Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception Review - 3 Stars out of 5

Inception is director Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget summer blockbuster, following on the heels of what is widely regarded as one of the best films of the past several years in his The Dark Knight.  In that case Nolan went to work on a previously existing property, but Inception has been regarded as an original, albeit inspired work.  While this is not entirely true (the main idea of the film is taken almost wholesale from Star Trek Deep Space 9’s 1999 episode Extreme Measures), as a whole it’s fair to say that Nolan has put together a concept that hasn’t yet been given the opportunity to tickle the main stream public’s minds.

This concept can perhaps best be described as a cross between Ocean’s 11 and The Matrix, a sci-fi caper film about an all-star team of dream-thieves trying to pull off an unthinkably large job.  Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is, by his own claim, the best extractor around, which means that he’s really good at infiltrating people’s dreams to “extract” information from their minds.  The film gives the impression that this is normally done on the payroll of large corporations trying to gain a competitive edge, and owing to some initially unexplained legal problems, living abroad and performing these kinds of jobs is the only thing Cobb can do at this point in his life.  When powerful energy tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to take care of his problems so he can return home to finally see his children again, Cobb agrees to undertake what all of the other extraction experts repeatedly tell him is impossible: planting an idea in someone’s mind (technically termed “inception.”)

So is the setup, and so begins an Ocean’s 11 style round of team building and heist (or in this case, anti-heist?) plotting.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Third Rock from the Sun fame is already onboard as Arthur, Cobb’s sidekick and details-man.  Added to the crew are Tom Hardy, who absolutely shines as Eames, a type of in-dream disguise expert, and Dileep Rao, who puts on a very enjoyable performance as the chemist Yusuf, who must create a sedative strong enough to keep the victim (Cillian Murphy as energy-monopoly heir Robert Fischer Jr.) under while the team attempts to incept his mind.  This leaves one critical role open, one which would in the past have been filled by Cobb himself if some heavily-guarded personal issues didn’t prevent him.  Instead, fresh young grad student Ariadne (Ellen Page) is recruited to design the landscape of the dreams they’ll use to pull a fast one on Mr. Fischer.

And herein lays both Inception’s greatest asset and at least one of its greatest stumbling blocks: to accomplish their task, Cobb and his allies will have to enter into layer after layer of dreams, dreams within dreams, so as to plant the idea deep in Fischer’s mind and make it seem to develop on its own.  This is a fantastic concept, and one which is the foundation of a very exciting and intriguing second half from Nolan.  At one point, there are as many as 4 different simultaneous action sequences taking place, each a dream contained within another dream and influenced by what’s going on in the next one up the chain.  It’s not only thrilling, but it’s also tremendously coherent, which so often the critical, missing element that ruins films attempting to be so intricate.  In fact, Nolan has here put together an altogether coherent work, with even the most intense action appearing on screen in an understandable way (a major problem in some of his previous work, for example the almost unintelligible combat scenes in Batman Begins).

Unfortunately, where this weave of narratives hits in excitement and lucidity, it misses in continuity and consistency.  As the story moves along and our heroes enter into deeper layers of dreams, things inevitably don’t go as planned, which is of course the kind of conflict that plots are made of.  The problem is that over and over again what is at one moment an improvisation to deal with the change of circumstances is in the next scene and from then on foreword treated as though it were a part of the scheme in the first place.  It’s difficult to explain exactly why this is so damaging to the story without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say it has the end result of taking any real importance away from the dramatic conflict that is supposed to be driving the story.  The conflict never builds; it just remains flat, with many details being introduced at various points in the story to introduce tension which ultimately prove not to be of any consequence when the time comes at which they should make things more difficult.

This may not be such a problem were it not for two things.  First, Inception isn’t meant to be in the mold of other summer blockbusters, where the audience is offered some fantastic visuals and exciting action in exchange for turning off their brains for a few hours.  Fantastic visuals and exciting action Inception does offer, with almost perfectly pulled off effects and plenty of good chases, fights, and race-against-the-clock moments.  However, it’s also meant to be a thinking-man’s film, asking us to pay attention and to try to figure it all out.  This is refreshing.  Unfortunately, spending any time thinking about it rapidly leads one to see these inconsistencies.  Second, the layered dream-within-a-dream second half is really all the film has to offer.  The first hour is a slow moving, predictable collection of bad plot conventions.  It’s also far too expositional, with Page’s newcomer character asking all the right questions to set up long explanations of how dream-sharing works.  Good films show while bad ones explain, and there’s an awful lot of explaining in the first half of Inception.

All that said, Inception was an enjoyable ride, once it got going.  It kept my mind engaged, and as it neared the end I found myself more and more approaching the edge of my seat.  I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting couple of hours to spend at the movie-house, and it will give most people at least some interesting thoughts to dwell on as they walk into the lobby.  I was very open to the possibility of this being a great film, and in some ways it does deliver.  Unfortunately, its problems won’t let it be anything more than average – not great, terrible.  Perhaps the greatest drawback is one which, ironically, the film points out itself.  “Everybody needs a catharsis,” Cobb says at one point.  Ultimately, Inception just never gives us one.

(If you'd like some examples of the consistency problems I mentioned, click the link below.  Warning: Spoliers)


A few brief examples:

The goal is for the team to get into Fischer's dreams and convince him to break up his recently deceased father's corporate empire.  To do this, they originally plan three dream levels, which then have to be designed and planned well before the mission is ever attempted.  Once they do enter into a dream with Fischer, they find out that he's actually been trained to fight off dream-thieves, so something roughly equivalent to "mental antibodies" begin to attack them.  This prompts some changes in the mission, which once down in the second dream level all of a sudden are presented as a part of the plan which had been devised in the first place.

At the second level, Cobb decides that in order to ward off Fischer's defenses, they should try a ruse called "Mr. Charles," where they tell the victim that he's dreaming and use that to gain his trust while trying to lure his defenses to attack one another.  Arthur explains to Ariadne that this is a big risk, and in fact some of the characters even try to convince Cobb not to use the Mr. Charles ruse.  Now the whole plan, as we find out, is for Fischer to get the idea that Browning (his father's lawyer/confidant/something or other) was keeping a message from his father from him, and this third dream level was designed to make Fischer think he was in Browning's dream.  The problem is that it's through the Mr. Charles ruse that they get Fischer to enter "Browning's dream."  The only reason they're able to do this is because Fischer realizes he's in a dream and thinks that Cobb et al are his "security."  This new ruse, which the team even tried to stop Cobb from using, turns out to be an essential part of the original plan.

When we finally get to the end and Fischer enters the strongroom to discover what Browning was keeping from him, his father is there.  Earlier, Fischer had mentioned that his father's last words to him were that he was disappointed  he couldn't be like him.  To plant the idea in his head through the use of a catharsis (which was the original plan), the dream version of his father tells Fischer that he was disappointed that he'd tried to be like him (rather than being his own man).  There's only one problem: Eames, the one who's brought on the team to disguise himself as other people, is standing behind Fischer the whole time watching all of this.  So who's this father?  Remember, we find out that in dreams only the dream-sharers - the real people hooked up to the machine - can consciously control what they do.  Everyone else in there is a projection of the subconscious, which Cobb explains is not controllable.  This is why Mal keeps giving them so many problems.  There's nobody left to play the role of the father, even if they had the skill to.

No comments: