Like many people anxious to watch Inception, I spent many hours online reading news, watching trailers, and just sharing my enthusiasm about it. Then I began reading weird rumours about the film involving time travelling (it doesn’t) and other potential spoilers, and I decided it was time to get away from the hubbub and wait for it in isolation. I wanted to watch the film as purely as possible. I only allowed myself one treat; I didn’t resist listening to my beloved Hans Zimmer’s score in advance. I never imagined my feelings about the music would reflect my feelings about the film. I expected an exquisite delicacy and instead got a steak with fries. And afterwards I was still hungry.
By now word of mouth has taken all the secrecy away from the story, so let’s be brief about it. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, the leader of a criminal crew that infiltrates the minds of people during their sleep to steal their ideas and sell them. After a botched assignment, Cobb and his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), are hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to do the reverse: instead of stealing an idea, they must implant an idea in a victim’s subconscious, implant it so deeply that he won’t doubt it came from himself. The victim is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir of an energetic mega-conglomerate that threatens to have monopoly over half the world’s energy supply. The idea is to convince him to dismantle this empire. For this epic assignment Cobb hires the architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), the forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao).
Inception has the best ensemble cast I’ve seen so far this year. That doesn’t mean it has the best acting – I think that honour still goes to Shutter Island, which had heartbreaking performances by Ben Kingsley and DiCaprio himself. But the viewer can be sure that a film that contains all the talent mentioned above plus Marion Cottilard plus cameos by Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite, is at least captivating on account of all the charisma walking in and out of the screen every two seconds.
I think the film needs all this charisma to satisfy because it doesn’t offer much else in terms of entertainment. One of the greatest crimes a film that takes place in dreams within dreams within dream within dreams (yes, you counted it right), can be accused of is being visually dull. Anyone who saw the trailer has nothing else to look forward to, it’s all there: the zero gravity hallway fight scene, the city folding, the snow power station attack, the collapsing urban landscapes. The film only expands on the trailer, it has no other impressive scene. Any artist worth his salt only uses dreams as a theme if he wants to show something visually interesting. Dreams aren’t held by physical laws; they’re limitless, strange, threatening. In Christopher Nolan’s world, however, I can see stranger dreams if I just look outside my window.
Christopher Nolan is not a particularly inventive filmmaker. There’s no visual exuberance in his films. I noticed this when he turned Gotham City, a wonderfully Gothic and oppressive landscape in the Batman comic books, into a replica of any American city. Midas’ touch turns things into gold. But Nolan’s touch turns uniqueness into banality. Not even dreams are safe from him. Defenders will rise to say that the realism of the dreams is the point. But then why dreams? Who makes a film about Mozart to ignore his music?
Many will also say that Inception is a strange film. That’s arguable, of course. It’s ambiguous enough to allow several interpretations. But it makes sense most of the time. Good writing and good editing contribute to that. I think this is also what made Nolan’s previous attempt at a mind-boggling film, The Prestige, so satisfying. He’s a fair director. He takes time to show everything the viewer needs to know to understand what’s going on, and the film’s rhythm is slow. Inception is strange in the sense that other mainstream, but quirkier than average, films are called strange, like The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s strange in a very limited way, custom-made for audiences that have been deprived of strangeness for so long that they can’t recognise it anymore; it’s a strangeness that hardly brings dignity to the true strangeness unleashed by Wojciech Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium or Jan Svankmajer’s Faust.
This banality applies even to the action. There are directors who’ve revolutionised the way action is filmed: John Woo, the Wachowski brothers, even Michael Bay. But Inception, with the exception of the inventive hallway fight scene, leaves much to be desired. Car chases and gun fights play out much the way we expect, with little elegance or imagination.
Inception’s saving grace is that, for an action thriller, the main character is far more complex and engaging than usual. Cobb is a man tormented by past horrors, separated from his children, running away for a crime he didn’t commit. When he enters dreams his subconscious takes the form of his dead wife, Mal (Cottilard), always ready to foil his plans. Cobb isn’t just a cool thief but a man trying to get his life back and DiCaprio makes him effortlessly sympathetic.
I don’t know why, but I feel bad for not liking Inception more. Cinema certainly needs ambitious films that mix intellect with action; that dare to be unique while being familiar. Inception is a respectable failure, in my view, but is a step in the right direction. I hope at least it inspires other filmmakers to move in the same direction.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cottilard, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy
Runtime: 148 mins