A film review by Craig J. Koban July 21, 2010
2010, PG-13, 148 mins.
2010, PG-13, 148 mins.
Cobb: Leonardo DiCaprio / Saito: Ken Watanabe / Arthur:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Mal: Marion Cotillard / Ariadne: Ellen
Page / Eames: Tom Hardy / Robert Fischer Jr.: Cillian Murphy /
Browning: Tom Berenger / Miles: Michael Caine / Yusuf: Dileep
Rao / Maurice Fischer: Pete Postlethwaite
"There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other."
- Douglas H. Everett
the rich diversity of Christopher Nolanís films, two themes in
particular are constant throughout all of them: obsession and
first feature, MEMENTO, concerned one lonely manís driven quest to find
his wifeís murderer, all while desperately trying to make sense of the
world around him while suffering from perpetual short-term memory loss. Nolanís follow-up to that, INSOMNIA, focused on one copís
insatiable will to bring a small-town sociopath to justice, all while
dealing with conflict and guilt over his own past misdeeds, not to mention
the lingering effects of constant sleep deprivation. THE PRESTIGE contained not
one, but two fanatical illusionists that not only would stop at
nothing to discover each others deepest secrets, but would also cloud each otherís
interpretation of one another through a series of mental mind games.
And, yes, Nolanís BATMAN BEGINS
and THE DARK KNIGHT dealt with a
dark and brooding figure of vigilante justice that dared to use anything
in his arsenal to stop what he viewed were the immoral and corrupt, even
when his very methods were arguably as unlawful as the criminals he
is the next logical step in Nolanís matchless handling of these constant
themes, but he takes it one step further than he did in any of his past
works. Instead of
psychoanalyzing his charactersí subconscious thoughts and desires from
an outward prerogative, he opts to go directly into their subconscious
minds. Based on an idea that
has been gestating in his mind since he was 16-years-old that he extrapolated
into a screenplay that took nearly a decade to develop,
INCEPTION deals with Nolanís own obsessive impulses for dealing with the
nature of dreams, consciousness, and the idea of shared dream spaces.
In other words, what would happen if a con artist had the
ability to induce a dream state in a subject and then enter their dream state to implant an idea within their minds that would
later have repercussions in the real world?
That is the metaphysical labyrinth of cognitive delights that
Nolan gleefully plays with in INCEPTION, and perhaps only a directorial
mind as wildly intelligent, resourceful, and innovative as his could have
pulled off this mind-bender.
on a grand and epic scale (with a reported $160 million budget) in six
countries around the world and featuring an all-star class of respected
actors performing at the very top of their form, INCEPTION emerges as a
richly sophisticated, masterfully complex, and
audaciously innovative summer entertainment that never once seems to be
the same well of regurgitated ideas from many forgettable films that are
released at this time of the year.
Like the austere and calculating grandmaster that he was in all of
his past films, Nolan transports viewers into his intriguing hybrid of the
sci-fi fantasy, the pulse pounding heist flick, and the transfixing
thriller, all while dissecting the most prevailing themes of fiction: the nature of reality and our
perception of it.
INCEPTION is a dense and convoluted film, but wondrously so, a work
that dares viewers to surrender to its stunning originality and audacious ambition.
Very few summer films as of late can take claim to be wholly and
unusually original; INCEPTION
invites that level of ethereal discovery in its viewers.
better is the fact that Nolan places an intimate level of trust in the
intelligence and attention spans of his audience members.
He dares viewers in ways that few filmmakers of his generation do:
he lures them in and asks to engage their mental faculties in the story
first and foremost whereas other directors senselessly bombarded them with
auditory/visual noise and mayhem (see Michael Bay). There is no doubt that the manner Nolan juggles with multiple
realities and planes of realities in INCEPTION will confound some viewers
to no end, but it is the filmís very narrative density that makes it so
dazzles, awes, and works viscerally on us, but Nolanís filmmaking style
is so inviting for placing faith in viewers to at least take the journey
of the film and engage in its jigsaw-like story.
overall plot is a thorny one to disseminate into a simple synopsis, but I
will aim to try: Leonardo
DiCaprio, as rock solid and dependable as ever, plays a corporate raider
named Cobb that is no ordinary thief.
Other crooks break into buildings and rob their victims when they
are blissfully unaware, but Cobb is a whole new breed of fiendish
criminal: through cutting edge science and technology, he has developed a
way to infiltrate the minds of men to steal ideas that will allow him to
profit in the real world. After
one failed attempt to rob the ideas of a powerful billionaire, Saito (played by
the always commanding Ken Watanabe), Cobb nearly decides to finish
his caper career for good. However
Saito offers him a tantalizing offer: he wants Cobb and his team to
attempt the near-impossible act if "inception.Ē Instead of stealing an
idea from a subject, Saito wants Cobb to go into their dreams and plant one and make it so
real that the subject will unavoidably believe it to be real.
Cobb is lukewarm, but then Saito offers him the ultimate reward: In
exchange for finishing the mission, he will use his contacts in America to
end Cobbís forced exile in Europe so that he can return stateside to be
with his children. The film
does not immediately reveal the crimes that Cobb committed in the U.S.
that make his return impossible without the risk of arrest, but slowly and
gradually the script shows that it is linked to the tragic death of his
beautiful wife, Mal (the unendingly luminous and seductive Marion Cottilard).
Cobb decides to take on the mission to end all missions and
assembles his crack squad of dream thieves: There is Arthur (Joseph
Gordon-Levitt), his long-time partner; Eames (Tom Hardy), a gifted
deceptionist in more ways than one; Yusif (Dileep Rao), a chemist; and the
obligatory new recruit, Ariadne (the always spunky and natural Ellen
Page), a prodigal architect student that Cobb entrusts to create the
physical world of the dreams that they will attempt to conjure.
Cobb also has a brief meeting with his father-in-law Miles (Michael
Caine, a Nolan regular) that gives him assistance when needed.
target of Cobbís mission is a young billionaire named Robert Fischer Jr.
(Cillian Murphy), who is heir to his fatherís fortune, but the dying man
is a business enemy of Saito. As
a result, Saito wants Cobb to implant a reason for his enemyís son to
surrender his corporation over to him.
Now, past missions have involved Cobb and company simply inducing
the dream state in their victims, but inception is another tricky and
potentially deadly art altogether: They first must enter the dream world
of Robert, but in order to make their ďidea implantĒ work so that the
subject does not become aware of it, they have to put Robert and themselves in a dream state
within the dream state and then further into yet another dream state
within the dream state within the dream state.
There are some inherent problems with this: Firstly, all of the
participants have been so heavily sedated beforehand to go into the
multiple dream states that, if they were to die in any of the dreams, they
will enter a mental death/limbo state where they will be trapped forever.
Secondly, Cobb seems to be emotionally compromised by the
subconscious projection of his deceased wife that appears at will in his
various dreams and clouds not only his judgment, but his own perception
of reality itself.
marks very, very rare time when a recent sci-fi film has triumphantly succeeded based
primarily on the strengths of its compelling ideas and concepts. Much like the main characters in INCEPTION, viewers are
placed adrift within layered levels of reality and non-reality, trying to
sift through them to make create a coherent understanding of the film.
Whatís amazing here is that as complicated as it all appears,
Nolan does the unthinkable by bringing clarity to the proceedings. This is obviously not the first film to dabble in the nature of
mind over matter and whatís real and whatís not (THE MATRIX and DARK
CITY have done
this before), but INCEPTION takes that age-old concept at elevates it to a
whole other endlessly captivating level.
of us seem to be aware that we are never quite sure what the beginning of a
dream entailed and that, at times, dreams seem to span hours or days when,
in fact, we are actually sleeping for a fraction of that time.
The film explains that five minutes in the real world could be one
hour in the dream or, if heavily drugged, days or years. This leads to the filmís compulsively interesting quandary:
people segregate the real from the unreal, especially when engaging in
the multiple dream states that are employed in Cobbís heist?
Even more fascinating is how the real world affects the dream
world. If you are sleeping in the real world and in, say, a car that
manages to overturn, the film then explains that the dream worldís
gravity and sense of space mirrors that of the real world space, meaning
that things go upside down, side to side, etc. when they should be right side
up. Also, depending on the
people placed within the dream, elements of their past are subconsciously
manifested within the dream. In Cobb's case, his wife appears at inopportune times and, in
one sensational moment, a train appears out of nowhere on a street,
plowing through everything in its path.
