Conceptually, I can’t think of a film that has sparked my imagination in such a specific way as Christopher Nolan’s Inception. There’s much to be said of a filmmaker that’s given the leniency to go off and make an original, big-budget film immediately after the enormous success of The Dark Knight. Not to mention, Inception is a project that Nolan sat on for the better part of a decade before finally putting it into production.
Inception continues the director’s uncanny ability to draw serious talent to his work. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a man who extracts dreams from targeted individuals for a living with the aid of companions Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Eames (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio had been on Nolan’s radar for a long time, but the director could never pique the actor’s interest until Inception. After a botched extraction job is revealed to have simply been a test run orchestrated by a wealthy businessman (Ken Watanabe), Cobb is given the opportunity to return home to America, to be reunited with his children.
To do so however, he must perform Inception. Instead of extracting an idea, he must plant an idea into someone’s mind so convincingly that, to that person, it’s as if they came up with it themselves. The delicacy of the job is not understated, and the first half of the film is spent learning about the dream world, establishing the group members, and planning out the job. Ellen Page plays Ariadne, a young, gifted architect who is hired to design the dream worlds for the target, as well as the environments the team will move through in order to successfully complete the mission. Ariadne is a necessary part of our experience as Cobb guides both her and us through the concept, leading to some truly stunning visuals and helping to make sense of Nolan’s ideas.
The opening scene of the film really does set the standard, though. Taking place in a temple, in what is later revealed to be a dream, Cobb and Arthur must fight against the subconscious of their target, and it leads to a series of explosions as the temple falls apart. This concludes with an enormous in-pour of water that brings the dream to an end. Much of the mayhem in this scene is made up of practical effects, a feat only matched perhaps in the most elaborate fight scene Nolan has ever shot. Taking place in a rotating hallway, Arthur must leap off walls and defy gravity in a sequence for which an actual, functional rotating room was built. Nolan’s love of spectacle however, never sacrifices narrative and again Nolan supplies us with a tormented protagonist to cling to. Initially conceived as a horror, the director concluded that for a story like this, it needed greater emotional stakes.
We learn more about Cobb, again through Ariadne, the further the film progresses, though most of what we need to know is on the table by the time the midpoint is reached. From then on, Inception takes a dramatic turn. Where prior to this it’s an awe-inspiring and, for first-timers, head-scratching walk through a maze of information, the plunge into the dream world where the team attempts Inception is a non-stop, hour-long adrenaline rush in which the tension rarely lets up. Cillian Murphy plays the son of the wealthy chairman of a big corporation, and whose rocky relationship with his father is the avenue for Cobb and co., something they need to take advantage of in order to succeed. Whilst there’s still room left for character building, most of the film’s back half keeps its foot on its viewer’s chest.
The last hour is fittingly epic, with Hans Zimmer’s booming soundtrack taking lead as we tumble through multiple dream levels that operate on different levels of time. While Nolan still leaves some tricks in his back pocket for late in the game, the sharp editing and relentless action becomes tiresome, and Inception is perhaps the only of Nolan’s films that I find could have been ten or fifteen minutes shorter. A lot of this stems from the demands of having an ensemble. Many of the characters here are played by stellar actors, and none are dry or dull. But, for example, Tom Hardy’s Eames chews plenty of time but never really earns it. Apart from occasional quips and the actor’s natural on-screen charisma, the character fails to compel. By and large, each preceding dream world becomes less interesting almost by default the moment that specific characters are sent deeper.
On a conceptual level, Nolan is almost too far ahead of his audience. To his credit he never holds his viewers hands and instead expects you to keep up. On the other hand this makes those occasional instances of exposition all the more glaring. Regarding plot and flow, Inception is ironically, maybe apart from his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan’s most basic film. It has a simple through-line, a very traditional development of his core team, and then the undertaking of its heist. Nolan hinges every unique aspect of the film on his premise, on a concept that he’d first pitched to Warner Bros. back in 2001.
The script explores themes of manipulation and on a lesser note privacy as it questions what it would mean to share dreams with those around you. The action is a combination of quick cuts and short panning. Most of the work is done in the editing suite, and particular care was taken in melding the three separate dream worlds together. This involves slowing time down from one dream to the next, and it’s utilized precisely to ramp up the tension at the climax.
Inception is an admirable film, but not one that was easy for me to fall in love with. It wears the trademark of a director continually attempting to challenge both himself and his audience. It is one of the most visually stunning films of his career, but its emotional weight doesn’t quite balance the scales with the adrenaline-rush. Instead of feeling entirely moved by Cobb’s tale, some viewers might just be glad that the action has subsided. Regardless, it’s impossible to define Inception as anything other than an achievement, an example of a director completely in control of his vision.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10