July 2024

Inception (2010)

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Lukas Haas, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite


Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige) reportedly spent ten years writing his screenplay for Inception. Watching the film, one can see how it might have taken so long. Some will no doubt find Inception confusing. It definitely is not a movie where you can take a trip to the restroom, and requires a commitment of close attention and concentration, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Generic shoot-em-up action thrillers where you can check your brain at the door are a dime a dozen, but Nolan has never been content with generic. He makes movies that give himself a challenge, and challenge the audience to pay attention, but the pay-off is worth the effort.

inceptionInception is one of those movies that must be seen, probably repeatedly, to be completely understood, so a quick summary feels inadequate, but here’s the basics.  Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in a very unconventional form of corporate espionage: extraction, or the invasion of a target’s dreams to steal ideas and secrets from their subconscious mind (as long as you’re skilled enough, the mark doesn’t realize they’re inside a dream and can be manipulated into dropping their guard in a way they would never do in reality).  Together with his trusty right hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb is very good at what he does, but he is a lonely and haunted man  living as a fugitive unable to return to the States and reunite with his estranged children, dogged by a specter from his past, the mysterious Mal (Marion Cotillard), who invades and sabotages his missions in the dreamworld.  But then Cobb is hired by a past mark, powerful Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), to attempt something believed to be impossible: inception, not stealing an idea from a target’s mind, but planting one.  And Saito dangles a carrot Cobb can’t refuse, claiming to be able to fix his legal problems keeping him from his children.  The mark is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying business titan (Pete Postlethwaite), who is about to inherit his father’s empire and gain a near monopoly on the world’s energy supply…unless Cobb and team can plant the idea of dissolving it in Fischer’s mind, and plant it deeply and securely enough that he believes it’s his own decision.  To carry out the mission, Cobb and Arthur gain three cohorts–young architect student Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will craft the environment of the dream, forger Eames (Tom Hardy), who can impersonate other people within the dream to manipulate Fischer, and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who makes chemicals that induce deep sleep.  But with the rise of this new form of espionage, corporations and their security forces are scrambling to keep up.  Fischer has been trained by mental strategists to defend his mind against invasion, and once Cobb and his team are inside Fischer’s subconsciousness, they find it filled with armed security forces.  Of course, they’re figments of Fischer’s imagination, but this is not risk-free.  Ordinarily, dying within a dream is a surefire “kick” to wake yourself up and return to reality.  But in order to plant their idea deep enough to cover their tracks and keep Fischer from realizing what’s happening, they must descend through three layers of dreams, requiring a deeper level of sleep.  Dying inside a dream while so heavily asleep could leave you trapped in mental limbo, your body sleeping in a comatose state while your mind spends infinity trapped in the dream world.  And going through so many levels of dreams, and dreams-within-dreams, how can you be completely sure when you’ve really woken up?

Inception2Inception does a lot of playing around with various concepts including the blurred line between fantasy and reality, the ways we compartmentalize our emotions and memories, and whether a happy dream can be better than a sad reality. In a strange way, its closest cinematic cousin might be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although while that movie used vaguely similar concepts for an unconventional romantic comedy, Nolan has used them for an unconventional heist thriller.  When Cobb steals a romantic moment with Mal in the dreamworld, his brain knows exactly what’s happening, but his heart has a harder time telling the difference, and there are times when it threatens to take over.  The movie also does plenty of playing around with something else anyone who’s had a dream is probably familiar with- the way things some aware corner of our mind hears or senses in reality is incorporated into our dream. This is done most strikingly during an extended sequence in which the van carrying our team’s unconscious bodies through Level 1 goes off a bridge, and suddenly everyone in Level 2 is floating weightlessly, like astronauts in space. When Cobb is dunked into a bathtub to wake him up, his persona in the dream sees the building flooding around him. When a song prearranged to play at a certain time as a cue that it’s time to end the dream starts playing in headphones attached to their sleeping bodies, the team hears the music echoing eerily through the dream. Why does Cobb need Ariadne to build a dreamscape for them to operate in? Because dreams have a shifting reality, where you seem to be in one place one moment, and suddenly you’re somewhere else, with no rhyme or reason. Setting their mission in a dream of their design gives them control over it…in theory. Incidentally, it’s almost certainly intentional that Ariadne bears the same name as the woman in Greek mythology who helped Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Ariadne is a useful character for exposition; since she’s the new recruit, it’s necessary for Cobb to explain things to her, which gives the movie an organic way to explain things to the audience. Cobb also warns Ariadne of two things. Lesson #1: never use places that exist in real life, use places only from your imagination. This will help you distinguish between the dream and reality. Lesson #2: bring something with you, an object of your own design, that only you know the weight and feel of, as a kind of double-check. Cobb uses a top: in reality, it spins, wobbles, and falls over, but in a dream, it spins endlessly. The frequency with which he takes out his top and spins it is one of several signs Ariadne soon picks up on that, beneath his cool exterior, Cobb is a troubled man with frayed nerves and a fragile grip on reality.

