INCEPTION: What to Think.

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INCEPTION: What to Think.

Let's get something out of the way: you should see INCEPTION. Even if you have no interest in seeing it, see it. If only so you can continue reading, and not hate me having ruined it for you.

INCEPTION is a heist film in which a gang of thieves led by Leonardo DiCaprio is assembled to break into a subject's subconscious, and steal an idea. But what makes tonight's heist different from all other heists? Today, American summer movie patrons, instead of simply extracting an idea, we're going to be planting an idea in the mind of a subject. That's "inception." Now, if you're intrigued by that four sentence summation of the film's premise, but are saying to yourself "I could use about 45 more minutes of exposition about that," you're in luck!

It's a feat that director Christopher Nolan is able to imbue so much new vocabulary with any entertainment value at all, but the man pulls it off, as always, with panache. The last time I enjoyed digesting this much information was watching PLANET EARTH on ketamine, heyo, etc. Yet something about all that digestion kept me from being totally immersed in INCEPTION, at least the first time around... Still, even on a second go, are these characters going to improve? Sure, the whole dream catchin' crew (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao) are good looking and by all accounts punctual, but none of them are developed any more than your average Scott Caan in any particular OCEAN'S movie. This is a heist picture, that's the heist crew, you don't have to give them any dimension, that is one option. But by the time the second hour of INCEPTION hits and the talking heads are still yakety-yak'ing over the in's and out's of of inception, it all comes uncomfortably close to a handsomely staged reading of Chris Nolan's spiral notebook.

Leo, as the head of the crew, is named Dom Cobb. (Dom Cobb? You know where that name belongs? On a page in Chris Nolan's notebook, with a red line through it. And possibly a sad face.) And though it's Leo that's meant to be the emotional center of the film, this never really pans out. Dom's wife Mal, (Marion Cotillard,)  we learn, is long dead - but operates as a sort of ghost in the subconscious, appearing and causing malaise for her widower whenever possible. It's an interesting concept, and there's even some poignancy to it when we finally see the full picture of Dom and Mal Cobb's ill-fated romance, but the execution is questionable, bordering on unintentionally funny, as in the scene where Mal appears in an arctic jumpsuit and guns down young Fischer (Cillian Murphy.) Still, as far as detective-guy-guilt-stricken-over-his-wife's-suicide-that-he-was-kind-of-responsible-for movies go, Nolan's own MEMENTO is still much better: tighter structure, more engaging protagonist, and it's a cool half hour shorter.

Something about INCEPTION kept hitting me as a re-statement of MEMENTO, with $200,000,000 to spend. The big emotional revelation is similar in more ways than one, while the bells and whistles here dwarf the neo-noir economy of Nolan's breakout indie. With every movie, the man's budgets get bigger, hey good for him, and this is by far his biggest non-Batmovie. He's grown accustomed, perhaps, to making those movies, but that now familiar style bleeds over here, (booming Hans Zimmer score check, Wally Pfister helicopter shots check,) when INCEPTION could have benefited from being weirder by a quarter. For all the possibilities a film about a dreamworld presents, it's disappointing that Nolan sticks so close to what he knows. From INSOMNIA to BATMAN BEGINS to THE PRESTIGE, Nolan puts some sort of snowbound castle in almost every movie he makes. Cue act three of INCEPTION, set in: some sort of snowbound castle. Hey, the guy likes ice! Leave him alone! But Tom Hardy skiing around this fortress picking off baddies like he's James Bond isn't exactly the stuff from which dreams are made... Though it was interesting to read that in the press rounds for INCEPTION, Nolan let it slip that he'd like to direct a James Bond installment himself. Whether that's an empty promise remains to be seen, (hint: it will never happen ever,) but the finale of this film shows potential for a Nolan Bond. That is to say, it's a sequence that might have worked better in another movie.

