I’m going to do this without spoiling the movie for you, because I think this is one of those films you should experience as free of fore-knowledge as possible.
Christopher Nolan has been making the same basic film since the beginning of his career, and one of the things that makes his filmography compelling is the way he circles the central idea in his work.
“Inception,” like his earlier work, deals with a broken man, determined to fix his mistakes but only making things worse in the process. That could easily describe “Memento” or “The Prestige” or “The Dark Knight” or even his one remake, “Insomnia.” Yet even with him returning to this idea, worrying at it, exploring different ways it can play out, he doesn’t feel like he’s stuck or marking time. I’d argue the opposite is true: by refining this idea over time and over different films and in different ways, Nolan is becoming merciless in his ability to engage both intellectually and emotionally. As a result, “Inception” flattened me, and even now, more than a week after my first viewing of it, I find myself turning over images and ideas from the film almost constantly.
Shrouded in secrecy during production, the film isn’t really built as a narrative shell game with mind-blowing twists and turns so much as it is a logical and orderly descent into a trippy but airtight exploration of the way we frequently chase illusory versions of the people in our lives while ignoring the real flesh-and-blood imperfections that we don’t want to acknowledge. Taken as a simple exploration of a marriage that has imploded, “Inception” is harrowing and brutal, and all the SF trappings layered in on top of that only serve to make that stark emotional truth palatable in some way.
The film intentionally dislocates you in time and space with the opening fifteen minutes or so, laying groundwork for the ride you’re about to take, and I’m impressed by the way the film avoids any easy structure. Nolan wants to tell you a very particular story, in a very particular way, and there’s little about it that’s familiar in terms of Hollywood structure and storytelling. Right from the start, Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio) is a haunted man, but Nolan makes you work your way gradually towards understanding what it is that damaged Cobb so deeply.
I’ll give you a hint: this would be a fascinating double-feature with “Shutter Island.”
As trippy as the film can be at times, and the last forty-five minutes or so of the film is just one long reality-bending set-piece, the movie really is a very direct piece of storytelling. Dom Cobb is the head of a team of specialists who steal ideas out of the subconscious of sleeping targets. They are approached by someone who they tried to steal from with a unique proposition. He wants them to invade the dreams of a business competitor, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants them to plant one. Dom has his reasons for thinking that’s a bad idea, but he agrees to the job, hoping that it will finally wipe clean a legal record that has kept him on the run and away from his family for years.
It’s interesting to look back at the ad campaign they’ve run for this film after finally seeing it, because I think they’ve been very accurate to the content of the film, selling the big images, making sure you understand just how visually compelling it is, but the result is that there’s a sort of “Matrix” action movie vibe about the campaign, and despite some wild visual moments in the film, I wouldn’t describe this as an action film at all. There are action beats in it, but all of them are ultimately in service of the emotional journey that Dom takes in the film, and as a result, the stakes seem so much higher than they would if it was just another movie where people were chasing around some empty Macguffin. Everything in this film… cities folding in on themselves, buildings filling with sudden floods of water, gravity that stops working, reality fraying at the edges… ties back in to whatever happened between Dom and his wife Moll (Marion Cotillard) years ago.
Cotillard spends the entire film as a ghost, an echo, a memory that manages to keep opening fresh wounds in Dom’s heart and his mind, and it’s agonizing work to watch. All of the film’s mysteries hinge on Cotillard’s character, and I’m amazed how uncomfortable she made me in the film. There’s no make-up on her, no special effects to make her frightening. It’s the emotional content of the sequences she’s in that left me deeply unsettled, and in a way, my one hesitation about the film is just how raw and difficult it is. It’s not a “summer movie” by the conventional definition, and Nolan never lets you off the hook. He never tells you that it’s all a dream, all something you can shake off. He wants it to hurt. He wants this one to ricochet around inside of you. He wants it to scar. Remember the image at the start of “The Prestige,” with all the top hats on the ground? Well, in this film, it’s that tiny gray gunmetal dreidel that sums up the film’s most chilling ideas in a single image, and it’s just as powerful in hindsight as those hats were.
The entire cast does great work. Ellen Page plays a new recruit to the team, and Dom’s scenes with her serve as a primer for the audience, teaching them the rules of how this dream invasion works. Joseph Gordon Levitt is Arthur, Dom’s right-hand man, and they’re a great on-screen team, with energies that are nicely complimentary. Tom Hardy damn near steals the movie as a very crafty member of the team, and he’s the one person in the entire film that seems to be having fun as a character and as an actor. His character, Eames, relishes his abilities inside the dream, and takes full advantage of it. Michael Caine makes a brief appearance, and he’s fine, but he isn’t terribly consequential. Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, and Dileep Rao all lend strong support to the film, playing key roles in the “heist,” and everyone seems to understand exactly what it is that Nolan’s doing, adding just the right grace notes to each role, each sequence.
Wally Pfister is easily one of the most impressive cinematographers working today, and his collaborations with Nolan have allowed him to push his craft right to the bleeding edge. Here in particular, he creates some truly original imagery, and yet it never feels like spectacle is the point. It’s fair to compare this to Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” another film that uses SF trappings to explore elemental notions of love and sorrow and loss and pain, and I think Nolan may manage to lure people in with the promise of the surreal James Bondian adventure in a way that Aronofsky couldn’t. It’s just as difficult an experience, and I found the last few shots of “Inception” to be positively devastating. Nolan isn’t interested in offering you up easy comfort at the end of this experience, and he doesn’t care about making you feel good.
I’m going to revisit the film with a spoiler-heavy review on opening weekend, something I don’t do frequently, but with a film like this, it’s going to be exciting to dig into both the text and the subtext, and I hope you’ll join me then for what I suspect will be a spirited, heated conversation about what the movie says and how and why. Until then, suffice it to say that “Inception” is an exhilarating cinematic experience that suggests there is still room, even in the blockbuster world, for big ideas and dangerous emotions, and that may be the single most thrilling thing about it.
“Inception” opens July 16. We’ll definitely have much more to say about it then.
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