Jul 23, 2010

Film Review: Inception

DIR: Christopher Nolan
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon Levitt,
Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy

I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve never really, the excellent and underrated The Prestige aside, got on with Christopher Nolan. I can appreciate his movies from a visual standpoint (well, with the exception of Batman Begins terrible fight scenes), but he’s never really managed to engage me on a deeper level and from the gimmicky Memento to the colossally bloated The Dark Knight I’ve often found his films a bit of a chore to sit through. That said, I approached Inception hoping for the best; the reviews are stellar, the cast is large and talented and between the last two Batman films his ‘for me’ project was the one film of his that I’d really engaged with. Sadly I found Inception to be almost exactly what I had feared it would be; a huge, beautiful, completely unengaging bore.

Inception is basically a heist movie; albeit one that takes place inside someone’s mind, on at least four levels of dreamscape. It revolves around Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) who is hired by companies to enter people’s dreams and extract ideas, but when an extraction goes wrong Mr Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers a price Cobb can’t resist, if he can successfully perform ‘inception’ and place an idea in the head of the heir to a multi-national corporation (Murphy). So Cobb assembles a team that includes Ariadne (Page) a college student who builds the dream levels (and acts as a walking exposition machine), Arthur (Gordon Levitt) Cobb’s long time right hand man and Eames (Hardy), the slightly camp weapons man and sets about designing a dream that can help him perform this seemingly impossible task. Complicating matters is the fact that Cobb is, in the dream world, followed by his memory of his dead wife Mal (Cotillard).

You have to give Inception credit for its ambition, the concept is genuinely different and potentially thrilling, the fact that it doesn’t come off is really down to the execution. The great problem with the script (by Nolan, his first solo writing job since his debut; Following) is that it is so complex, so bound up with different levels of dream, different time frames within those levels, forms of espionage and other ideas that it all but collapses under their weight. The first hour of the film is pretty much raw exposition, as Nolan lays out the rules of his dreamscape and the reasons that it has to be built by a third party rather than Cobb or his mark. In these sequences, as DiCaprio and Page move through very realistic (and frankly usually rather drab) dreamscapes the film begins to resemble The Matrix and its tedious scenes in which Morpheous had to explain the matrix to Neo. The sheer amount of time that Nolan has to spend establishing his world (and frankly its not really enough, I was rather lost by the end, but I’d stopped caring by then) means that there is little to no time for him to spend on character development.

For instance, let’s take Arthur, what’s his relationship to Cobb? Are they friends? How long have they been together? How did they end up as a team? Who is Arthur? The most we ever know about him is that he might have a little thing for Ariadne, but that’s explored for exactly one line, and then dropped. Gordon Levitt is as charismatic as ever, but the script gives him little to work with, and it seems that that’s because it’s much more interested in dazzling us with ideas than really letting us engage with them through the characters. Ariadne is another good example; though Page is also good Ariadne remains rather a blank slate. Her lines essentially fall into two categories; asking how or why something works and explaining how or why something works. Eames (Hardy) is briefly afforded personality on one rather camp line to Arthur, but again the film swiftly forgets this, and he goes back to being a cipher with guns.

Of the large cast of characters it’s only really Cobb that has any depth, through his issues about his wife. Unfortunately Nolan explores these issues in a very predictable psych 101 fashion. He doles out regular revelations about Mal and Cobb’s relationship and the reasons that Cobb can’t see their children, few of which are ever very surprising (and will be less so if you saw Shutter Island). DiCaprio and, especially, Cotillard are strong and make a decent fist of Nolan’s rather bald dialogue, but they can’t rescue the storyline from the sense of familiarity.

The biggest problem though is that I just didn’t care enough. I don’t mind films being complex, point of fact I want them to be complex, but you have to care about the solution to the puzzle. For instance, the various levels of reality in Satoshi Kon’s magnificent Perfect Blue are interesting to puzzle out because the film’s main character is interesting and likable, so her being in peril (or being mad, as the case may be) is engaging. Cobb’s story isn’t interesting, because he isn’t interesting, so there’s no investment. And that’s clearly what Nolan wants us to be invested in because, story wise, everything else is so bland and anonymous. The idea that the team are to implant in Cillian Murphy’s head is a classic McGuffin; there solely to facilitate the plot, rather than to have any real importance to or effect on it. That means, spectacular and cleverly mounted as some of the action is, the stakes always remain low, because the film hasn’t really given any import to this mission.

Nolan and DP Wally Pfister do pull out some amazing shots. A sequence of a city folding in on itself is stunning, and Joseph Gordon Levitt gets a very stylish fight in a revolving hallway, but the pretty pictures are really just window dressing, undoubtedly beautiful, but strangely unmoving. The other technical departments also excel; the effects are seamless and sometimes genuinely spectacular, Hans Zimmer’s score is suitably doomy and Lee Smith’s editing probably deserves an Oscar just for the extended sequence in which he manages to keep layers of action intelligible as they effect each other across four levels of dreamscape.

I like dream movies, and in fact cinema is the perfect medium in which to replicate a dream state, but Inception, despite fairly bursting with ideas, is a disappointment. Despite its tricksy narrative it is pretty predictable (I knew early on what the last frame would be, and groaned when I was right) and while it can be spectacular and I was often impressed by individual moments, none of it added up into anything I cared about or was interested in. Frankly if you want to see a film about dreams I’d point you to Paprika, or Valerie and her Week of Wonders BOTH of which you could watch inside the time it takes to sit through this 150 minute boreathon.


  1. Cynicism for sake of cynicism. The only way you can be so detatched from the characters, and glaze over the subtle constants of their characturisation, is either by going into the movie with intent to dislike it, or adding this opinion in hindsight to have something to moan about.
    Also you should summarise your opinion a tad, I'll do it for you this one time:
    "Its a great movie, every single element astounding, but I refused to engage with it, and so was uncompelled by such mastery."

  2. If you read the review you'll see that I went in hoping to like Inception, and that the last paragraph is a summary opinion. Finally, frankly I take offense at the idea I've just invented this honest opinion "to have something to moan about".

  3. True, the concept is genuinely different and potentially thrilling. I have a couple of movie ideas in my arsenal which this movie has mimiced in one way or another, but still it has it's own watermark to show for.