Monday, July 26, 2010

Exceptional Inception Falls Short of Perfection

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 148 minutes
Originally Released: July 16, 2010

* * * ½ (out of four)

Inception is the planting of an idea in another person’s head. If the idea is successfully to take root, it is imperative that the person in whom it is being planted not suspect that the idea comes from external sources—the idea must be considered one’s own, or the subconscious will expunge it.

And so we scratch the very dense surface of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest, Inception. Inception tells the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who specializes in thought extraction. Yes, Cobb steals the contents of other people’s minds. How? By burglarizing their dreams, slinking in undetected and rummaging around in their subconscious for whatever information his client is seeking. It’s a delicate process, for as we learn early in the film, the apparent bystanders who populate our dreams—the extras who serve to make a city street or a sidewalk café look authentically crowded—are really projections of the dreamer’s subconscious. If the subconscious begins to suspect that something is amiss, its projections can turn violent, attacking anything—or in this case, anyone—it feels is trespassing. Get killed in a dream by someone’s subconscious projection and your gig is up—you’re awakened. Worse yet, get tortured or maimed. As we all know, dream pain can be very real. Taking a bullet to the foot in a dream won’t necessarily wake you up, but it is guaranteed to hurt like hell.

Saito (Ken Watanabe) is a highly-influential businessman. He wants Cobb to infiltrate the mind of a rival businessman’s son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who is poised to inherit his ailing father’s company. Rather than extract information, however, Saito wants Cobb to implant in Fischer an idea, namely the idea that Fischer should dissolve his father’s lucrative business empire. In exchange, Saito will use his connections to clear Cobb’s criminal record and allow him to return back from Paris to the United States to be with his children. It’s an offer Cobb can’t refuse, even though some of his associates think inception is an outright impossible feat. Cobb contends that it can be done—it’s just very difficult, requiring one to descend multiple levels into another’s subconscious, navigating through dreams within dreams within dreams. To pull it off, Cobb is going to need more than his usual partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); he’ll also need Ariadne (Ellen Page), a gifted architect student who can manipulate dreamscapes and thereby evade a subject’s defensive subconscious; Eames (Tom Hardy), a counterfeiter whose talents extend to the dream world, where he can take on the appearance of others; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who possesses the sedatives powerful enough to elicit several layers of synchronized dreaming; and Saito himself. Dream team complete.

Long before Inception, Nolan proved himself one of the most original filmmakers of our time. Nolan’s 2000 psychological thriller, the backward-flowing Memento, is a classic on par with the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho. 2005’s Batman Begins took the already-popular genre of superhero movies and infused it with a healthy dose of realism, elevating the genre to a new level of cinematic sophistication. Nolan’s oft-overlooked 2006 flick, The Prestige, reaffirmed his genius, piecing together a compelling storyline and a smart script, which Nolan then brought hauntingly to life with all the delicate care of Dr. Frankenstein resurrecting his monster. Since that time, Nolan’s filmmaking scales have tipped decidedly in favor of big-budget action flicks, where the pursuit of adrenaline can sometimes suffocate the storyline. Such is the case with Inception, which begins as an arc de triomphe of filmmaking but gradually dissolves into being nothing more than a Hollywood action movie with a twist. This wouldn’t be so disheartening if Nolan hadn’t paved the way for something much, much greater. The first half of Inception is a masterpiece, both conceptually and visually. Nolan applies painstaking, philosophical precision to crafting and explicating the complex laws of space time as they relate to “shared dreaming,” the phenomenon that underwrites the film’s narrative. He then provides us with some of the most breathtaking visual effects in cinematic history, reminding us in the most literal way possible that dreams have a way of turning reality upside down. Looking only at the first 60 minutes of the movie, Inception could justifiably be described as a metaphysical wet dream. It is during this first hour that Nolan’s genius is on full display, pulling out all the stops to reveal what can happen in a dream world of, as one character puts it, “pure intuitive creation.” What a disappointment, then, that the carte blanche so graciously extended to the dreaming mind in the first half of the film is so sparingly utilized in its finale. And it’s not merely that the second half of Inception cannot live up to the grandeur of the first; it’s that Nolan altogether abandons the possibilities he so teasingly dangles before our eyes at the film’s outset, just when it becomes clear how such tricks would pay off in spades. It’s a baffling misstep for a movie that otherwise breaks boundaries. I imagine watching the finale of Inception is something akin to watching Michael Jordan practice free-throws. You may have some semblance that you’re beholding a genius at work, but it’s not because of what’s going on at that very moment. In a disappointingly ironic twist of fate, then, the ingenuity that makes the first half of Inception such a marvel to behold turns out to be the film’s inadvertent red herring.

Rich character development has been a trademark of Nolan’s former films, but is less pronounced with Inception. Given the intricacy of the film’s plot, this was probably a necessarily evil. To spend more time developing the characters would have stretched the movie well past the three-hour mark, and it’s probably best that Nolan didn’t attempt this. As Cobb, DiCaprio is as good as I’ve ever seen him, with the exception of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and the more recent Revolutionary Road. I still have a hard time accepting that the boy-faced DiCaprio is a fully-grown adult, and any role that depicts him as a father automatically requires some suspension of disbelief on my part. As Cobb’s wife, Mal, Marion Cotillard is at once distant and foreboding, probably too much so for a motherly figure. Mal plagues her estranged husband’s memory, often appearing in his dreams and attempting to sabotage his missions, the effect of Cobb subconsciously working against himself.

Per usual, Ellen Page tends to be one of the best things about the movies she’s in, even when those movies are exceptionally good to begin with. Cillian Murphy deftly tackles a role that didn’t require his level of talent. In that regard, it’s almost dissatisfying to see him put to such little use. Casting Murphy as Fischer is like renting a U-Haul to carry home a single bag of groceries. The remaining cast—Gordon-Levitt, Watanabe, Hardy, Rao, Michael Caine as the professor of architecture who recommends Ariadne to Cobb and is also his father-in-law, and others—are all well-equipped for what they do, which is play second fiddle to the narrative structure of the movie itself. As such, there is little new to complain about here.

Inception is a rare film in both good ways and bad. It is indeed one of the most innovative movies to hit the screen in years, and one that I heartily recommend. It also has the distinction of proving that even an amazing film can be overrated. Perhaps Christopher Nolan is just too good at his own game. It seems he has implanted in most moviegoers’ minds the idea that Inception is nothing short of perfection. I must say, it’s a pretty successful ruse. You’ll have to spend some time rubbing your eyes in disbelief before you suspect you’ve been the slightest bit bamboozled.

No comments:

Post a Comment