The word hype has seldom been used as aptly as it was for the release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Every media outlet in the world (including this one) was excited to see the latest movie from the $1 billion dollar man and a terrific actor in the prime of his career. With a budget reportedly in excess of $200 million and a high-concept plot more fitting for a Freud essay than a summer blockbuster, there was bated breath aplenty and a heap of expectation. So is Inception comprehensible? And does it live up to the billing? The answer to both of these questions is no, but it’s still an interesting flick…
Our protagonist is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, a master corporate spy who excels in the art of ‘extraction’ – breaking into people’s subconscious through dreams to steal their secrets. Offered the chance to get back to his children by business magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb assembles a crack team to break into heir Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind and attempt to not remove, but insert an idea. This process is called ‘inception’, and it’s pretty damned tricky. Especially when your gorgeous ex-wife (Marion Cotillard) keeps breaking out of your subconscious and sabotaging your efforts…
The above is about as far as you can go into Inception‘s plot before it gets really complex. DiCaprio and his mob – Joseph Gordon-Levitt (very watchable), Ellen Page (adorable but somewhat uncomfortable) and Tom Eaves (fantastic) chief among them – have to construct a multi-layered dreamscape to lure Fischer into a false sense of security and make him think that the idea they’re planting (to break up his father’s business empire, allowing Saito’s company to overtake them) was his own, not theirs. The level of detail Nolan equips his plot with is impressive, as we dive at one stage into a four-layered dream: on each level time moves slower, making for a thrilling final sequence where time really is of the essence and the team must awake from four dreams at once.
And the greatest achievement of Nolan’s film, by a fair distance, is its communication of an insanely intricate story. To take on a plot so delicately balanced at all is a laudable commitment, but to make it comprehensible is even better.
Each dream is also wonderful to look at. Although the requirement that the dreams be ‘as realistic as possible to trick the target’ angle is a bit of a dodge, when Inception takes on big visuals, it excels – folding and crumbling cityscapes, exploding fortresses, and zero-gravity hallway punchups are the real gob-smackers, but less ostentatious touches like the visualisation of paradoxes are also very nicely handled.
The cast, in general, control the material and bizarre dialogue with aplomb, the highlight certainly being Tom Hardy’s disguise specialist Eaves, a sarcastic Englishman with a dry wit and an abstract shirt collection: Hardy (who you may know from biopic Bronson) really steals every scene he’s in. DiCaprio is very good, again in the role of put-upon-man-in-surreal-situation as he was in Shutter Island, but Leo’s not quite at that level here, which is no huge disappointment as he’s still far superior to 90% of other actors even when not at full tilt.
So! Why isn’t Inception the greatest thing since sliced bread/fire/life itself? Well, first and foremost the plot, for all its endeavour and originality, has a few holes you could drive a bus through – characters seem to have a James Bond-esque invulnerability in the main (with one exception), the first dream they create seems to hinge on a chemist driving a truck around for 2 weeks – which nearly undoes the notionally intelligent plot.
But I was willing to let a few holes slide past (at least to an extent) because it’s a gripping film whose highbrow ideas far exceed the usual summer dross and it’s clearly been thought about. My much, much bigger problem was the sheer number of punches pulled in order to a) ensure a 12A certificate (i.e. a wider audience) and b) make sure the audience isn’t too upset.
The first point is the more severe for me: we all remember The Dark Knight being a 12A (or PG-13 if you’re American), and how that film absolutely pushed – and I’d say far surpassed – the certificate’s norms with highly disturbing scenes of violence and terrorism, not to mention people being hanged and thrown off of buildings/getting their head slammed on a pencil by Heath Ledger’s Joker. By sharp contrast, Inception absolutely plays to its rating: there’s pretty much no blood (I’m not buying the ‘it’s in dreams so it doesn’t count’ angle, because the dreams are allegedly supposed to be realistic thus should show the red stuff), no-one sees fit to swear when they’re milliseconds from becoming vegetables, and the ending is a gigantic letdown. Obviously I won’t spoil that final point, but suffice to say it does not do justice to the preceding film and the audience I was in all audibly sighed with disappointment when it occurred. It also seems to hint at a sequel/franchise, something which again is not in line with the film’s anti-blockbuster ideals. Point b) above is entirely due to this flaccid conclusion which offers neither the emotional oomph nor the chutzpah to follow through on the movie’s lofty goals.
Surely if Inception wanted to be taken seriously as a heavyweight intellectual piece then it should show everything and spare us no amount of claret or fucks to do so? As it stands, the film takes a stance which seems ostensibly to be a moneymaking ploy – the film cost a lot of money, let’s get it down to a 12A/PG-13 to get a bigger audience, a higher gross thus make some money back on it. That in itself was very disappointing from a film which, for huge chunks, posits itself as a think-piece.
These two negative aspects of the film do not make Inception an unenjoyable film, far from it, but they do detract from its achievements. Plot holes in a film with such alleged gravitas do undercut the picture somewhat, and the ending threatens to implode the whole thing. Fortunately, they don’t: the action is for large parts impressive and although the visuals aren’t as continuously awesome as perhaps the trailer alluded, they do deliver when called upon. Inception‘s like a boxer without a killer instinct– it makes all the body shots, always wins on points but never delivers the knockout punch when it needs to.
8/10: I strayed this close to giving it a 7/10, but I think that the film’s volume of ideas and ambition lift it enough to almost counter the disappointing aspects, ably aided by a strong cast, an occasionally-nonsensical-but-well-expositioned plot, and the ‘wow factor’ which, at times, I was powerless to avoid. Inception is a lovechild between The Matrix and Synecdoche, New York but not as good as either. Kudos to Chris Nolan for getting it made, and it’ll make a heckuva lot of money (it’s #3 on the IMDb top 250, which is simply ludicrous), but it’s nowhere near the masterwork it could have been, or that many people are saying it is. Enjoyable, but not devastatingly so; if you want a scintillating Christopher Nolan experience, you’re still best off watching Memento.