“INCEPTION” Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
**** (four stars)
THIS is the movie that I have been waiting for all year. In a literal sense, ever since I saw the very first trailer for Writer/Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, I wanted to see the final result the moment the preview concluded. In a slightly more figurative sense, I have been waiting for this precise film because, aside from a few exceptions, it has, overall, been a dismal year at the movies with one unimaginative, under-thought, dumbed down movie after another. In a world where sequels and “re-boots” and non-essential re-makes rule the day, it was an astounding sight to see a film of such marvelous storytelling and filmmaking skill that even the most familiar elements felt completely original. “Inception” is another cinematic high water mark for Nolan, and like his previous film, the game changing “The Dark Knight” (2008), it shows that when Hollywood bothers to get it right, it is more than up to the task. “Inception” gets everything so right, that it has soared to the very heights of being one of my favorite films of 2010.
I will only provide you with the most elemental basis of plot description so as to not only cease from producing inadvertent spoilers but to allow you the same opportunity I did with seeing this film fairly cold, and taking the ride as it is meant to be taken most effectively. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a corporate thief of dreams, hired by corporate mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of corporate rival Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), in order to obtain pertinent corporate secrets ensuring Saito’s ultimate dominance. Cobb then assembles his “dream team,” consisting of his right hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a dream forger (Tom Hardy), the anesthetist (Dileep Rao) and the newest member, a blazingly sharp young architect named Ariadne (a strong Ellen Page), for the task. Yet, even for an experienced dream thief like Cobb, this is an atypical job as his team is about to implant an idea rather than extract information, making for the ultimate “Mission: Impossible” as the team descends into several dream stages with the more than serious threat of never finding their way out again.
While “Inception” succeeds greatly as a crime thriller, action film, dark mystery, aching love story, as well as a morality tale of regret and redemption, it is the psychological drama at the core that holds everything together. From the unreliable memories of “Momento” (2001) to the fractured mental states of sleeplessness in “Insomnia” (2002) and the deep psychosomatic underpinnings of “The Prestige” (2006) and his Batman series, Nolan’s previous films have all orchestrated themselves around psychological themes and frameworks. Yet “Inception” travels the deepest thus far as he takes us on journey through various levels of dreamscapes, shared dreaming, memories, the dangerous subconscious and the even more sinister limbo stage, with the strongest of cinematic holds. He holds you in full attention from the start, even when you have no idea of what exactly is occurring or even posses the rules to navigate this world. But like a wizard, Nolan continuously unveils the contents behind his magic curtain and allows you to gradually discover your bearings along the way. None of the explanations and exposition throughout feels lugubrious. Nothing ever feels like a cheat or a shortcut. And by the film’s conclusion, when you have fully been immersed in Nolan’s dream language and logic, you receive an ending that is definitive while also being ambiguous…just like any dreams you and I may have.
The highest beauty of this film is how Nolan utilizes the dream language and logic of which we are all familiar and weaves them into what is essentially a grandiose science-fiction themed heist movie. I have always been fascinated with dreaming and how the world of dreams relates to the symbiotic relationship between the mind and the spirit. Seemingly innocuous objects contain grand significance to no one else but the dreamer. The sensations we all have felt while dreaming or within dreams (i.e. falling, flying, floating) all work their way in the intricately plotted storyline.
What meant most to me, beyond the mind blowing special effects and astonishingly constructed and staged action sequences, was how firmly the deeply philosophical pursuits of understanding dreams, in addition to the elasticity of time, were weaved into the story and the lives of several of the characters. How do we dream and what is their purpose? Why do we have the sensation of traveling far and away through worlds upon worlds of our pasts, presents and imaginings when we have not ever left the sanctity of our own beds? Where does the spirit go when our bodies lay relatively motionless? Where do our emotional landscapes and senses fit in? What is the truest meaning of being “awake” and knowing which world you exist in is the “real” one? And of course, most unsettlingly, if you die in your dreams, do you die in real life?
Nolan pursues every single one of those threads and more in his extremely well written script without bogging the audience down in conceptual mumbo jumbo. He always remembers that he’s got a story to tell and wisely, so wisely, everything at his disposal is utilized as a tool to serve the piece as a whole. The outstanding concepts, cinematography, set design, epic music score and special effects do not overwhelm any moment contained in “Inception.” They all serve to enhance, stimulate, excite, disorient and alter your senses in the best possible way imaginable.
All of the performances from the entire cast are first rate. Leonardo DiCaprio gives yet another tightly wound, intense performance that is always grounded in the emotional landscapes of his character. He pulls you into his world and damaged mind immediately, making a character that is simultaneously sympathetic, dangerous, reckless and haunted. And arriving in the same year as Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” where he played a character on similarly unsteady psychological ground, it is amazing to see how he was able to play Cobb and not suggest the work he performed in the previous film. His skill continues to impress and amaze.
Ellen Page, again shows that her breakthrough in “Juno” (2007) was no fluke. She is the real deal as she is the film’s moral center and conscious. She asks they very questions the audience should be asking throughout, yet she also sets herself a step ahead of the audience and the other characters as well. She is fiercely intelligent, aggressively curious, as reckless as DiCaprio’s character in some ways yet her soul has not been compromised. Page is effortlessly complex and inviting.
Again, I cannot state enough how much I needed to see this movie, as my enthusiasm was beginning to wane due to the frustrating lack of strong films being released this year. Christopher Nolan and his entire dream team of actors and collaborators succeeded in ways “Shutter Island” did not, despite Scorsese's honest attempt, as all of the story elements don’t exist to simply serve an unconvincing ending that it hadn’t earned in the first place. It bests Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland” and The Hughes Brothers’ “The Book Of Eli,” by again not allowing the aesthetics overwhelm the storytelling, a mistake which made those aforementioned films draining and lifeless.
While this film often recalled other movies like Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981), Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall" (1990), the Wachowski Brother's "Matrix" series (1999 & 2003), Tarsem Singh's "The Cell" (2000), Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" (2001), and even Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) there is nothing derivative, lazy or ill conceived on display in "Inception." I truly believe that if you choose to buy a ticket into this experience, you will all be awarded with an intelligent, pulse pounding, thrilling and consistently imaginative motion picture of the level that is sadly not on display more frequently.
So...what are you waiting for????????