Nolan’s films, including The Prestige, which was hailed as a mind-bender but, I think, is decisively outdone in that category by Inception, are often described as cerebral, emotionally remote, and intellectual, stimulating the brain more than the heart. This is generally a fair description, but there is a poignant underpinning to Inception involving Cobb’s troubled state that we don’t fully understand until late in the proceedings, which has tragic elements. It might take a while to show it, but Inception has a heart (albeit a broken one).  In fact, a late scene where Cobb confronts Mal might well be the most moving scene in any Nolan film.  If there is truth to the saying that ignorance is bliss, then could he be happier staying forever in an idyllic fantasy than returning to a grimmer reality? It’s also interesting to note that, somewhat unusually for a thriller, Inception doesn’t really have a villain (although you could argue almost everyone’s a little unscrupulous). Ken Watanabe initially seems to be filling the role, but becomes an uneasy ally.  The closest we get to a “villain” is Marion Cotillard, but things with Mal are not as they seem.  One might also expect to see the team’s target, corporate heir Fischer, portrayed villainously (especially considering he’s played by Cillian Murphy), but Nolan avoids clichés, making Fischer in fact a fairly sympathetic figure, whose perfectly coiffed exterior hides father-related insecurities and vulnerabilities…but not well enough to keep them from being used against him.

This is not an actor’s movie (only Cobb and to a lesser extent Fischer receive much in the way of character development, and much of everyone’s dialogue consists of efficiently rattling off swaths of exposition), but everyone acquits themselves well with what they’re given (of course, considering the cast line-up onhand, it’d have been a little hard to go too wrong on the acting front).  Leonardo DiCaprio (who was reportedly always Nolan’s first choice for Cobb) is no longer the lightweight pretty boy he came across as in Titanic; since having his popularity blasted into the stratosphere by that role, he has deliberately sought out challenging dramatic roles to establish himself as a serious actor. Cobb is a tricky character, who must be both a sympathetic protagonist and a haunted man of morally questionable actions and secrets. There are similarities to DiCaprio’s recent role in Shutter Island, both in his backstory of a tragic romance, and his character’s blurring of fantasy and reality.  Marion Cotillard makes Mal a beguiling enigma, as well as giving her a touch of a femme fatale.  Cillian Murphy steps out of the typecasting box that tries to pigeonhole him as a creep with the surprisingly vulnerable and sympathetic Fischer.  The team members are secondary characters; they get plenty of screentime, but not much development besides efficiently fulfilling their purposes on the mission, but they’re cast with capable actors who do nice jobs filling out their bits.  Ken Watanabe brings his authoritative bearing to Saito, whose intelligence and calm, unflappable demeanor lends him a formidable presence.  Tom Hardy plays Eames with a cheeky panache and gets the movie’s best one-liner, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s buttoned-down, all-business Arthur is low-key and non-flashy until getting a spotlight moment with the weightless hallway fight (more on that in a bit). Ellen Page makes the most of a somewhat thankless role; Ariadne is little more than a plot device to give Cobb someone to rattle off exposition and unveil his tragic backstory to.  Dileep Rao (last seen in a small role in Avatar) rounds out the team as the chemist Yusuf.  Michael Caine has essentially a cameo, but Caine is one of those actors, like Morgan Freeman, who can effortlessly seem wiser than anyone else onscreen.  Other small roles are filled out by Tom Berenger, Lukas Haas, Talulah Riley, and the late character actor Pete Postlethwaite in one of his last film roles; Postlethwaite was ill with pancreatic cancer during filming and passed away several months after its release.

Inception3While it spends plenty of time teasing the brain, Inception also provides plenty of action. There are gunfights, car chases, explosions, and hand-to-hand fights, most of them conventional enough in themselves, but made more engaging here by how the movie uses them, and the climax builds to high tension as dangerous situations play out simultaneously across three dreamscapes, with Hans Zimmer’s pounding score accentuating the action.  Probably the movie’s most hyped scene, involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Fischer’s subconscious security duking it out weightlessly in a hallway, is one of the most visually inventive fight scenes in recent memory, and may bring fleeting thoughts of The Matrix to mind. The other most eye-popping scene is an expositional segment in which Cobb walks Ariadne through a dreamscape of Paris where the city seems to roll back onto itself until the sky is completely covered by an upside-down ceiling of buildings, people, and cars, like a reflection on a glass ceiling.  Inception uses some CGI (albeit less than one might think), but Nolan doesn’t turn it into a special effects extravaganza.  The visual effects are restrained and well-placed enough to serve the story without taking it over.  Also, while Nolan’s fondness for plotlines that are complex to the point of being convoluted is obvious both here and elsewhere on his filmography, he never cheats or makes things convoluted for the mere sake of screwing with viewers.  No matter how confusing Inception might seem at first glance, there is purpose and logic to everything (though in some cases, the viewer has to wait for all to become clear).  Once it has set up its own world and rules with meticulous efficiency, Inception plays by them and doesn’t cheat.

My quibbles with Inception are fairly insignificant next to the innovation on display. Ken Watanabe’s performance is fine, but the Japanese actor’s English is occasionally difficult to understand, which is problematic in a movie like this, where virtually everything said is important to listen to. The biggest action set piece (which takes place in Level 3 and is basically the climax of the film), as Cobb and team storm a snowy fortress where Fischer’s subconsciousness has locked away a crucial needed piece of info, is a bit generic and underwhelming compared to the earlier nifty weightless acrobatics, like a scene out of Die Hard 2 or Under Siege.  Some viewers find the movie confusing, but Nolan goes into laborious–but admittedly necessary–amounts of exposition early on, establishing the rules of the dreamworld before the mission starts, and confusion may be due to a lack of attention during the lengthy set-up section.  In fact, an argument could be made that the movie plays its concept too restrained and straightforward and doesn’t fully embrace the fantastical or truly mind-bending possibilities the premise offers.  Somewhere within Inception‘s ideas, there’s a trippier, edgier, more no-holds-barred movie that could have been, but maybe this is as far as mainstream audiences are willing to accept.  This isn’t really a criticism; this is an ingenious movie that works on multiple levels–no pun intended–as an intellectual exercise, an unconventional heist thriller, and even a tragic love story.  The ending leaves things with an intentional dash of ambiguity, and might frustrate some who like things cut-and-dried. I thought that, while not conclusively spelled out, the evidence onscreen leans toward one interpretation.

Christopher Nolan continues to prove his intelligence and craftsmanship as a writer-director, and with Inception, among all the generic blockbusters out there, he has created something wholly original that stimulates the intellect and yet includes enough conventional action to keep the mainstream crowds coming in. If he has set out to top the twists and turns of The Prestige, he has succeeded in outdoing himself. Inception‘s rewards take an investment of focus and attention, but in my opinion they’re worth the effort.