The previews before a movie can be telling: they reveal what sort of audience marketers expect the movie to attract, and are ideal for plugging upcoming movies in a similar vein to the feature presentation.
The previews before Inception seemed as if they’d been chosen at random, since there’s no movie this year that’s enough like Inception to promote alongside it. (Maybe you’d enjoy a Robert Downey, Jr. road-trip comedy? No? Here, we’re remaking Tron!)
And at times, Inception, while it wholeheartedly subscribes to the theory of Go Big or Go Home, isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. It is by turns a character drama, a science-fiction exposition-fest, and a heist. At some of these things it’s better than at others, but there’s no denying that the movie is largely gripping, often interesting, and occasionally awesome.
One of the necessary evils with Inception is that its premise is so complicated that the characters spend the first hour on dream-within-a-dream auditions and gotchas, banging their shins on exposition. Unfortunately, this means that much of the dialogue in the first act is uncharacteristically clunky for Nolan, though it does what’s necessary in laying out the stakes and freeing up the second and third acts for visual overload.
In short, the setup goes like this: extraction—the accessing of secrets from someone’s mind—is a lucrative underground business which has spawned the usual shady corporations and needs for private security for the rich. There are a squillion rules about how it works, many of which are discussed at length, and many more which aren’t discussed until they’re immediately relevant (and usually over the sound of gunfire).
Master extractor Cobb is offered One Last Job planting an idea in someone’s mind: inception. It requires going several levels deep into someone’s mind (with each level slowing down time a little more and making it that much harder to wake), implanting an idea simple and organic enough to grow on its own, and timing the “drop” to wake everyone out of all the levels at once. Inception is incredibly dangerous, exceptionally illegal, and probably doomed to failure. Sign up the character actors!
And Nolan has chosen them well. Ellen Page’s exceptionally astute architect makes you forget how much of her early dialogue is exposition; Tom Hardy has a rakish charm as forger/impersonator Eames; Ken Watanabe is smoothly arch; Joseph Gordon-Levitt throws himself into his wire-work with aplomb, even though most of his lines are delivered in a lowest-vocal-register reserve reminiscent of Nolan’s other dark knight.
Acting-wise, Cillian Murphy deftly steals the show as Robert Fischer, a billionaire businessman’s son who is the group’s mark, and whose tortured relationship with his father provides a striking emotional urgency as the heist (for a heist Inception is at heart) ramps up.
The same can’t be said of Cobb, who never rises to the linchpin role laid out for him, or his subconscious relationship with his wife, which dutifully raises stakes without ever really becoming compelling or mysterious. (Hint: Cobb has performed inception before, keeps a prison full of idyllic memories of his dead wife, and is wracked with guilt-powered booby-traps that prevent him from building in people’s minds. You have five seconds to tell me how those fit together; the movie draws it out for two hours.) I found myself wondering if this was just a casualty of a thankless job that would have been clunky in anyone’s hands, or if Leonardo DiCaprio was simply miscast. (The latter is definite; the former is moot.)
That’s not to say that this subplot doesn’t do what it came to do; Nolan’s craft is sound, and Cobb’s haunting by his wife builds up in tiny moments that explode inconveniently all over the current job and provide the setup for what will become the most talked-about movie ending of the year. (More on that in a moment.)
However, it is once the exposition is over, the team goes under, and the heist gets rolling that Inception becomes one of the most visually captivating films in years.
Nolan does action scenes like few others in Hollywood, and some of the set pieces in the film’s second half are absolutely outstanding, as he takes full advantage of his dreamscapes. There are some plot holes, but they get largely swept away in the sheer tension of the moment. (They will appear afterwards, when you wonder how they planned to wake up Fischer while keeping the illusion that the kidnapping wasn’t real, but are usually forgivable.)
But even amidst the breakneck action, deft character touches make all the difference in elevating this from an action film to a drama: a dangerous gambit in the second layer of dreaming makes Fischer complicit in his own inception, which speeds up the plot and gives his narrative new urgency. (That the team is providing Fischer some subconscious closure on his father’s death helpfully ameliorates the highly-morally-suspect aspect of the whole thing.)
But of course, the moment people are talking about is the ending, which leaves the movie’s big question (What’s real?) unanswered. It’s the sort of ending that makes you wonder if this is just a thematic coda, or if the movie was built on markers you didn’t know to look for.
I don’t know if there’s an answer to the question; a film like Inception benefits from keeping the ending ambiguous. I don’t know if, given the fluidity with which people move between dreaming and waking, getting an answer even matters.
I do know that, warts and all, this is a visually-stunning sci-fi thriller that wants its audience to do a little thinking. That’s a rare bird in Hollywood, and one well worth your time.
Genevieve is actually going to go see this again, on purpose, which hardly ever happens with movies she reviews. She gushes about other movies on her blog.