INCEPTION combines the elegant structure and intelligence of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough indie hit, MEMENTO, with the stunning in-camera visual effects of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. More than that, INCEPTION demonstrates for the first time that Nolan can do more than “just” create intelligent mainstream blockbusters. Finally, he moves beyond the assured technique and shining surfaces to deliver a convincing and emotionally engaging love story. All of this is a great achievement. But it does not compensate for the over-use of exposition, weak characterization of the supporting roles, and the fact the questions raised by the central conceit have been explored in many films before this one.
The plot is neither as complicated nor as impenetrable as the critics would have you believe, nor as liable to be ruined by too much information before you watch the film. That’s because, while this movie is a heist movie in the classic tradition of RAFIFI or LE CERCLE ROUGE, the real substance of the film has nothing to do with the heist at all. Still, for what it’s worth, let’s explore the set-up. In the near future, corporate espionage isn’t about stealing files from an executive’s laptop but about stealing ideas straight from his subconscious when he’s in a drug-induced dream. To steal the idea, the thieves also have to drug themselves and enter into the subconscious of the victim – thus becoming vulnerable to any nasties the victim might be hiding down there. In this film, the thieves are paid to not to steal an idea, but to plant an idea in the victim’s mind so subtly than when he wakes up he thinks it’s his own. And this is precisely the engine of the film. Leonardo diCaprio’s Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea in the mind of his business rival Fisher (Cillian Murply), prompting Murphy to break up the massive corporate entity that he inherited from his father (Pete Postlethwaite). To pull off this reverse-heist, Cobb has to assemble a crack-team, made up of all-round side-kick, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page); impersonator, Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist, Yousuf (Dileep Rao). Together they engineer a situation in which they can sedate themselves and Fisher, engineer a dream within a dream within a dream, and plant an idea so deeply that they can achieve genuine inception.
There are, of course, plenty of rules about how this all works and the early parts of the film, and the characters played by Page, Levitt and Rao, do have a touch of the Basil Exposition about them. Even Pete Postlethwaite and Cillian Murphy, as dying father and grieving son, are similarly wasted. Once again, they exist merely as a sort of superbly tailored MacGuffin - the victims of the heist plot that propels the narrative. Only the superb Tom Hardy, through sheer force of personality, manages to carve out a memorable role for himself, stealing every scene that he’s in.
Still, I suppose that one shouldn’t begrudge Nolan the time setting up the intricate mechanics of Inception. There is something satisfying about the fact that, from what I can tell, the mechanics all hang together without any obvious holes in the logic. But for all the veneer of a sci-fi heist, let’s be honest, what we really care about – what drives our interest in the movie – is the central question of how someone so far steeped in the dream-world - in a dream within a dream within a dream – can tell the difference between the dream and reality. And, further, even if you could tell the difference, would you choose to live in the dream? In short, as my cousin Danny, conscious of this movie’s indebtedness to films like THE MATRIX put it, can you tell you’re living in a Matrix, and even if you could, would you choose to take the blue pill?
So, if the issues that Christopher Nolan is exploring aren’t particularly original, what makes this film worth watching? DP Wall Pfister’s beautiful cinematography; the elegant in-camera visual effects, so much more convincing that CGI; the wise-cracking Tom Hardy; and the intellectual puzzle at the heart of the film. All these things make it worth the price of entry. But to my mind, there are two genuine achievements. First, this is the first Nolan film where I feel he moved beyond being clever and technically accomplished to actually creating a relationship I cared about – that between Cobb and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). I completely bought into their difficult relationship and felt that diCaprio had given one of his most convincing performances in a decade – Cotillard was typically brilliant. Her central dilemma and his reaction to it are heart-breaking. Second, and most importantly, Nolan manages to involve the audience in exactly the same paranoia that infects Cobb and Mal. He doesn’t so much show us how a mind can get lost in the narrow margins between dream and reality but take us there with his ambiguous and cleverly constructed final act.
Additional tags: Tom Berenger, Talulah Riley, Hans Zimmer, Wally Pfister, Lee Smith
INCEPTION is on release in the UK, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, Canada, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Japan. It opens next week in Belgium, France, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland, Austrlia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico and Sweden. It opens on July 29th in Argentina, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Austria, Poland, Romania and South Africa. It opens on August 6th in Brazil and Spain; on August 13th in Venezuela; and on August 24th in Greece. It opens in Italy on September 24th.