Review: Inception (dir. by Christopher Nolan)

The summer of 2010 has been quite a disappointment. While the films released during this major blockbuster season has been good most have not been able to be that one stand-out which defines a summer season. We’ve had the typical tentpole sequels like Iron Man 2 (good but not great) and Toy Story 3 (also good but not great) to remakes like The Karate Kid to The A-Team. To say that the 2010 summer blockbuster season has been lackluster would be an understatement. Even original films like Splice hasn’t taken in the audience. It now falls to one of the biggest titles for the summer to try and save the season. Whether it will do so financially is still in doubt, but critically the latest from Christopher Nolan may just become the event film of the summer to actually deliver on its hype and the promise of an audience seeing something new, fresh and daring in a sea of mediocrity. Inception comes into the 2010 summer season and delivers on its promises and more than lives up to the hype heaped upon it by critics and fans alike.

A film almost a decade in the making, Christopher Nolan’s epic and sweeping tale of dreams and reality wrapped around a heist film brings the filmmaker one-step closer to becoming the genius filmmaker some of his most ardent followers have dubbed him to be. Nolan as a filmmaker and, more importantly, as a storyteller has always had a fascination with shattered reality and how the subconcious directly affect his protagonists’ sense of the real. We’ve seen this in his film-style of using a disjointed and non-linear structure to his films which goes to creating a sense of confusion in the inattentive viewer. Some have called this style of his as being a gimmick to make a simple story more complex than it really is. I disagree with these individuals and say that Nolan has never done anything to trick an audience with his storytelling style and choices. His films have all the facts laid out before the audience, but in a way that asks the audience to participate in putting the jumbled pieces together. I’ve never seen a red herring used by Nolan in his more personal projects and even in the populist titles he’s done under the rebooted Batman franchise.

In his latest film, Nolan has refined his non-linear style and used it to successfully create the main setting of the film. Inception is set mostly in the dream world shared by the characters and those they’ve targeted. It is in this shared dream state that the audience learn the rules governing the world of Inception. It is in this dream state that we’re introduced to the first people who would make up an incredible ensemble cast put together by Christopher Nolan and his casting crew. We first meet dream extractor Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pointman Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they attempt to steal something valuable and important from within the dream of their Japanese-industrialist mark in Saito (Ken Watanabe). We see hints of the rules that will become important for the audience to help them follow the film’s main story as it unfolds. We learn that Saito has already known in advance that he’s in a dream constructed and being shared by Dom and Arthur in their contracted heist by parties unknown. As good as Dom and Arthur are at their job os stealing ideas from a mark through their dreams they have no chance when someone from Dom’s past inserts herself in their plans to sabotage what they’ve worked to accomplish.

It’s in this introductory sequence that we learn of the backstory of Dom and why his latest heist-job didn’t work out too well and has now endangered not just himself but those he has been working with. Saito gives Dom and Arthur a way out of their problems after failing in this job to steal from him by doing a job for him. But unlike previous dream heists Dom and Arthur have done in the past this time Saito doesn’t want something stolen from someone’s mind but to have an idea planted so deep within a mark’s subconscious that the mark believes it to be their very own and not one planted by an outsider. The job doesn’t require Dom to be an extractor of ideas. He’s now to find a way to successfully plant an idea. A job known as “inception” which Arthur and others deem near-impossible to pull off and one quite dangerous not just to the mark but to those involved in the process.

To say anymore about the plot of the film would be to spoil it. Inception works best when as little as possible about the film is known going in. The surprise and awe of the story unfolding is half the fun. It’s like an intricate puzzle or game one tries to solve. It’s ok to know ahead of time how to solve things, but not as fun. While for some people the way Nolan uses non-linear storytelling can be confusing all he asks his audience is to pay attention to the details and clues he’s planting in every scene and piece of dialogue. Let’s be honest this film is not for the inattentive. I won’t say stupid since that implies having low intelligence. It doesn’t take intelligence to pay attention and I’ve known that some of the more intelligent people have a tendency to let their attention wander.

Inception is a film about big ideas and grandiose themes. While the story in of itself when broken down to its simplest common denominator is just a heist film done in a new way, the film allows for layers upon layers of ideas to wrap itself around this simplistic premise. Nolan doesn’t just play with disjointing time for audience. He’s gone and went towards manipulating reality within the subconscious thought to ask the audience a simple question.

Are what we seeing a dream or is it reality?

