Jul 19 2010

Unreal Movie Review: Inception

Published by at 4:15 pm under Movies,Reviews

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James Cameron spent a decade creating an entirely original universe from scratch for Avatar, down to the vein patterns in a dragon-bird’s wing, or the petal formation of a giant alien flower, but in doing so he sacrificed originality of plot, drawing heavily from other similarly themed films like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai.

With Inception, Christopher Nolan has created his own original universe here, not as much visually per se, but with the entire concept of dream extraction and idea implantation, with its own set of laws based on time dilation and physics. But with that universe also comes a wholly original plot, that may have distant echoes of The Matrix, but this is clearly a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

It’s been hard for the trailers to accurately demonstrate the plot of Inception, making trying to describe it here an even more difficult task without visual aid.

This is a world where the ability exists to enter people’s dreams and steal someone’s ideas. The how and why of this isn’t important, and the film spends almost no time dwelling on that fact, mentioning only briefly and vaguely how the process was originally developed for “military training,” as these things usually are.

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“Don’t panic, you’re just in a Christopher Nolan movie.”

The subject is usually lured into unconsciousness and a team of “extractors” is wired up via a mechanized suitcase into a shared dreamscape created by one of them that the mark fills with their subconscious and their secrets, usually locked away in some sort of vault. The team breaks in, gets the info, and gets out, the subject hopefully none the wiser. Sometimes darker secrets are buried further in the mind, and multiple suitcases can be rigged to create a dream within a dream, but go too deep and you might lose yourself entirely.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best extractor in the industry, and is hired by a former mark (Ken Wantanabe) not to steal an idea, but by using a process called “inception,” plant one into the head of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) which would effectively dissolve his company and leave his industry for the taking. To do this, Cobb assembles a team consisting of his right-hand man (Joseph Gordon Levitt), an architect to build the dreamworld (Ellen Page), a shape-shifting forger (Tom Hardy) and a chemist to keep them the appropriate level of unconsciou (Dileep Rao).

The hitch is that Cobb is still haunted by his dead wife (Marion Cotillard), who invades every layer of his subconscious and constantly insists on mucking up missions. Cobb must deal with his own issues concerning inception while pulling off jobs which he hopes will clear him of outstanding charges and allow him to travel back to the States to see the kids his wife has left behind.

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“Can’t let you do that, Cobb.”

The film starts out a bit slow, with the team explaining every little detail of the dreamworld universe to new architect Ariadne. It seems a bit longwinded and forced, but later you’ll understand how necessary these moments are in order to follow the plot which gets exponentially more complex with each passing minute.

You learn how you can change things in the dreamworld with your mind, but if you overuse this privilege, the subconscious projections of your mark that populate the dream will turn against you. You learn how time slows down in dream, where a few minutes could be a few hours, and the further down you get, it could turn into months, years, even decades if you’re not careful. You learn that people who feel they might be vulnerable to idea-snatching can train themselves to be resistant to such procedures, and when you enter their mind, instead of a few suspicious civilians walking around, you’ll find an army of mercenaries with M16s aimed at your head.

This last bit of info seems perhaps the most absurd, but it’s what allows there to be any action in this film at all. Encountering these “mind defenses” results in nearly all of the film’s epic action scenes, filmed in traditional Nolan style using minimal special effects and actual locations around the globe. These set pieces are stunning to say the least, and though most are memorable, one particular brawl featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an assailant fighting through shifting gravity in a hotel is a masterpiece that one can’t even begin to comprehend the method that was used to film such an encounter.

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What the what?

Christopher Nolan has always been a layered director. Whether it’s the intricate plots of the Joker, the unraveling mysteries of rival magicians, or the fractured timeline of an amnesiac, his plots have always been fascinating and complex. But with Inception, he’s now tipped the scales, and the film now has literal layers, including nearly the entire second half of the film which has four levels of dreams all interacting simultaneously, with each timeline running at a different pace than the one preceding it. Trying to keep track of it all, I had flashbacks to Memento, another physically and mentally exhausting ordeal for my brain, but one that was entirely worth it in the end, as Nolan’s complexity and intelligence make him the most consistently great director working today.

It’s hard to follow, it’s hard to keep track of, but if you can do it, it’s an amazing experience, and the minute it’s over, you’ll want to see it again, something usually said at the end of most of Nolan’s films. A second viewing yields a few things you may have overlooked, and you’ll be able to follow the plot much more smoothly, but I don’t think there are too many buried secrets here compared to his previous projects.

