A film review by Craig J. Koban July 21, 2010

RANK: #7

Rank:  #1


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

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

"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


Despite the rich diversity of Christopher Nolanís films, two themes in particular are constant throughout all of them: obsession and perception. 


His 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 pursued.


INCEPTION 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. 


Shot 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 derived from 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.


Even 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 intoxicating.  INCEPTION 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. 


The 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. 


Initially, 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.


The 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.


INCEPTION 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.   


Most 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: How do 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 dreams.


This 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.


The 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.


One 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.  Itís a 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 envious.


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.

  H O M E