The film doesn’t trick us using red herrings to make us think one way or another. Everything Nolan has put up on the screen is quite literal and remembering the rules he had set-up in the first hour lays the groundwork for each individual audience to answer that question for themselves. There’s no right or wrong answer to the question, but for some who have seen the film their disappointment seem less to do with the quality of the film, the acting and the direction but more on some of the ambiguous nature of the ending which becomes a dealbreaker for some. Again while I respect their take on this film I find their reasoning for negative criticism to be grounded on thin to non-existent ground. I will get to that ending soon.

While some have called Inception as the anti-Avatar I believe the two filmmaker share similar traits not just in how they create their film, but also in their two latest film. Both Nolan and Cameron are quite known to be very controlling of how their films are made to the point they dabble in every aspect of it. In their latest films they’ve also gone a long way into building a world for their story and characters to inhabit and play around in. While Cameron’s latest was an otherworldly kind in the most literal sense the same could be said for Nolan’s latest but instead inhabits the mind and how anything is possible. From the look of things both film will also share the same sort of near-universal acclaim from the film-going audience with a small, albeit very loud, minority calling Nolan’s film unoriginal, boring and, a word I have loathed for its overuse when something becomes very popular, overrated.

Where the two filmmakers diverge is the way they go about their films. Where Cameron leans heavily in pulling at the emotional strings of the audience through narrative and film sequences in his films, Nolan plies the audiences intellect instead. Cameron for all his technical genius both within the filmmaking sphere and outside of it can be quite the sappy filmmaker and all his films have shown this whether it’s The Terminator or Avatar. For Nolan his films have always felt like an intellectual exercise. An exercise everyone was invited to participate in no matter their level of intellect. He’s been able to marry both his indipendent arthouse sensibilities with the blockbuster the masses seem to crave year in and year out. With Inception he has moved one-step closer to achieving a perfect meshing of the two. This film has all the makings of a great heist and sci-fi thriller wrapped around so many pieces of profound and thoughtprovoking ideas that even after several viewings an audience will find something new to think about. Only one other film I can think of in the last decade or so has accomplished this and that was 1999’s The Matrix by The Wachowski Brothers. While that film was a kick-ass sci-fi action film it also dared to mix in a liberal dose of philosophy both Eastern and Western not to mention subjecting it’s audience to rethink how they see reality.

Christopher Nolan has gone beyond just trying to question the nature of reality. His goal with this film is to deconstruct the nature of the subconscious itself and show how such a thin line separates the dream from the real that at first and, even several glances, one cannot tell the difference. It’s a good thing for the audience watching Inception that Nolan has given them the tools and the rules to follow if they dare. And that’s where I think Nolan will disnguish himself apart from other great directors of his generation and put him up on the level of the true masters in film history. He doesn’t just make films that has worldwide appeal but able to do them while still able to engage his audience to open up their minds to the infinite possibilities his stories offer. While this does make his film a tad cold and distant for some that shouldn’t detract from the high-quality of his work, especially with Inception. The film has heart. It just doesn’t pluck on those particular beats to engage the audience.

I think filmblogger Devin Faraci said it best on his Twitter feed while discussing the film with others. While not exactly verbatim what I got out of it was that he thought it was always easy to engage and/or manipulate the audience through emotional factors, but much harder to engage their intellect. While some have accomplished the former to a great extent and vice versa I think with Inception Nolan has stepped closer than anyone to engage both the heart and the mind of the audience.

This review cannot be too much of a review if I just spoke about the ideas, themes and the inner workings of Nolan’s mind. The film is actually very good. Good enough to that’s close to being perfect. Pick any aspect of the film and those involved have done some of their best work and grown in their craft. As I stated earlier the film sports one incredible ensemble cast. I’ve already mentioned Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who both do very great work in their roles. DiCaprio continues to be the go-to-guy when it comes to playing the tortured individual. Similar to his other role in Scorsese’s Shutter Island, DiCaprio as Cobb was quite believable in his personal-made hell in regards to a past event which involved his wife Mal (played with beautiful elegance and malice by Marion Cotillard). But unlike Scorsese’s film Nolan doesn’t reveal this personal issue through a twist in the plot, but let’s it come out naturally with the help of another cast member providing the impetus for Cobb to come clean. This individual is the team’s new dream architect in the form of Ariadne (Ellen Page in her most mature role to date and one that should go a long way from helping her shed the label of being Juno-esque).

