Ay, there’s the rub.
For two weeks I have tried to write this review, to no avail. I’ve now seen Inception four times, which you would think would leave me more than qualified to review it. I have spun theories ’round my head while I work, I discuss the film constantly with friends who have seen it, and I have plenty to say about its many mysteries.
But a funny thing happens when I try to write a review — I just can’t muster the words to do it. All of the questions and theories and ideas the movie has left me with are inherently spoilerific. While I’m sure most anyone reading this right now (either as a regular reader of VFAC, or a random Googler) will have already seen the film, I want to force myself to write a proper review. No wild theories, no “what does it all mean?”s, and absolutely no spoilers.
The solution to this problem is simple: I’ll have to write two entries. One dealing with the film as a film, and another discussing its ideas and meaning. So first, the review:
Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is a dream thief. Not just any old dream thief, either. They say he’s the best — that he can steal your secrets before you even know you’re asleep. And who are we to argue? From what we’re shown of him in the film’s thrilling introductory sequence, Dom Cobb is Dream Bond. Looking dapper in a tuxedo while ruthlessly wielding a silenced pistol, Cobb is every bit the secret agent that boys the world over have dreamed of being. The difference being Cobb actually is that secret agent…in dreams.
Welcome to the world of Inception, where the rich and powerful are targeted in their most vulnerable state: while they sleep. Through a process called extraction, a team of thieves hook themselves into a shared dream. The target channels their deepest secrets into a vault, where Cobb and his men (and presumably others like them) break in and steal them. It’s espionage on the grandest stage — in the mind.
In his waking life, Cobb is a man both haunted and hunted. If Dream Cobb is James Bond, then Real Cobb is Jason Bourne — an American forced to live abroad, wanted by the government and pursued at every turn. Unlike Bourne, however, Cobb remembers his past. He simply wishes he could forget. After a botched job puts him on the run, he is offered a chance at redemption in the form of that classic heist movie cliché: the “one last job” that will fix everything.
That job is where the film draws its title: inception. A powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Watanabe) doesn’t want Cobb to steal an idea — he wants him to plant one.
The film takes place in the future by necessity, but it is a familiar world — a far cry from the neon lights of Blade Runner, or other such visions. This is part of what makes the movie work so well — it’s easy to accept the far-flung concept when the world itself is not dissimilar to our own. The most high-tech piece of machinery in the film is the device that links our heroes into shared dreams. But it’s not sleek at all — it’s a mess of catheters, wires and circuits, cased in glass and metal. It doesn’t look futuristic. It looks real.
We are never shown the reach of extraction beyond Cobb and his crew, but we get a feel for it. In a movie as tightly wound as this one, there just isn’t time — not when there are rules left to be explained. The most important rule, both to the plot and the quality of the film as a whole, is that time moves slowly in a dream. “Five minutes of real-time is an hour in the dream,” explains Arthur (Gordon-Levitt). Indeed, characters in Inception spend a lot of time explaining things.
The movie introduces this concept visually almost immediately, focusing on three sets of hands on three separate wristwatches, each clicking at different speeds. You see, there are dreams within dreams here, and every time you go deeper, the time effect is compounded.
Like the characters onscreen, I find myself getting caught explaining the rules, but I bring this up because it creates one of the most imaginative and intense (not to mention longest) action sequences ever put to film. The final act is an hour long chase, three layers deep, with all three sequences occurring simultaneously, each moving at different speeds. It’s a lot to keep up with, but by that point in the film, it’s a light breather from the heavy exposition.
Christopher Nolan has created a rich and involving dreamworld in what is surely his most daring film to date. While the script is dense and packed with rules and explanations, the actors speak slowly enough for the audience to absorb every key concept. Very rarely does one get caught processing the last idea while characters begin explaining the next.
Best of all, for a film that’s more than two and a half hours long, the time flies by. Consider the opening hour a prequel to the real meat of the story, a primer to the rules of this world, and an introduction to the people that populate it. And all of this exposition comes off naturally thanks to Ariadne (Page), a newcomer to the group and surrogate for the audience. As she is introduced to these concepts, so too are we. A scene she shares with Cobb in a Parisian cafe just might be the film’s best.
The downside is that, while the film spends so much time on careful set-up and explanation, it leaves little time for character depth. The script is so focused on advancing the plot that other than Cobb, and to an extent Ariadne, we know very little about these people by the time the film is over.
Still, the actors make it work. Gordon-Levitt has very little dialog that isn’t straight exposition, but he brings a warmth to it that makes Arthur seem like a real person, even if I couldn’t tell you anything about him. He’s also the center-piece of the film’s trademark action sequence, and manages to inject the film with some much needed comic relief. (It’s fair to assume Nolan is a big fan of Brick, as Lukas Haas has a brief role here as well.)
Equally good in a supporting role is Tom Hardy as Eames, “The Forger”. If Daniel Craig won the role of 007 for his work in Layer Cake, then surely Hardy is the next Man Who Would Be Bond for his performance here. He’s charming, funny and gets to kick ass as the star of a GoldenEye/For Your Eyes Only-inspired snow chase. His bickering with Gordon-Levitt is hilarious.
Propelling the film through the entirety of its 150 minute running time is Hans Zimmer’s fabulous score. Zimmer also provided the music for both of Nolan’s Batman pictures (with help from James Newton Howard). While his work here is just as intense as his score for The Dark Knight, it’s far more melodic — thanks in part to the guitar prowess of one Johnny Marr. The music doesn’t just ratchet up the tension like it did in TDK, either, but injects the film with a melancholy sadness. In fact, the score does as much to add depth to Cobb’s character as DiCaprio’s performance itself.
This is not to say DiCaprio’s performance is bad — it’s not. It’s not his best work by any means, but he ably provides what the script requires of him (mostly: furrowing the line in his brow). He’s not aided by editing either — most of his impactful lines in the first half of the film come off-screen, either as flashback narration or because the film cuts to a reaction shot of whoever he’s talking to (usually Ellen Page). Still, when it comes time for revelations in the final act, he drives the film’s emotional punch.
He’s just thoroughly out-classed by two fantastic performances. The first is Marion Cotillard as his ex-lover, Mal: one-part nurturing lover, three-parts vengeful bitch. Her eyes are captivating, and it’s tough to look away any time she’s onscreen. The second is Cillian Murphy, as the target of that “one last job”. Murphy takes a standard rich-boy-with-daddy-issues role and transforms it into something so humanizing and empathetic. Each time I see the film, my appreciation for his choices and delivery grows and grows.
Some have criticized the film for having nothing to say, but I’m not sure that’s true. This is a very personal film dealing with personal issues, and personally, I don’t want Christopher Nolan telling me what to think about peak oil or the Iraq war. This simply isn’t the film for that.
The film’s best strength is the way it works your brain, forcing you to analyze every little detail you’ve just seen. This is partly why I’ve seen it so many times — not just because it’s a good time at the movies, but because it’s the type of film that demands multiple viewings. Having seen it four (soon to be five) times now, I think I’ve got it figured out. What’s it all about? Follow me down to the second layer and I’ll show you…
9.8/10 | A+
So concludes Perchance To Dream…
But James Bond will return in:
Killing Yourself To Live
Coming Soon to a blog near you.