Inception (Warner Bros.)
So here’s the problem with Inception. Molded from remarkable ambition and complexity, the film must spend a considerable amount of time introducing and explaining its significant set of rules and procedures. At the same time, Inception requires us to understand these rules—to grasp this intricate swirl of concepts—in order to appreciate, to experience their application within a maddeningly complicated—and yes, captivating—surreality.
For whatever reason—be it time constraints, studio expectations, or simple lack of resourcefulness—neither side of the coin (the learning on one, the experiencing on the other) is able to fully flourish (and a deficit on one side further impairs the other), and Inception fails to meet the tremendous potential of its premise.
As for that premise, I won’t even attempt to explain it in full here. To be honest, I probably couldn’t if I tried; hasty scenes of heavy exposition made sure of that. In a (very large) nutshell, agents specializing in subconscious espionage manipulate the fragile dream state to extract information from their sleeping targets. How they do this is where things get perilously tricky (it involves a suitcase device made of wires and tubes, no doubt accompanied by a thick instruction manual), but each member of the team serves a specific purpose.
Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as Dom Cobb, the “extractor,” or acting manager of the crew. He oversees each operation and, once inside the dreamscape, sways the target (fleetingly dubbed “the mark”) to fill the surroundings with his secrets. Hyper-drama mainstay Leonardo DiCaprio revisits here the crackling urgency of his Shutter Island performance; only this time, our connection to his nerviness is woefully thin.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is somewhat Cobb’s sidekick and also the “point-man,” responsible for ensuring the safety and stability of the dream. (The dream begins to decay if the target realizes that something is off, and properly trained targets can enlist their subconscious “projections” to fight back against invaders.) Tom Hardy’s Eames can, as “the forger,” take the form of other humans to facilitate the charade of a normal dream (whatever that is). “The architect,” the one to physically design and realize the layout of the dreaming world, becomes the newly-recruited Ariadne (Ellen Page), who also helps introduce us to the subconscious “extraction” process via her training and conversations with Cobb.
The gang is licensed by a businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of a competitor (Cillian Murphy)—not to “extract” information as is routine, but to plant a new idea as if it were the dreamer’s own. This process (proclaimed “impossible” multiple times, and therefore all but certain to be attempted), the act of suggesting a concept to an unconscious target in the guise of personal inspiration, is heralded (and heralded, and heralded) as “inception.”
Did you follow that? Me neither. And that’s just Inception 101. That we must essentially learn, comprehend, and then apply highly detailed, graduate-level material borders on exasperating. And yet the entire ordeal, as confounding as it may be, is never short of fascinating.
If nothing else, director Christopher Nolan has shown time and again that he knows how to dazzle an audience (his filmography includes The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight)—to fill our senses with the purest form of awe. Inception features mind-bending visual constructions—a streetscape folding back onto itself, a physics-defying fight scene on ceilings and walls, decaying skyscrapers bursting into fragments—captured with brooding precision by cinematographer Wally Pfister, and strung together with a taught, thunderous immediacy by film editor Lee Smith (guided by Hans Zimmer’s ubiquitous and equally thunderous score).
As fuel to the fires of our immediate perceptions, Inception is about as powerful, as marvelous as it gets. Technical Oscar nods, if not wins, are all but certain. Running at just under two-and-a-half hours, the film roars past at a feverish pace. But within its compaction of visual splendor, logistical calculation, and near incessant explanation, I have to wonder, so what? Where, aside from the very superficial (as deep as this sort of superficial can be felt), is the art? Where is the feeling? Where is the emotion?
Inception is so very cold: its steely, glass-and-gears design matches a seeming disinterest in everything but mechanical concepts. The simplest of considerations (and most basic narrative requirements) go unaddressed by Nolan. What of the morality of invading someone else’s subconscious? What of the greater effects—the emotional, the spiritual—of engaging in subconscious subterfuge, of manipulating and moving through layers of reality? Who are these characters, aside from their roles as carefully placed pawns in Christopher Nolan’s Inception game?
The closest we get to personal insight comes from the spectral presence of “Mal,” Cobb’s dearly departed wife, and routine invader of his subconscious space. Cobb’s refusal to put his memories of her to rest has a nasty tendency of sabotaging his dream-world reconnaissance work. Though she plays a mere shadow, a splintered soul, Marion Cotillard wields a devastating intensity as she both haunts and is haunted by the infinite possibilities of a dreaming unreality. If the Oscar conversation for Cotillard’s performance has not yet begun, it’s surely, and deservedly, imminent. When Mal appears, the emotional stakes are considerably raised; then Christopher Nolan goes on to explain away her purpose of being. Once again, calculation triumphs over feeling.
But for that pesky deficiency in deeper exploration (and obsession with the explaining game), Inception comes frustratingly close to playing as a masterpiece. The size of its ambition, the audacity of its technique, the seduction of its concept has a steamrolling effect that I haven’t felt from a film in quite some time. Not since James Cameron’s feted groundbreaker Avatar (and before that, who knows when?) have I left the theater craving a return to a cinematic idea.
Christopher Nolan has proven himself the ultimate dream-weaver; perhaps next time, he can build a sturdier bridge into our reality. With this in mind, I would welcome a sequel to Inception–one that is as finely tuned to the layers of artistry as it is to the layers of the subconscious mind. I’d even be eager to give it a whirl in 3D. Now those are two things you won’t hear from me too often.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.
Runtime is 2 hours, 28 minutes.