The film is not without flaws, and though they’re few and far between, they do exist. The supporting characters’ backgrounds are completely barren, with all focus shifted onto Leo and his troubled past. His story is a well-crafted arc, but it would have been nice to fit a little more rounding out of the other characters considering the film’s rather long length.

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“Did I do that?”

Nolan writes almost as well as he directs, but not quite. He has a trick that he uses in many of his films, which are certain bits of dialogue that are repeated for dramatic effect throughout the film. Usually it’s some sort of base idea or running thesis that seems ordinary enough, but then as the plot progresses, it gets greater and greater significance. This works well when trying to tie a complex plot together, but in Inception it’s almost out of control, as multiple phrases are repeated so many times, they almost make up the entire last twenty minutes of the movie (“An idea is a parasite,” “An old man full of regret,” “You’re waiting for a train” ). I understand the seemingly profound effect reuse of the phrases creates, but it almost seems exploited at times in the film.

But these are only minor complaints, and they, along with a few minor plot holes concerning the established rules of the dreamverse, don’t unnecessarily detract from the film’s mastery of plot and Nolan’s ability to keep telling stories in ways we’ve never experienced before. With Inception he’s only stacked the deck even further by assembling a deeply talented ensemble cast to bring his mind-warping script to life.

Even with the high expectations Nolan has to live with at this point in his career, he still has yet to disappoint. Inception may very well be the only live-action “blockbuster” of any merit this entire summer, a sad, but true comment on the state of the film industry, where toys and superheroes are meant to entertain us the way a colorful rattle delights a two year old. Here’s to hoping Inception sparks a trend of intelligent event films, but I suppose we will probably just have to settle for one every two years from Nolan himself.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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21 responses so far

  • Bashman

    Great review!! thought the film was awesome.

  • Online9

    I saw Inception on release day in Britain, and I have to say I was blown away, I didn’t intend to see it, we were near the cinema, had some time to kill and decided to go and take a look.

    As someone who’s constantly pre-occupied with his dreams and other people’s I think this film was perfect for me. Add the fact that it was full of meaningful action and with a slight aspect of comedy, mainly from Tom Hardy’s ‘Forger’ (“Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling” *pulls out a grenade launcher* and the comment on the weather in the ‘Chemist’s’ dream) meant it was a fulfilling romp to the cinema, one which (for once this year) left my head swimming with conversational debates and ideas.

    Oh, and the review was pretty good too ;)

  • http://unrealitymag.com Cal

    Its a film that has to marinate in your mind for a minute immediately after watching.

    Despite its brilliance my one peeve which is pretty dumb but still got me a little disappointed was the ability for the whole cast to dodge thousands of machine gun bullets just by ducking in their seats but they all seemed to have flawless aim with their little pistols against limitless odds. At least in the Matrix people ran, jumped, dodged and even stopped bullets.

  • Bren

    “It’s hard to follow”

    It really isn’t. I followed this movie every baby step of pretentious set up after set up. It’s just a reverse heist film with some sci fi and bullshit “question reality” message in it.

    Dark City beats this movie easily.

  • Deepak Ravindran

    @Cal I had the same problem too.

  • Cam’ron

    It’s the best movie of the summer without a doubt. I liked this review, you nailed all of the flaws of the movie pretty well as well as whats so original about it. What I didn’t like was that the recurring dialogue gets really old after a while, as well as recurring shots of his past, Cobb keeping his wife in the literal basement of his sub conscious, the dialogue fell flat sometimes because the acting in parts are kinda stale (JGL failed to impress me, because his character was so bland. Which sucks, because I love that dude in anything) The best acting from Leo was when his wife jumped off the building, and that was cut short. Nolan has a great imagination, and he knows what visuals will work and what won’t. But what he doesn’t know how to do is direct actors or build characters (not just the protagonist) Because I honestly was more interested in where all these other people came from. And I hated Ellen page in this. Also, they probably used the word “deep” a million times. It took be a while to get passed the silliness of the plot (I was so excited for this film, I didn’t watch any trailers or read anything about it) when they were explaining Limbo I was just thinking “really?” but on the second view, you can kinda ease into it. It is the most original movie I have seen in like 5 years, but it is far from a master piece. But people will say it is, even when there are obvious flaws. Because people love Chris Nolan (and understandably so) I just think that if a different name were attached to this as a director, and it was still the exact same movie people just saw, there wouldn’t be nearly as much love for it. But I have to say, I liked it. Just not as much as everyone else seemed to, and I haven’t seen a review that really points out what I thought was wrong with the movie.

