Monday, July 19, 2010
In this story, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a corporate spy with a unique modus operandi: he enters dreams with his intended victims and steal their ideas right out of their minds, a process called extraction. Inception is the flip side of that coin; instead of stealing an idea, you plant one. Just as it is far easier to destroy than to create, it is far more difficult to perform inception than extraction. Indeed, Cobb's partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and others insist that inception is absolutely impossible. However, after botching a job, their intended victim, Saito (Ken Watanabe), makes them an offer they can't refuse. If they successfully perform inception and convince his corporate rival's heir, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to dismantle his father's massive corporation, Saito will pay everyone handsomely and give Cobb access to the only thing he truly wants --- his family.
There's more to it than that --- a lot more --- but I can't simplify it and still do the story justice. I can, however, marvel at the unique story elements. This is a very intelligent story that has been thought through from start to finish. To pull off the inception, Cobb and his crew design several elaborate dreamscapes and they layer the dreams one inside of another inside of another. So, they all go to sleep and go into the shared dreamscape, and then they go to sleep in that dream and then go to sleep in the next dream to reach that third layer. Does that sound complicated? Well, wait. Each layer of dream has a different concept of time. In the first layer, five minutes of real-world time equals an hour of dream time. In the second layer, that becomes ten hours, in the third, a hundred. What makes that notion interesting is the fact that the dreamers have some level of awareness with the level above them; like someone that has water dripping on them might dream of drowning, these characters are affected by what is happening around their sleeping bodies. There is an extended sequence where a car is falling, for instance, and the next dream layer has everyone floating in mid-air because their bodies are all asleep in the falling car in the dream layer above. What only takes a few seconds (a falling car) feels like several minutes to those dreamers. That opens up a lot of layered storytelling possibilities and introduces some tricky timing, and Christopher Nolan did a great job making each layer work.
While this is more of a psychological thriller than anything else, Inception has its share of solid action sequences. There is a surprising amount of gunfire in the movie and a lot of full-contact driving sequences. These are nice, but that should come as no surprise from the director of The Dark Knight. The movie's uniqueness is shown primarily in a great scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights in a hallway with no consistent gravity. It's not a particularly flashy scene, and Gordon-Levitt doesn't come across as ridiculously bad-ass or anything, but it's a wonderful illustration of the possibilities available in the dream worlds.
Something that surprised me about this film was the emotional content. Clever ideas and good action are nothing particularly new to Nolan because his movies are all about the plot. Honestly, I don't think I've seen an incredible acting performance in his movies, aside from the notable exception of Heath Ledger. That diligence to the story usually sacrifices any true emotional attachment. Here, though, we are given two distinct and satisfying stories with heart. On the one hand, we have Robert Fischer, who felt like a disappointment to his empire-building father (Pete Postlethwaite). By the film's end, though, there is a genuine moment between the two; the fact that the moment was completely engineered by Cobb and his crew doesn't negate the scene's emotion. On the other hand, we have Cobb. He has been dealing with intense loss and guilt for a while, to a degree that is affecting (and infecting) his work. When he finally confronts the manifestation of his guilt, there are a few minutes that acknowledge the importance and limitations of dreams, and these moments are the core of the story. If that scene had felt forced or flat, the whole movie would have seemed like a clever piece of filmmaking, but not an important work. And this is undoubtedly an important film.
What is odd in a movie filled with oddness is the absence of any truly charismatic character. Leonardo DiCaprio does a very good job as Cobb, willing to risk his sanity and that of his friends just to see his family again. The character is smart, but flawed, and DiCaprio (who I think is a good actor that is smart enough to work with great directors) gives his best performance in recent memory. He is the heart and brains of the story and he deserves recognition for how well he carried this film. Of course, his performance would have been wasted without someone of equal talent in his scenes. Marion Cotillard turns in a varied and emotional performance, alternately cooing with love or screaming with hate. DiCaprio's performance required someone to react to him, and Cotillard played her part well. Her performance is somewhat hampered by the limitations placed on her character, but she still was able to convey a lot of emotion.
The rest of the cast is good, but their characters are not as integral to the plot as DiCaprio's or Cotillard's. Cillian Murphy has the next most emotionally complicated role, and he does it well. Resentment is often a trait that makes characters unsympathetic, but he is able to show that emotion and still come across as someone in need. Ellen Page acts as the story's point-of-view character, the character least familiar with the dreamscape. Her scenes are primarily used to show off the possibilities of dreams, and her character acts as Cobb's conscience. It's not a terribly complex role for Page, but her character still seems well developed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another subtle performance as the matter-of-fact member of Cobb's team, but he shows personality in a few brief scenes that help change him from just another character into someone you're rooting for. Tom Hardy is appealing as the rogue of the group as well. The rest of the cast has more limited roles, either because of screen time, or because of their character's role. Still, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger and Lukas Haas all add something to their roles that make them feel more substantial than they are.
This film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan. I've already mentioned how clever the story is, but it's worth mentioning again. This is a smart screenplay that has heart and some humor. Most importantly, though, this is a unique story. You can argue that it shares some similarities with Dark City or The Matrix because it plays with the notion of reality, but Inception is a lot deeper than that and is better in almost every way than any movie with a similar conceit. The acting is full of competent performances, but it is noteworthy that this is the first time Nolan has been able to capture this much honest emotion on film. The cinematography is good for the most part, with a few truly exceptional scenes that show the potential of the plot. I think this is Nolan's best work to date.
The one thing it lacks is an extraordinary character. I find it odd that a movie with so many bigger-than-life moments has characters that are all essentially normal. Well, except for the entering people's dreams thing. I can see the importance of having DiCaprio, Cotillard, and Page as regular folks, but I think an opportunity was missed by having Hardy do the same. Hardy was somewhat sarcastic, but I think his character would have been a little more appealing if he had been a little more of...I don't know...maybe a lovable bastard; he was only a few steps away from the guy you like to hang out with, but wouldn't trust alone with your sister, but those few steps can make a big difference for supporting characters.
That is just me nit-picking, though. This is a visually interesting, intellectually fascinating movie with good direction and acting. It has a good ending, too, but it's better seen than read. I expected to enjoy this movie because I like so many of the people involved, but this turned out to be the best new release I have seen in a few years.