Inception (2010)

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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
Country: USA/UK

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

Like the review? Want the film? Buy it here

8 Comments
  1. Tue Sorensen says

    If you rate the movie according to a standard set up by all the greatest and most original art movies ever made, then I understand your rating. I, however, have rated it more according to the general Hollywood standard, and so given it a 9.

    I was also disappointed that all the effects shots were in the trailer. But then, Hollywood *always* does this. They’re afraid they won’t attract enough people if they don’t show all the cool shots in the trailer. Still, if this movie cost between 160 and 200 mil. dollars, I swear I don’t know what was so expensive. Considering that the characters moved around in dream worlds, I too was expecting a lot more scenes of a “rubber reality” nature, but we only got a few.

    Also, people are saying that it takes two viewings to understand, but I’m not in any particular hurry to see it again. It didn’t have that much of a visual wow-factor, and I know that while I do want the DVD, it’s not a movie that I’m going to be watching over and over again.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    Totally agree on the action sequences but my final rating edged ahead of your one. It’s funny, I really like ALL of the mainstream strangeness you mentioned but haven’t seen the others. Sorry. It’s more a problem of availability than anything else.

  3. Miguel Rosa says

    “If you rate the movie according to a standard set up by all the greatest and most original art movies ever made, then I understand your rating. I, however, have rated it more according to the general Hollywood standard, and so given it a 9.”

    Well, when the film’s fans start making comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick and go about calling it the greatest movie ever, I don’t think they’re judging it by the general Hollywood standard 😉 this movie is being blown out of proportions, so I think judging it against the best and most original is valid and necessary.

    “I really like ALL of the mainstream strangeness you mentioned but haven’t seen the others. Sorry. It’s more a problem of availability than anything else. ”

    I love all the movies I mentioned too. Eternal Sushsine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Has and Svankmajer are great filmmakers, but hard to find indeed. I consider myself lucky for having seen their movies.

  4. Tue Sorensen says

    So (correct me if I’m wrong) are you lowering *your* rating because a lot of people are speaking *too* highly of it? I am also often tempted to do that, but I try to refrain. I think one should give one’s independent opinion, and not try to pull in the opposite direction from the views of the people you disagree with. In politics I might be willing to do that, but in movie reviews I think a rating should reflect one’s independent opinion.

    The people who speak of Inception as one of the best movies ever, are just a few vocal ones – I don’t think it’s the majority view. Inception is a pretty great movie, but it’s a “thinker” more than an “entertainer”. All the superbly entertaining ’80s movies that one can watch over and over, for instance, are much more effectively entertaining than Inception (in my view).

  5. Kevin Matthews says

    I have seen snippets of Svankmajer’s work and think I would love it. It’s a lovingly crafted stop-motion blend most of the time, isn’t it?

  6. Miguel Rosa says

    I judged the movie following my independent opinion; but my opinion of a film is formed in comparison with what I (poorly) know of cinema. I don’t think I’m being too harsh. I think people are so disappointed with blockbusters that they’ll praise a slightly better than average blockbuster whenever it comes. I think if people thought about the movie with a cool head, they’d see it’s not that amazing, either visually, artistically or intellectually.

  7. Miguel Rosa says

    “I have seen snippets of Svankmajer’s work and think I would love it. It’s a lovingly crafted stop-motion blend most of the time, isn’t it? ”

    Most of his shorts are in stop motion.

    His feature length movies, however, are progressively moving away from stop motion. Alice and Faust, his first two movies, have a lot of stop motion. His last one, Lunacy, looks more like a traditional movie, although it’s still ambitious on the craziness 🙂

  8. Kevin Matthews says

    Yes, I remember hearing a lot of praise for Alice. Thanks.

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