REVIEW SUMMARY: Christopher Nolan’s new film isn’t quite as smart as it should be and suffers from occasional lapses in pace, but nonetheless manages to be that rarity of rarities, an intelligent science fiction action thriller.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Wealthy businessman Saito hires dream extractor Dom Cobb to plant an idea in the mind of a rival mogul which will make the energy market more competitive.
PROS: A good cast with an especially strong performance by Leonardo Di Caprio; visually arresting, especially in the architecture; deft handling of the dream-within-a-dream sequences; Hans Zimmer’s powerful score.
CONS: Too often favors action over idea and thus never quite lives up to the potential of its original concept; open-ended ending that most genre viewers, and perhaps more savvy general audiences, will see coming fairly early.
Early in director Christopher Nolan’s Inception, dream extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) asks architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design a maze in two minutes that would take someone one minute to solve. Cobb is an extractor; along with his point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he enters a subject’s dreams in order to extract information, a kind of Parker (from Richard Stark’s outstanding crime series) of the id and superego. In order to do so successfully, they need an individual who can not only craft the world of the subject’s dream but also maintain its balance. And they need that stability for the dream heist that drives Inception‘s main plot because Cobb not only needs to enter his subject’s dream but create a dream within that dream, a feat which Cobb’s chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) believes too unstable.
Dreams and the architecture of dreams are the subjects of Inception, and it’s to Nolan’s considerable credit that he builds the movie’s dream worlds with the care and intricacy of an architect. No surprise, then, that buildings and cityscapes feature prominently: as Ariadne designs her initial dream landscapes, cities fold themselves at right angles, stairways in corporate buildings fold onto themselves in an infinite loop (calling to mind M.C. Escher’s painting “Ascending and Descending”), and two mirror cast reflections that create additional streets (reminiscent of passages in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). No surprise, either, that Nolan’s spends so much time taking the viewer on a tour of dream worlds and their logic that the viewer begins to worry that Nolan has not bothered to populate his own dream with interesting characters, thus dampening the viewer’s involvement with Inception’s story.
Fortunately, such fears become unfounded as the movie’s main plot unfolds. The tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and Arthur after a successful audition (shown in a dream-within-a-dream sequence which opens the movie) for a job. Not extraction, but inception: planting an idea deep within rival Robert Fischer, Jr.’s (Cilian Murphy) mind that will lead him to ultimately dismantle his dead father’s empire. (It’s all the more interesting that Cobb’s team is assigned to build a positive emotion rather than a negative one.) Cobb has performed inception before, and therefore knows the risks in doing so. And, despite the difficulty of the proposed job, he needs it: his employer has the power to allow him to return home to his children, who appear frequently in his dreams but who face away from him. Adding to inception’s difficulty is Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), given life and all its unpredictability by Cobb in his dreams. If Cobb is an Odysseus trying to make it home to life in the real world, then Mal is a siren luring him back to the depths of the unconscious.
In the hands of a lesser director, Inception would fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane. (Think Total Recall made even dumber.) In more pretentious hands, it would be crushed under its own weight. (Someone like Ang Lee would be caught up in all of the movie’s potential mythic grandeur.) Nolan balances the demands of the summer action blockbuster with the more intellectual pursuits of his previous efforts (as well he should, since he both wrote and directed), and while the balance is even, it doesn’t completely satisfy on an intellectual level. Yes, Inception explains the logic of dreams and builds some pretty snazzy urban areas (it is the most richly detailed environment since Ridley Scott tricked out Los Angeles with futuristic detritus in Bladerunner), but they are less a meditation than a location, more heady plot device than cerebral journey. And as the movie moves from travelogue to heist, Nolan’s pacing stumbles; the transition from gathering his team to the heist itself is too sluggish, perhaps sandbagged by the need for Ariadne to learn Cobb’s and Mal’s history. Stumbles, but doesn’t fall; as the heist begins, Nolan finds his footing again and deftly navigates his characters through four levels of dream territory with the grace of a ballet dancer and weaves incredible actions into the territory with the effortless skill of the best directors of the golden age of action cinema. Astute viewers will catch references to the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (though Inception, despite some cerebral glibness, has more intellectual candlepower) when Arthur must fight in a hotel suddenly robbed of gravity and in Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as Cobb’s team tries to break into Fischer’s mountaintop mental complex. (Indeed, during these snowbound sequences Hans Zimmer’s score takes on the sound of much of John Barry’s work on the James Bond movies.) It’s obvious that Nolan has learned a lot since about how to film action since directing Batman Begins. It’s also fortunate that he doesn’t ask his audience to check their brain at the door.
I’m guessing that viewers will discuss the ending for a long time (I’m not divulging it) long after Inception’s last day at the multiplexes, but there’s a part of me that wishes Nolan hadn’t gone there. From the standpoint of story it does appear logical, but I could see it coming pretty early in the movie, and I’m sure that contemporary audiences (weaned on M. Night Shayamalan’s The Sixth Sense and who are still abuzz about the ending of television’s “Lost”) are savvy enough to also see it. It neither cheats the viewer (as did the open ending of “The Sopranos”) nor makes obvious its central question (Total Recall again), but merely makes one aware of how used we are to such endings.
But really, the ending is not the point. As with dreams, Inception is not about the destination but the journey. It’s a journey worth taking.