Inception: To Sleep, Perchance To Steal

The great thing about Christopher Nolan is that he assumes his audience is smart. He’s not afraid to throw you into the middle of the action, he’s not afraid to use a ton of ideas in a single film, and he’s not afraid to force an audience to have to think. Many had proclaimed Nolan this summer’s Almighty Savior before Inception ever hit a movie screen, and even if folks had doubts about the project, having Leonardo DiCaprio on board certainly made it seem like a surefire smash. It’s certainly entertaining, with great performances from front to back, loads of clever ideas, and visuals that can only be described as epic. It will frustrate some, as it will likely require multiple viewings for everything to digest, and the visuals and ideas are so busy that it’s hard to emotionally invest amidst the sensory overload and characters more interested in revealing exposition than having heart. Still, it’s easily among the summer’s best, and without question the summer’s most ambitious film– and in a disappointing summer, intelligence and ambition are a rare treat. But masterpiece? No.

Since most of the film is explained as it goes, only the bare bones are necessary. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a special thief who enters the minds of people and steals the thoughts they have locked away. Saito (Ken Watanabe) has a proposition for Cobb: he needs to plant an idea, via a process called inception, into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of a powerful dying media empire mogul. You see, the theory is, if you can take an idea out of a mind, you can also put one in. This is the white whale of dream thievery though, since everyone claims it’s impossible except for Cobb. He goes to his father-in-law (Michael Caine), and he recruits an architect (Ellen Page) to construct dreamworlds to fool Fischer in, with the rest of his team, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf (Dileep Rao). Several problems emerge: Fischer’s mind has been trained to fight back against intruders. Cobb’s past regarding his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) keeps popping up at inopportune times. Every step must have perfect timing, or they’ll never escape from a mental limbo. Oh, and what they’re trying to achieve is allegedly impossible. Tough task.

It’s easy to see why so many people are jumping on the “masterpiece” bandwagon. First of all, this summer has been full of brainless drivel with boring performances and disappointing effects. Here comes a film with more ideas than it can handle, terrific acting, and awe-inspiring visuals. It’s a science fiction film noir, a combination of two of the “coolest” genres around, and it doesn’t give us the same crap we’re used to. Thank God for a film that makes us think! It’s so densely packed with ideas that it will certainly require a second or third viewing for the movie’s full picture to reveal itself. Is that the film’s fault, or is it our own brain’s fault, since it’s now so trained to observe such simplistic thoughtless movies that forcing it to think made it struggle like a man lifting weights for the first time in years? Plus, the cinematography is almost a lock for an Oscar nomination– this definitely is prettier than The Dark Knight which earned one (it’s a better movie, too). Certain sequences, such as Ellen Page’s training and a balletic series of anti-gravity scenes, are borderline classic.

Yet I can’t call the film a classic, nor can I say that it works perfectly. Nolan is trying to do so much with the story that he proceeded to bite off more than he can chew. Everything is so strictly structured and regimented that the film at times loses its dreaminess and becomes your typical action film– in particular, a sequence at a snow resort of sorts seemed dropped into this film out of the 1980s. Now, the action is well-staged, and the story is engaging– but why do some things happen on certain dream levels and not in others? Why do mental projections of characters attack viciously in some scenes but seem to not be a factor in the slightest in other scenes? If you attempt to break down the film from a perspective of looking for consistency in logic, I fear the film doesn’t hold up. When there are so many ideas that need to be introduced into a film, sometimes it makes consistency flimsy at best. Then again, maybe he just said, “Screw it, I can do whatever I want because it’s a dream,” and did whatever he wanted. I just think for some elements to be so regimented and others to seem to come and go when convenient to the plot seems sloppy.

The other major flaw of the film is the character development. You see, there isn’t any among our heroes, really. It’s a compliment to performers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy that they are so charismatic in their parts when they are given literally no story or character traits (both actors absolutely are leading men in their own right). Ellen Page has even less than they do– her part is around to ask questions to Leonardo DiCaprio that we too are asking, so that Leo can then explain in long expository sequences what’s going on. The whole story with Mal gets compressed under all of this exposition and action, and thus it never hits us on an emotional level. We’re asked to care about what happened because she’s his wife, but we never see any of it. Do we see them happy, do we see him care for his kids? No, but he tells us about things that have happened in great length. Again, credit the performers. Cotillard is always fantastic, and DiCaprio does this sort of guilt-soaked mania better than anyone else (he did it better earlier this year in Shutter Island). I just wish the story wasn’t so stuffed and the action wasn’t so plentiful, so we could have maybe taken 5 minutes or so to give some of these guys a reason for me to care about them. We’re having our eyes dazzled and our brain packed– I wanted some heart, too.