Ariadne becomes the proxy by which the audience learns the in’s and out’s of Cobb’s job as a dream extractor and, very soon, inceptor. Through some inventive use of CGI and practical effects we see throught Ariadne’s eyes how the shared dream-state behaves. How specific rules actually exist within this state no matter how many levels of dreams an individual or group goes down into a mark’s subconscious. Some of these scenes people have seen glimpses of in the trailers and tv spots, but even seeing some of them in advance doesn’t detract from how incredible they look when seen on the bigscreen, especially for those lucky enough to see them on IMAX.

The rest of the cast rounded out by Tom Hardy as Eames the team’s Forger, Dileep Rao as the Chemist in charge of fabricating the compounds needed for the team to enter their mark’s subconscious. Cillian Murphy (starting to become one of Nolan’s regulars) plays Robert Fischer, Jr. their target and mark throughout the film with veteran actors Tom Berenger, Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite providing the wise-men roles in the film. It’s Tom Hardy as Eames which stood out in a cast full of extraordinary young and veteran performers. His recent fame as an actor due to his brutal and daring performance in Bronson has made Hardy a hot commodity in Hollywood. His playful character of Eames serves to provide some levity in an otherwise very serious film which allows the audience to come closer to the characters and story instead of remaining distant as Nolan’s detractors like to point out. He nearly pulls off stealing the film from everyone everytime he’s on-screen. It’s a testament to all the actors that he doesn’t as each and everyone have their moments to shine without overshadowing their fellow co-stars.

It would be difficult to review this film without pointing out how beautiful it looks and sounds. The visual part of the film has to go to Walter Pfister who works his magic behind the cameras on this film. Every shot is clear, concise and free of tricks some cinematographers these days have come to rely on too often to make their shots look more dynamic than it really should be. The editing by Lee Smith makes sure that Nolan’s style doesn’t confuse the audience and keeps the non-linear narrative structure easy to comprehend. As for the score one has to look to Hans Zimmer’s growing rapport with Nolan. He’s scored two of Nolan’s film and it looks that Zimmer has tapped into what Nolan wants his film score to sound like. not to dominate or overemphasize particular scenes or beats, but to act as an accompaniment. All three individual do their part as does the actors into making Nolan’s vision of Inception come to life. As great a filmmaker as Nolan is turning out to be these support players have made sure his path towards that goal is done so on smoother ground than not.

Now, there’s going to be some heated and long debates as to the nature of the film because of the final shot. The final shot is of a metal dreidel spinning in the foreground with the camera panning to it. The dreidel is spinning and spinning and looks to keep on doing so. The dreidel is shown earlier in the film as acting as some sort of anchor to tell Cobb whether he is in the real world or in a dream. If it continues to spin and not tip over and fall then he’s still in one. If it spins but ultimately tips over onto its side then he’s out of it. The film ends with the dreidel spinning and for a split second before the film suddenly fades to black we see it wobble.

Many have seen this final shot as being a cop-out by Nolan to play with the audience’s mind. I happen to disagree.  I see it as a part of the story itself. nolan has been asking throughout the film what is real and what is a dream. This last shot just emphasizes this question and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether the dreidel continues to spin or eventually tips over. While I lean to the latter in the end it doesn’t detract from the film. The fact that some people have grabbed hold of this scene to negatively criticized the film as a whole tells me just how well-crafted a film Nolan has made that one little sequence lasting no less than 10 seconds becomes a dealbreaker for some when it should stimulate the mind into thinking what it actually means. I see that as the mark of an excellent storyteller.

In the end, Inception has done something this year which most film have so far been unable to do. It has delivered on its high-minded promises of a film that would challenge the audience and not just entertain them. It’s a film which has been overhyped for the last six month but has more than lived up to it and for some surpassed the hype itself. Inception looks to be one of those films which would forever define a filmmaker and this one will definitely define Nolan moving forward no matter what other projects he has in the future. This is a film that dares to appeal not just to the arthouse cineaste crowd but to the general audience who yearn to watch something exciting and original. I won’t say this is Nolan’s best film since he has years upon years to continue making films. Maybe one of those will be his masterpiece, but Inception definitely could be counted as being a nominee for that honor. If nothing else this film has saved what has been a very ordinary and lackluster 2010 summer film season.

17 responses to “Review: Inception (dir. by Christopher Nolan)

    • Remember what I said before the film came out. Some people will hate this film because they didn’t get it or couldn’t follow. For some people if they can’t follow a film then it must be bad. Inception wasn’t hard to follow and outside of Nolan’s Batman films it’s his most accessible and easiest to follow film.


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