of the minute details. If Nolan has to make another two Batman movies before he’s prepared for another film like this one, I’ll happily take them.
And one more thing – JGL… he steals the show (not to mention that he’s at the center of the most memorable fight sequence in recent memory).
Without too many doubts, this is the best mega-budgeted blockbuster for adults to come out in some time. Handsome, complex, and mature enough so as to not insult its massive popular audience, in the current dismal summer of remakes, reboots, fanboy comic book fare and endless sequels, to have a film of this size and scope be an original screenplay is something to be delighted about! Some of the Row Three folks had issues with the slickness, the ‘mundane and rational’ depiction of the dream-state, and distinct lack of ‘heart’ in the Cotillard/DiCaprio arc (which quite possibly is both the core of the film and also a red herring) but overall, Inception is clearly the multiplex film to talk about this summer, probably this whole damn year.