Wednesday 21 July 2010

Film Review: Inception

I've been looking forward to Inception since before The Speculative Scotsman launched. Way back when, I singled it out as my most anticipated film of the year - nothing set to play in theatres during 2010 came close to evoking such excitement in me. The last time I was so psyched about a film, The Dark Knight was just about to come out, and I firmly believe the most recent Batman movie is one of the greatest pieces of cinema in existence, its comic book roots be damned. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that Christopher Nolan, who also gave us Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige, is singularly the most accomplished filmmaker of our generation, and he has been living with the bare bones of the concept that Inception enacts for a long time. Only now, with the tremendous success of The Dark Knight to bolster him, has Nolan had the budget and the license to realise his dream.

And what a dream it is...

There were fears, just before Inception opened, that we were looking at a modern-day Blade Runner, which is to say a great critical success and potentially a cult sensation, but a flop at the box office; a financial doomsday device when you're talking about a film which spares so little in the way of expense as Inception. In the end, I suppose only time will tell, but if there's a single thing that has worked to discourage people from seeing this movie, it's that they don't have the slightest clue what it's about. I've been following its development more closely than most, and I confess: as I walked into the theatre on opening day, I hardly knew what to expect myself. The marketing has been powerful, in its way - "From the Director of The Dark Knight" and all that - but counter-intuitively rather vague; deceptive, even. The trailers have been impressive and yet utterly baffling, the posters iconic but insubstantial. From the earliest stages of development through to Inception's eventual release, this movie has been shrouded in mystery and enigma. Various of its cast members are on record saying even they didn't fully grasp what was going on, for goodness' sake. Only now that the movie's actually out there have people begun to understand what Inception is.

And it's not half so complicated as we've been led to believe.

In fact, here: it's the future. It's not a future too far removed from our own era, either - the only real advance of note between now and then is an interface which allows certain people (extractors) to insert themselves in other people's dream. "It's not strictly legal," as Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb explains to trainee architect Juno - I mean, uh... Ellen Page as Ariadne - but an infrastructure has developed around the technology nevertheless.  Extractors are hired to steal secrets from the subconscious of their subjects. They immerse themselves in the imagined landscapes of rich businessmen's dreamworlds - or else artificial dreamscapes crafted by architects such as Ariadne to resemble as much - to pilfer patents and intellectual property. Not exactly fodder for an intellectual Summer blockbuster, huh? Well, some high-flyers are thus trained in the art of resisting extractors. Their defenses take the form of anonymous, gun-toting agents who are apt to explode things, given the opportunity. So, sorted.

Now Cobb has a secret. It's something to do with his dead wife, played - I can't say how - by Marion Cotillard. It's the reason he can't go home to be with his practically orphaned children; he's been hiding out on foreign shores with a team of extractors including Joseph Gordon Levitt's naturally suave Arthur, stealing secrets for great whacks of cash with which he hopes to pay off the skeletons in his closet. But some secrets can't be bought out. In fact, Cobb is about ready to call the whole thing off when Saito (played to perfection by Ken Watanabe) makes him a once-in-a-lifetime proposal. Instead of extraction, Saito enlists Cobb and his team to plant the seed of an idea in the subconscious of Cillian Murphy's anxious Robert Fisher, recently bereaved and newly in charge of a priceless business empire. The idea is strictly theoretical, but if Cobb can do it, he can see his kids again. It's a gimme that he'll try.

Alright. Perhaps Inception is a bit more demanding than your usual popcorn fare. Nolan seems to have skipped the mediocre origin story of Batman Begins with this potential franchise in favour of a more roundly satisfying sequel straight out of the gate. Inception, by all rights, could have been Extraction 2, the follow-up to a film which would have served to familiarise us with Cobb's ensemble and more formally introduce the world outwith the somewhat contextless dreamscape we spend the vast majority of our time in as it stands. But though Nolan makes a stimulating game of out its explanation, the initial concept which informs all the action is straightforward enough in itself, and the spin on which the narrative largely pivots isn't hard to get your head around. Inception is simply the inverse of extraction, with raised stakes: Cobb and company must go in and give rather than take and get the hell out. Keeping track of the various stages of the subconscious the intrepid extractors must plumb can be somewhat problematic - take a single leap of faith, however, and the rest fall into place - but otherwise, Inception isn't half as mind-boggling as I think we all expected. Devotees of science-fiction in film or literature will have no trouble with it.

So what's left? Well, everything. Inception isn't somehow a disappointment because all the publicity has made a mountain out of a molehill. Inception, to being with, has no moles in. Nor is it anything less than enrapturing from start to finish. Nolan's script is indescribably clever; spare, direct and laden with significance. Alongside the sumptuous visuals and some incredibly realised special effects - be prepared to see the world from a startling new perspective - it works to engage you immediately, and from the explosive pre-credits sequence to the movie's smartly subdued last moments, the pace never lets up. Inception is solid entertainment through and through: action-packed, effortlessly immersive and intelligent rather than bafflingly overwrought.

The cast, too, are great. Between Shutter Island and this speculative masterpiece, DiCaprio has finally come into his own as the leading man Hollywood has insisted on casting him as. At long last, we can believe in him, invest in his character, and it's just as well: if DiCaprio hadn't pulled Cobb off, Inception would be a much poorer film for his failure, for none of his companions - short, perhaps, Cotillard (be she dream, memory, delusion or illusion) - are in the least sympathetic. Michael Caine chuckles for a few minutes of screen time as Cobb's mentoring father-figure; Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy and Joseph Gordon Levitt all talk the talk and walk the walk, though they exist, you come to understand, more as functions of the narrative's strict requirements than actual people.

And that's the trouble with Inception. It's brilliantly conceived intellectual eye-candy with striations of action and intrigue, but excepting a single character arc - Cobb's, thank God - it's as cold as a fish frozen in formaldehyde. There's no emotional depth to anyone other than DiCaprio's anti-hero - even Mal, whom Cotillard plays to a dreamlike T, is more an aspect of Cobb's character than a character unto herself. It's all business.

But rest easy: there's no shortage of pleasure to be had with every other facet of this fabulous mindfuck of a movie. Christopher Nolan is a remarkable writer and director, almost without parallel in contemporary cinema, and Inception sees him at the height of his filmmaking prowess. It can be a chilly experience on occasion, perhaps, but get your thermals on and button up - in the end, it's well worth weathering the cold for this perception-bending tour de force.


  1. I, too, was expecting something a bit more complex, but I can't say that I'm disappointed in the least bit. Though I would have to say I've been a fan of DiCaprio since Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York, but he's definitely grown quite a bit over time.

  2. "I firmly believe the most recent Batman movie is one of the greatest pieces of cinema in existence, its comic book roots be damned."

    I know this is slightly off topic, but I've heard a number of people express this opinion or something similar and perhaps I wasn't watching close enough, but I don't understand why. Could you maybe run down a list of 3 or 4 reasons why you thought it was a good movie? Just briefly. I ask, because generally you write well and often have intelligent insights in your reviews so I would be interested to see why you rate a movie which I found rather ordinary (and often, rather silly), so highly.


  3. I too found Inception disappointing. It was okay, but... to compare it with movies like Matrix or Bladerunner - nah. It's certainly never going to make my Top 10 Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies.

    DiCaprio was fantastic as always, but he was kinda clicked into one mode for the whole movie, and he's better than that.

  4. I understand where you're coming from comparing it to Blade Runner. I don't know if this movie is big enough to fit in the lesser shoes, but nonetheless it's a pretty compelling movie