CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one where I knew the viewer would plop down with their tub of popcorn knowing from the outset that I intended to screw with his perception of reality, would I start with a reality-based scene that turns out to be a dream sequence, or try a double pump fake out by starting out with a real sequence and trying to make the audience believe it’s a dream?  As it turns out, in Inception it doesn’t really matter; with its dreams-inside-of-dreams structure,  the story creates a world where there’s little practical distinction between REM sleep and waking life (except that the stakes seem much higher in dreams).  The question in the movie isn’t really “is this a dream?,” but rather “whose dream is this?”  Inception is a surprise movie, where the reviewer feels a duty to provide as few spoilers as possible; although frankly, due to the intricacy of the plot, the film may be effectively spoiler-proof.  DiCaprio plays Cobb, a dream “extraction” specialist who enters others’ minds, manipulates their dreams, and steals their valuable ideas.  A new client wants him to plant an concept in a billionaire’s brain; but implanting an idea (“inception”) is much more difficult than stealing one (“extraction”), because the subject must be fooled into believing he came up with the notion himself.  Cobb, while dodging corporate goons who want him dead for his past thefts, globe-trots around the world gathering a team, consisting, among others, of a chemist to make the sedative drug that makes the dream intrusion possible, a confidence man who can act like people known to the dreamer (a “forger”), and someone who can construct a controlled landscape for the dream to play out in (the “architect”).  For this caper, the architect, a whiz-kid prodigy named Ariadne on her first job (Page), turns out to be the most important secondary character.  She’s the one who takes it on herself to investigate Cobb’s strange behavior, and discovers that his subconscious is so obsessed with the memory of his departed wife Mal (Cotillard) that he keeps causing her to materialize in his target’s dreams, jeopardizing his missions.  What transpired between Cobb and Mal years ago provides the dream agent’s motivation and becomes the movie’s central mystery, creating as much tension as the question of whether the caper will succeed once the subject’s dream starts crumbling.  The dreamscapes the plotters build are carefully controlled, and, despite variable physics, don’t look much like dreams at all; the movie plays with reality and dreams are its substrate, but it’s not at all dreamlike.  The most visionary sequences involve Cobb training the tyro Ariadne in dream navigation techniques.  He takes her to a conjured Paris bistro, then explodes the world around her; she then starts experimenting with altering dream reality and creating impossible geometries, mentally bending a busy city street at a right angle to the ground.  When the team actually begins building the complex phantasmagoria to pull off the scheme, however, it’s surprisingly familiar, with little surreal feel.  In fact, as the plot unfolds, it turns into a multilayered action movie rather than a “dream” movie; the target’s subconscious resists infiltration, and that resistance manifests itself as an army of imaginary soldiers firing upon the intruders.  At one point, Inception becomes a Bond movie, to the third power; simultaneously, we witness a car chase down slick streets in a rainy city, a zero-gravity melee in a hotel, and a shootout on skis on an Arctic tundra, as the scattered team members battle on three different dream layers.  Nolan also lays out elaborate and firm, if somewhat arbitrary, rules about what can happen in a dream mission, which further grounds the picture in reality rather than surreality.  The action scenes cater to the blockbuster spectacle crowd rather than those looking for psychothrills or a mindbending trip, but the movie is assembled and manipulated brilliantly to appeal to almost everyone: it contains visceral thrills, startling CGI sights, an intense speculative premise, emotional depth, suspense, and a mystery to solve.  Inception is, bottom line, enormously entertaining, without sacrificing brains or depth.  Given Hollywood’s low standards, that’s an impressive achievement for a summer blockbuster.

I will add one cryptic “spoiler.”  I kept waiting for a twist at the end of the movie, but it never came.  Or did it?  The final shot is ambiguous, and although there’s no strong reason to doubt the main storyline, minor curiosities throughout the rest of the movie could give the clever viewer the option of constructing their own alternate narrative.  This type of resolution, which suggests a possible further layer to the story without making it explicit, works better in this case than an open-and-shut twist ending that would seal the correct interpretation away in a vault forever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This extraordinary movie, a profoundly strange – and strangely profound – spelunking trip through the cavernous human psyche, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a corporate thief who specializes in “extracting” secrets from the minds of dreaming victims… If that sounds weird, just you wait; it gets weirder.”–Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

6 thoughts on “CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)”

  1. The ending was predictable from about the first time we see the spinner.
    Music was relentless and tiresome. So many characters, so little development.
    Film was visually dazzling, but rather overrated, as time will surely tell.

