Theatrical Review: INCEPTION
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolan’s filmography is filled with very different works that share one common thread – films that exist within their own unique and highly-designed world: from the mindspace of MEMENTO to the epic cityscapes of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT’s Gotham, even the broken and nearly alien landscape of INSOMNIA. But in INCEPTION, Nolan combines everything that has come before to create an entirely new world – one that is equal parts real world, personal emotions, firmly buried subconscious, and an architecture of what the world could look like free from constraints. It is consuming beyond belief. It is both entertaining and intelligent. And, more than anything, INCEPTION is simply breathtaking and bold.
On a very basic level, INCEPTION can work as a “last job” heist film. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb is offered the chance to reenter his old life (a life that he was forced to abandon due to a hinted-at secret and crime that reveals itself during the course of the film, as that secret itself becomes more and more central to the film), if he can accomplish this one last gig. Of course, it is the hardest job he and his team will ever take on, and Cobb happens to have (arguably) the hardest occupation anyone could ever have. Cobb and his team work to “extract” ideas and knowledge from their subjects – subjects whose minds they have essentially hacked into to force them to dream a dream that is not quite a dream, at least not a known dream, and one that has been entirely created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This last job – it is the opposite. It is a job of “inception” – to plant an idea in their subject’s mind during their dream.
Within the construct of these entirely fabricated dreams, Nolan has put in place a number of rules and controls – for instance, the way time passes in dreams (and, as we go on, how it differs in dreams-within-dreams), what happens if you die within a dream, who exactly populates the dreams. But much of the tension and drive of the film rests in the unplanned-for issues that befall the team and their dreams, the outside forces that cannot be fought. We quickly learn that the power of the subconscious can infiltrate even a heavily and precisely designed dream, no matter who is presumably “dreaming the dream.” The dangers become more layered and dire for everyone involved the deeper they go. Because of the nature of what Cobb and his team create, there is significantly less in-dream freedom than you would imagine, as it’s important that their subjects don’t realize they are dreaming. When they become cognizant they are dreaming, the entire structure begins to crumble. It is when Cobb and the others (most notably, his new protégé, Ellen Page’s Ariadne) dream on their own that the world of INCEPTION is opened up beyond, well, your wildest dreams.
But though assembly of INCEPTION seems often gorgeously crafted and rigorously imagined (you will not see more stunning visuals elsewhere), there are parts that are nothing short of questionable. Much like a dream itself, we’re not totally sure how things started. In dreams, the key to breaking them is often attempting to remember how it all started. We don’t quite know how it all started. The only character who gets any sort of significant backstory is Cobb himself, and that seems only due to the fact that Dom’s life is absolutely essential to the entire film. And, of course, it is difficult to fully immerse yourself in the reality of the film at first because there are lingering questions about the actual process the dreamers enter into. We know there is a machine that is the crux of the entire process, and it is briefly mentioned that the technique was developed by the government. But as the film blossoms, as every action and emotion is ratcheted it up, it becomes easier to push aside lingering doubts about the way things work and to accept what is happening (and, moreover, to wonder if this was all part of Nolan's plan to begin with). In that way, INCEPTION becomes our own shared dream.
Hans Zimmer’s score, so tantalizingly threaded through INCEPTION’s various trailers, is both wholly ambitious and uncannily suited for the material. As probably the most well-known and prolific of film composers, I hesitate to say that INCEPTION is Zimmer’s best work, but a film such as INCEPTION allows all involved with it to step outside of the normal constraints of what a film is, what a film a could be, and what we describe it as. Zimmer’s score supersedes genre and elevates what is already a unique experience to a still higher level.
As ever, Nolan has put together a wonderful and talented cast. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is SHUTTER ISLAND’s Teddy Daniels spliced with bits of nearly every other performance he’s given in the past ten years (including even, oddly enough, the emotional resonance of his Romeo). And it’s enough of a building performance to make us forget to some of the early, slightly rickety bits of the film (particularly, a few wooden lines that even DiCaprio is guilty of delivering).
But it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur that frequently steals the show, as he gets the majority of the visually stunning action within the film. The long-teased spinning hallway fight scene has been in no way tainted by any bit of marketing that has used it; it is infinitely more complex within the film, and it frames up one of the most stunning sequences within it. This sequence appears during the final third of the film, a portion entirely comprised of the final gig itself. And it is this last act, this last hour of INCEPTION, that is, quite simply, a profound achievement. It is impossible to look away. And, despite the dream-within-dream(-within-dream) down-the-deepest-of-rabbit-holes nature of this part of the film, it is all the very best parts of INCEPTION - exceptionally well-layered, paced, edited, and shot. It is nearly ruthless, but is never anything short of a wonder to witness.