All of a sudden, in mid-Bondage, a door is opened into a room deep inside the subject's subconscious, and we've walked straight into an overt visual connect to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Now, it's a losing game, calling out 2001 in any movie not as good as 2001, (i.e., just about every movie,) and here it serves as a comparison only favorable to Nolan in that Kubrick himself wasn't known for the warmth that exuded from his films, either. But Nolan's use of this allusive room turns out to be a handy gauge for what separates the two filmmakers. In 2001, the room Dave Bowman enters is a place uncharted, the final destination of the odyssey into his own mind: ultimate truth. In INCEPTION, Nolan's room is the equivalent of The Big Store in a long con game. It's a false construction, built to fool the subject: a sham version of the 2001 space it emulates. Like the room that acts as its final treasure chest, INCEPTION is outstanding modern trickery - but compared to the 2001, it feels like OCEAN'S 2001. Just a game.

Nolan's not Kubrick. For all his ambition, he doesn't work across genres, he works in one. Christopher Nolan makes thrillers. He makes terrific thrillers, and INCEPTION is absolutely one of those, but it isn't a step outside his skills, it's a straight-up showcase for them. His limitations are on display here, too.

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Christopher NolanLeonardo DiCaprioJoseph Gordon-LevittEllen PageTom HardyActionAdventureSci-Fi

More about Inception

Kurt HalfyardJuly 19, 2010 8:44 PM

Heh. I like that, "Oceans 2001!"

hype.jonesJuly 19, 2010 8:56 PM

Fantastic review, as usual. Thanks Mr. Yolen!

DavidJuly 19, 2010 11:21 PM

Am I the only one who made a "connection" between the end of the movie and the "opened end" of Blade Runner?

Great review by the way !

LouisJuly 20, 2010 5:20 AM

No, you are not the only one. After seeing "Inception" tonight my best friend and I (both of us writers) came away with totally different views about the overall meaning of the story and especially the truth about the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, I think that this is one of the best movies I have ever seen and it's going to take something truly amazing from Christopher Nolan to top this. I absolutely loved this movie and it is now going on my top 10 list of the best movies of all time.

Grady HendrixJuly 20, 2010 11:31 AM

I get that people are so eager not to appear as if they're endorsing the "visionary masterpiece," "Meet the new Stanley Kubrick" hype bubbling around INCEPTION that they're not engaging with the movie on a level beyond "Liked it/didn't like it," or "Worked as a movie/didn't work as a movie," but I think it's a missed opportunity. INCEPTION has flaws (as do most movies) but I think there's a lot to chew on.

Making a movie about dreams requires a filmmaker to come up with a rulebook and a framework in which he or she can depict dreams and dreaming onscreen and what's fascinating about INCEPTION is that Nolan has used the vocabulary of video games and Hollywood blockbusters to do that. Killing a dreamer wakes them up, just like killing a player knocks them out of a game. Dreams happen in levels. Leo's team requires a designer (video game designer being one of the most coveted jobs in tech right now). When dreams end, they do so in Michael Bay-worthy explosions. Physics in dreams are action movie physics: gruesome falls and car wrecks are survivable, bad guys can swiss cheese a van with automatic weapons fire but not hit any lead characters.

By the time the movie ends, Nolan seems to have made a case that virtual worlds (video games, blockbusters) are preferable to "real" life: they're where his characters go to get their closure and to staunch their wounds, Leo and Coilltard's marriage is lovely and romantic inside a dream but in real life it's all drama and suicide, characters repeatedly claim to prefer the vividness and immediacy of a dream over what's offered by reality.

It's sort of a radical position to take since this is the subtext of most blockbuster movies ("Come on in, we're better and more exciting than the real world,") made text, and it's this addiction to immediacy that Kathryn Bigelow dissected in THE HURT LOCKER. And while she and Nolan aren't talking about the exact same issues, they're at the same conference. In THE HURT LOCKER, what's the war in Iraq besides a closed world with its own rules that young men seem to prefer over the mundane, day-to-day consumerism offered by life on the home front?

I just saw INCEPTION last night, so I can't figure out if Nolan's endorsing, critiquing, or not even saying anything beyond "Look at this," about what virtual worlds have to offer (immediacy, adrenaline, closure, narrative satisfaction) but it's clear that he's just one of several filmmakers these days who find it necessary to engage with the bleeding edge of pop culture. And what makes INCEPTION stand out is that he's made a blockbuster that uses the tools of a blockbuster to critique (?) a blockbuster.

PelleJuly 20, 2010 3:48 PM

I like that Grady, never occurred to me but that's a very interesting take with the video games and Hollywood movies.