The train is attached to a painful memory of Cobb's, but he does not
have the skills to subvert it enough so that it does not appear in his
is just incredibly enthralling stuff.
Whatís equally astonishing is not only how Nolan leaves
a trail of clues permeated throughout the narrative for viewers to connect
all the story threads, but also his thankless marrying of effects
technology to supplement the story. The
effects here Ė which, by Nolanís insistence, were kept to a minimum of
CGI overkill Ė never overwhelms the characters or story, but rather
serves them, which seems decidedly difficult for most filmmakers today.
Working with long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister and shooting in
locations as far ranging as Paris, Tokyo, Morocco, and Canada, Nolan
manages to skew the realties of these real world locales while
simultaneously making them feel tangible.
sights Nolan and his team create are mesmerizing, if not
hypnotizing. For instance, there's an incredible dream sequence when Cobb tutors Ariadne on
the way architecture fluctuates in dreams (the entire city of Paris, in
one virtuoso shot, literally seems to roll on top of itself).
Gravity and the laws of physics have no basis at times in the dream
world: buildings and landmarks can tilt, bend, or weave into one another,
or come crumbling down. Trains,
as mentioned, can come hurtling down normal city streets.
Gigantic cliffs can collapse into the sea without warming.
Hell, even people within the dreams can do things that would even
make Neo blush with envy. There is a remarkably choreographed zero-gravity fight
sequence that needs to be seen to be believed, which latter culminates in
a completely ingenious payoff involving all of the main characters
floating in an elevator Ė in a dream state Ė that need to be awakened
from their dream state by inducing them to fall (which, the filmís logic
tells us, will always make a person wake from the dream).
Problem: how do you make people fall with no gravity?
The answer provided in the scene is fiendishly clever.
criticism that has befallen INCEPTION is Nolanís cold take on the
emotionally underpinnings of the story.
Yes, Cobbís mission to infiltrate and taint the mind of Robert, a
seemingly innocent man, is indeed cold and malicious, but his motives to
do so are a means to an end to ensure him returning to his children (the
morally conflicted and self-destructive hero is typical of film noir) .
The film, for all of its perspective-juggling visual delights and
thought-provoking mind games, is, at its core, laced with tragedy. There is a back-story to Cobbís relationship that is slowly and
patiently revealed, which manages to explain much towards his
motives and why his dreams have been haunted by his memories.
His wifeís demise breeds his fanatical impulses to recreate
states of mind where he can be with her again, but these are just
constructs, not a flesh and blood interaction.
Yet, to Cobb, they might as well be real, seeing as his perspective
of the real world he lives in and the dream world he frequently occupies
gets cloudier as the film progresses.
INCEPTION ends on a shot that evocatively teases the audience in a
way that does not provide the closure that theyíre perhaps seeking.
happy conclusion that, based a certain point of view, is not happy.
Its provides a measure of closure...and it doesn't. What Nolan does here - much like Cobb and his team do in the film - is to
plant an idea into viewers' minds as to what they think the ending
implicitly means. Nolan has literally achieved inception for
the way the film carefully manipulates viewers. Hitchcock would have been
Itís remarkable the way Nolan manages to top himself with each new film. His INCEPTION is a singular achievement in the sci-fi genre, one that daringly materializes the collective yearning of filmgoers that want thoughtful and contemplative escapist entertainments. It also stands proudly on the virtues of limitless and uncharted novelty, a trait that seems so hopelessly lost at the summer multiplexes over the years, not to mention for the sci-fi genre on the whole. The film further testifies to Nolan as one of the most literate, confident, and assured filmmakers working today, and one that knows how to engage us by also challenging us. In a recent nightmarish age where the ambush of limp-wristed 3D upconverions and half-hearted technological artifice is used as the singular means to tell stories and superficially wow audiences, INCEPTION is a dream come true for how it imparts intelligence and the power of ideas back into the cinemas.
Itís a dream that I donít want to wake from.