As I’ve said, the film is extremely cool, entertaining, lots of ideas, good performances, amazing visuals, etc. It’s absolutely no lower than a 3 kernel film… but it’s no higher than a 3.5 kernel film (I wish I had a 3.25 kernel rating, because that would be perfect). It has all of the ingenuity, tension, and engrossing quality of a Philip K. Dick novel. However, while I was certainly entertained enough to watch it multiple times during the rest of my life, and maybe after more screenings and more time to let all of the plot soak in, the emotional impact will finally take place….it will never be on the level of some of the movies I’m hearing mentioned in the same breath as this film, such as 2001, Blade Runner, The Matrix, or Minority Report. All four of those movies are better than this one, primarily because we cared about the characters. While Nolan is one of our most valuable mainstream directors because of his dedication to sweeping visuals and conceptual intelligence, this is now the second film he’s made in a row where emotion took a backseat to an overstuffed plot. Hopefully, the fact that he’s making some very good movies that are big box office hits isn’t making him insusceptible to someone performing inception on him and planting the idea that heart is the most important part of a film in his brain. Then, he could earn the Almighty Savior crown he’s worn the last couple of years.

Note: while re-reading this review, I’m focusing a lot on what didn’t work for me. The specific things that did work shouldn’t be spoiled for you– in fact, the less detail you know about the film, the better. But it’s definitely a very enjoyable film worth your time, and is absolutely one of the best films this summer. I just didn’t want the masterpiece hype to affect your viewing experience. Anyone wishing to talk spoilers, I’d be happy to do so in the comments section.

~ by russellhainline on July 19, 2010.

8 Responses to “Inception: To Sleep, Perchance To Steal”

  1. great review, spot on.

  2. Wish they let Harvey Dent survive to participate and grow in a sequel.

  3. russell, this review has made my day and made me feel sane again. i saw this with 11 other people last night and i was the only one who wasn’t just gushing profusely over what a stunning, incredible movie it was. your review articulated exactly what it was that made me feel “meh” about the whole thing. with so much emphasis on the visual effects and overly complicated story, i developed no connection with any of the characters, which left me not really caring about what was going to happen next.

  4. i have to admit, when i left the theater i was blown away! but you’re right- there was not nearly enough emotional attachment to the characters. i also agree with you that there were too many ‘typical action scenes’ of cars swerving and guns firing, during most which, i had no idea what was going on. i would have appreciated if there was more explanation for these parts.

  5. i disagree. we definately get a sense that Colliard and Dicaprio’s characters insulated themselves and drifted into fantasy land of obsessive love. what we are left with is to wonder why they deterriorated and how she died. I was definately emotionally invested, that’s your personal experience and no the films fault. also Ellen is not there only to allow Leo to tell us his story, but because shes young, she has less triggers that will cloud her constructing the dream environments they are thieving in.

    i was cool with the rating and the review until you brought up that god awful Minority Report, the over-rated Blade Runner and over-wraught 2001. yes, i speak blasphemy, because nothing is sacredM. Inception is a masterpiece

  6. Longo,
    Nice blog and I enjoy your reviews…

    It’s rather late in the year, but I did find your review accurate. If there was a way he could have stretched the story into 2 shorter movies (a convention that may have worked if he didn’t need millions of dollars from a studio to make and could have released it over the internets…but anyways…) so that the emotional connections or backstory could have been fleshed out and allowed to soak in and some of the plot could have been re-inforced explicitly in the movie.

    I do think your review is more in response to the hype than the actual movie because I couldn’t think of many directors who could have conceived and executed a movie this well. You may use the word ‘masterpiece’ very judiciously, perhaps overly so because it IS a very good movie.

  7. […] Pilgrim Vs. The World 7. Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy 6. Michael Giacchino, Let Me In 5. Hans Zimmer, Inception 4. John Powell, How To Train Your Dragon 3. Alexandre Desplat, The Ghost Writer 2. Rachel Portman, […]

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