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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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