  2. Man, oh man, did I hate this movie! All aspects of it as a matter-of-fact. What I want to rant about though is how much of a visual let down it was for me to watch. My full-on diatribe against Inception’s visual impact (or lack-thereof):

    I did not read 366’s review or any other possible spoilers before seeing this film. I had seen the trailer and read a brief synopsis of the plot to know what it was basically about in the simplest terms possible. I was very eager with anticipation to see it, as it looked awesome. I knew it was going to spiral to a complicated mess. Delving into layers of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, etc., how could it be avoided? I wanted to be blown away by amazing special effects and all of this visual flair and panache that it seemed to promise. Unfortunately, the James Bond/Jason Bourne espionage action-thriller takes precedence over any awe-inspiring or surreal sights. Since the main theme is dream-planting, extracting, or altering, I expected to see some crazy stuff. Instead, I witnessed bland dreamscapes devoid of much razzle-dazzle. My wife expressed an accurate sentiment walking out of the theater; if Cobb and Mal spent so many decades in dream limbo constructing whatever world they wanted together, why would they design a city that looks like any other soul-sucking metropolis? Familiarity? They had the capabilities to manipulate their surroundings and that boring mess of skyscrapers is the best they could do? The possibilities would be boundless. For this, I have to lay the blame on director Christopher Nolan. He has the talent, clout, and certainly the huge budget to pull off something spectacular, but outside of a few brief scenes (the streets of Paris exploding while they sit calmly is certainly good) that wow factor was nowhere to be found for me. A few other scenes that I thought looked good (the first chair-kick into the bathtub to wake up Cobb, or shots of each of the sleeping characters as their van tumbles down a hillside and eventually careens off of a bridge) only looked as nifty as it did because it was shot in slow-motion. What is so special about that, other than Nolan making sure it looks good at a slow speed? The dreamscape mazes and especially the centerpiece shot of Paris folding up on top of itself, merely comes off as smoke and mirrors used by an arrogant/extravagant magician who feels they are too good for basic card tricks anymore. Inception is garnering many comparisons to The Matrix. That film also went for the confounding sci-fi babble approach to the dialogue, but the difference was I had a great time watching it on the big-screen and I could fully get lost in it even if I didn’t understand every single line of the movie. The Matrix is now 11 years old but it still has that lasting-power to wow us. Sure, it is complete escapist sci-fi fluff, but there is nothing wrong with that when it’s done right (it rarely is, as the 2 Matrix sequels can attest). I am in no way suggesting a film like The Matrix deserves a spot on the Certified Weird list. It was too successful and accepted to make it weird. I will just defend it as a fun film and a visual feast for the eyes. Inception is so lifeless and cold to really have a good time sitting through it, which is why it’s going to be soon forgotten and not achieve that classic status it is so desperately strives for. Another film I kept thinking of as my mind wandered a bit during some of the more puzzling scenes and confusing dialogue was The Cell. As cliched as the plot was (let’s catch a serial-killer so we can analyze him) director Tarsem’s vision was spellbinding when we saw into the subconscious of killer Carl Starger. They were exactly what I wanted to see…completely weird, tripped-out art. One of the dreamscapes in Inception consisted of a mountainous, snowy tundra where the characters skiied and endlessly fired automatic weapons at pointless characters (“projections”). It wasn’t cool to behold, only annoying and loud. Outside of the diatribe against Inception’s visual deficiencies and lack of lustre, I have to rail against one other aspect of the film…that freaking music! Commentor J is right in saying the score is “relentless and tiresome”. It never lets up in it’s swelling and pounding and orchestral bombast. It lingers there listlessly trying to convey some sort of grand, epic moment is about to transpire. In short (too late), that moment never arrived for me and I couldn’t wait for it to end. This movie will be thoroughly re-examined for LIST consideration after the DVD release. I hope 366 gets past all of the confusing weirdness in the plot and can accept that it doesn’t have the right look of a truly worthy contender. Besides, yet another film with similar themes and much better/weirder imagery has already made it…Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    1. So much hate… the movie isn’t very weird, but I enjoyed it greatly for what it was. By summer blockbuster standards it’s a masterpiece. Nolan isn’t a visually spectacular director, he’s much more concerned with constructing intricate plots and directing thrilling action scenes. I thought this movie played to his strengths admirably.

  3. To complain that INCEPTION was not surreal or dreamy enough, sort of misses the point of the film… and is sort of like coming to a fish market and complaining that there aren’t any roses for sale.

  4. LRob,
    I got the point of the film. My point is why can’t a film about DREAMS be DREAMY. This one wasn’t meant to be and that’s fine, but it is also why I didn’t like it. I don’t like action movies and this is all it came across as being, just with some intricate and detailed plots to decipher. I thought there might be some more warpedness to messing with people’s dreams, that’s all.

    As for your analogy, might I offer this imaginary exchange…
    “I’d like to buy some roses please.”
    “Oh, sorry sir, this is but a fish market. We sell fish and other varieties of seafood, but you will not find any flowers for sale here.”
    “Oh that’s too bad. It would still stink in here, but it would look so much nicer overall.”

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