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Directed by Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Lukas Haas, Michael Caine, Tom Berenger
Review by Joseph Starnes
A writing professor of mine once suggested that any serious writer should avoid dream sequences in their stories at all costs; that they are cheap gimmick to allow a writer to introduce meaning and information without the cumbersome trouble of attaching it to a character’s actions. It’s actually a good rule of thumb and a problem that’s been perpetrated in more than one hack’s hands. Of course, the other thing he said is that there are no rules in writing and anything is fair game as long as you know what you’re doing.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) knows what he’s doing. His tastes for crime stories and science fiction have influenced most of the films he’s made, particularly his big budget productions from Warner Brothers, and they find their apotheosis in “Inception.”
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are the best thieves in the world. They’re so good they don’t have to stop at having something physical to steal. They can go right into your dreams, into your subconscious, and take an idea right out of your head. They’re so good, and Dom is so desperate to undo the crimes of his past, that they can’t resist when a powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe) makes an offer they really should refuse. To go into the mind of a competitor (Cillian Murphy) and instead of taking an idea, planting one and making the target believe it is his own.
Because “Inception” is a movie about dreams it’s a movie about the power of the subconscious (essentially what every story about dreams ends up being), which means it’s a movie about what is real and what isn’t and how you tell the difference. That’s heady territory and it’s overwhelmed more than one talented filmmaker. Usually that’s because approaching the philosophical aspects of the story becomes so tempting the director leaves his characters and audiences behind, creating something remote and abstract and hard to hold on to.
Nolan has observed that problem and done his best not to fall prey to it, and his best is pretty good. “Inception” while it is certainly about the nature of dreams and reality, is far more focused on using its themes as a means to an end, both for Cobb’s own personal character dilemma and the films’ plot heavy action dynamics.
Most of the middle is spent on “Inception’s” heist aspect as Nolan tries to draw the viewer into the plot till they don’t realize they’ve been drawn into Cobb as well, beginning with the now standard ‘gathering of the team.’
For a job of this magnitude he’s going to need the best of the best: a forger who can impersonate individuals inside of a dream, who can become anyone (Tom Hardy), a chemist (Dileep Rao) who will put them deeper into their subjects subconscious than anyone has gone before, and an architect (Ellen Page) who will actually create the world of the dream.
The last is the most important part, on several levels, because Cobb has a problem he hasn’t told anyone about. The memory of his wife (Marion Cotillard) has been haunting him; haunting him to such an extent that she has become aware of the false dreamscapes he interacts with and has begun working against him. To give him and his men a chance Cobb needs an Ariadne who can lead him out of the maze of the mind that he has fallen into. And he gets one, literally.
“Inception” is an exceptionally beautiful film with some perfectly executed production design from Guy Dyas (“X2,” “Superman Returns”), which is to be expected as it is in large part a story about being an exceptionally beautiful film.
The thieves’ goal, in general, and Ariadne’s in specific is to do what every filmmaker sets out do, create a world so complete and compelling you can’t tell it apart from the real world. A world you would prefer to the real world. Dyas’ design in that regard serves not just the story in the normal fashion but serves Nolan’s deeper theme and plot development. It’s important to keep an eye on the background in “Inception,” it’s important to remember that every frame is picture perfect.
There are some problems, much of it part and parcel of the heist structure Nolan has chosen. As a filmmaker he’s always had more of a taste for his plots than any other part of his film. That’s probably truer with “Inception” than any of his other films as, aside from Cobb himself; the individuals are their jobs and not much more. Everything is about the mechanics of the heist. Some of that may well be a side effect of Nolan’s intention to make his audience question how far back the dream goes, but some of it is also the requirements the mechanics of the plot requires.
The extensive third act which eats up the largest amount of “Inception’s” running time is a complex layer of dream within dream within dream which requires a good piece of the first two acts to explain how it works to keep audiences from getting lost.
Some may anyway though the effect itself is quite good as their targets subconscious begins to fight back against the intrusion in the different levels of dreams. Nolan and his team have put a lot of thought and a lot of effort into figuring out exactly how that will look, resulting in some spectacular sequences. Arthur’s attempt to navigate a hotel building in the middle of free fall is probably the highlight.
But it’s all a funnel for Cobb and Cobb’s problems and you have to keep your eye on the ball throughout. It also means it is entirely up to the actors to connect their characters to the audience because the script isn’t willing to do the job. For the most part the actors rise to the occasion, with Hardy, Page and Gordon-Levitt often outshining DiCaprio in their scenes together.
Just as with any dream, “Inception” starts to come unraveled in the end. I’m not certain this intentional, but more of a fact of accidental art that fits the stories theme even if it makes the film somewhat less than a hundred percent satisfying.
There is certainly a large temptation to read more into that than really exists. Humans have an advanced capability for pattern recognition, so advanced we often see connections where none really exists, forests were there are really only trees.
The desire to cover up a dissection of Cobb’s interior guilt with an extended action sequence is a good idea but I’m not sure how well it works as the different levels of danger make the climax more of an idea than a fact, as are portions of the emotional climax and the heist itself. The core of their plot requires Fischer to create a catharsis with his father (Pete Postlethwaite) which is intriguing but is ultimately a means to an end that is at best tenuously related to Cobb and his story.
Part of that is because it’s a heist film, so there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors present, smoke and mirrors that even Nolan ultimately succumbs to. The other downside to that sort of thing is that revisit value of the story may be small. There are a lot of details that extra viewings will bring to the fore and make the plot more accessible, but the impact will likely never be as great.
Flaws aside, there’s a lot to like about “Inception” and Nolan keeps his eye on the ball throughout, offering up a lush treat of a thriller with nerve and wit. A mixture of complexity and obviousness keeps it accessible and worth probing, which is a tough balance to walk. I fear someone, somewhere is sure to take the wrong lessons from it, leading to a stream of badly thought out dream thrillers to follow. Well crafted, inventive works usually lead lesser copies, hence my old professors invective against doing the same unless you really know what you’re doing. “Inception” knows what it’s doing.