  • Cam’ron

    Shutter Island was better. The main characters were the same. Dealing with a dead wife he can’t let go of, not knowing whats reality or whats in his head, the facial hair, the twist ending is even similar.

  • http://www.samswitzer.org/ sam

    I didn’t like how they NEVER EVER mention limbo before they’re already on the mission, I mean I’d think a heist like that things like oh…being trapped in the dream-verse for eternity would come up in planning. Also how they explain to the architect that maintaining 3 levels of dream worlds would be extremely difficult, but that’s it. there’s no dream deterioration or conflict there at all, why do they even mention it? I did enjoy the film, but I don’t think it was nolans best work.

    I guess I was expecting it to be more like psychonauts, diving into different peoples brains and seeing how they are constructed, organized, cluttered, ect. It was disappointing to find they only go into about 3 different brains, and even then they’re “constructed” by like 2 people, so you don’t get to see their own “mental image.”

  • http://www.ppcomics.com xtheenderx

    Its really depressing when only 2-3 directors in hollywood are actually producing pure gold material like inception instead of focusing on how much money they can make.

  • Alex

    I kinda wish you had spend more time on telling how well the actors performed and less on Nolan

  • Aaron Movie man

    I work at a movie theater and let me tell you, The general public are morons. I would say about a third of people didn’t “get” this movie. Its so disappointing that movies like furry vengeance are made because of these people. I thought this movie was great. Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is a ghost.

  • Cam’ron

    I also work at a movie theater, and the reason movies like Furry Vengeance are made is because movie theaters have just turned into day cares.

  • Aaron Movie man

    I work with a guy named cameronnary. Do you work at Regal or another chain?

  • http://unrealitymag.com Cal

    @Cam’ron

    Your comment is so full of win.

    I’m more curious as whether this is the rapper Camron :)

  • Madison

    @ cameron

    Oh, the CoM and Cloverfield comments were just meant to point out that not everything needs to be explained in a film for it to be effective. I mean, look no further than 2001.

  • MisterMJ

    I very much enjoyed the movie. Terrific (if not underutilized) cast and great “story” … the final 1/3 of the movie was as well-crafted as any movie in recent years. The movie was not really difficult to understand at all … but I think some people who didn’t “get” the movie stopped paying attention during the first 15 minutes or so – so they missed out on some important details. Too often, the short-attention-spanned masses expect the story to be spoon-fed to them – oh, he’s the GOOD guy … oh, he’s the BAD guy … oh, this is the CONFLICT … oh, this is what HAPPENS.

  • tom

    Loved it, still thinking about it days later – the people who didn’t get it are probably the same people (in my theater) who thought it would be a good idea to show up ten minutes late, or who apparently have the bladder of ten year olds and needed to take bathroom breaks every half hour, or the oh-so-important folks who had cell phone calls they had to take (at least they left the theater to do so).

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  • Charlie Tuna

    I was wondering about how they characters were being shot by dozens of bullets, but never getting hit, yet they could should with amazing accuracy… I just put it down to the fact there dream state was stronger than the suspicious state that was tryinjg to kill them… i mean, who wants to be shot in there dream? They, for the most part, were able to choose to not be shot.

  • Bert

    I think I need to re-watch it to see exactly what parts of the movie DON’T line up with the rules that they set out. For example – Ken Watanabe’s character. He’s obviously a relative newcomer to all of this, since he’s a mark (and you don’t want the marks to remember the Extraction), but after they get out of the dream, he almost immediately remembers, and knows about Inception? And he and Ariadne, despite being unpracticed, are able to go three layers deep into a dream later on while remaining absolutely coherent that they are navigating dreams, knowing which layer they are on, and remembering that the music is the cue to the “kick”, despite the “sedative” allowing experienced Extractors like Cobb to get as close to an actual dream as possible? Wouldn’t the inexperienced extractors become confused at the higher dream levels? They’d be almost clueless at level three, but Ariadne isn’t.

    Secondly, in that same dream, the subconscious of everyone is focused on the dreamer (and ONLY on the dreamer), right? They explicitly show the mob attacking just the guy who’s dreaming. So why is it that later in the film, (supposedly) Fischer’s subconscious starts attacking EVERYONE, and not just the original dreamer on the plane (who I wasn’t clear on)?

    Thirdly (and this is just nitpicky), I recall the tempo of the music being the same on every dream level. But since 5 minutes is like an hour in each successive level, shouldn’t the tempo slow down? Like, to the point that it’d be unrecognizable past the first level?

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