July 15, 2010
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Christopher Nolan’s unmissable and maddening thriller about dream invasion.
Dir: Christopher Nolan; Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite; Rating: * * * *
Much as he did with The Dark Knight in 2008 (getting a little help from Pixar’s Wall-E), the pressure is on Christopher Nolan, that wizard of besuited gloom and thoughtful action movies, to salvage the filmgoing summer. Inception has been awaited by its core audience as some kind of second coming, even before anyone knew anything: the movie’s fiendish, house-of-cards architecture has been a Hollywood state secret from the start.
The fact that it manages to be both unmissable and maddening doesn’t kill the immediate buzz, since half the film’s thrills consist of simply keeping up with it. Nolan’s plot, his tricksiest since Memento, is such that the second you overtake it, things start to fray – so he isn’t about to let that happen in a hurry.
The Big Idea here is dream invasion. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, specialist-for-hire in the art of “extracting” information from sleeping subjects. He and his crew hook themselves up with wires to the drugged targets and infiltrate their subconscious, as they’re caught doing in the opening bit with a Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe). Their job is to sneak about inside the palace of your mind like stealthy cat burglars of the id. Dropping us in mid-mission and giving only just enough to go on, it’s a nifty, show-don’t-tell introduction – one of the reasons why the tell-tell-tell policy from here on in feels overly didactic, like a yammering maths lecturer afraid he’s about to lose you.
In fairness, the labyrinths that open up when Cobb and his team attempt “inception” – that’s to say, the implanting of an idea in the mind rather than its theft – do require a hefty ball of twine to navigate. A dream team is assembled: newbie world-designer Ariadne (Ellen Page), identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy, a dry gift here), pharmacist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Cobb’s regular point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Their target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, precise and valuable), the son of an ailing energy tycoon (Pete Postlethwaite) whose business empire Saito wants broken up after his death.
Nolan has a vast budget to play with, and play with it he does, folding Parisian streets back on themselves just because he can. The real novelty of the concept is the layering of dreams within dreams, yielding addictively vertiginous sequences of parallel action. The physics of each level get destabilised by what’s happening above: when Cobb is dunked in a bath to wake him up, a flash-flood hits him in his dream world.
When the movie builds up a head of steam, it’s dazzling and protean, and almost anything seems possible. But Nolan’s skill at basic action choreography hasn’t improved since Batman’s fisticuffs, and his attempts at puncturing an otherwise poker-faced exercise with the odd goofy gag feel forced. Marion Cotillard is scary and beautiful as the bitter shade in Leo’s mental basement, threatening to contort every mission into a Solaris-style marital guilt trip.
But DiCaprio, in a frazzled and unhelpfully humourless performance, gives the impression he never got the boat off Shutter Island. The concept is cool and all, but think about how dreams really function for a second, and it teeters on the brink of wrongheadedness. Don’t we dream of sex, at all? Why are these mindscapes like sterile set pieces in a middling Bond movie? Inception’s not the deep wow we might have hoped for, just the big one we needed.
Inception: Seven Magazine review, by Jenny McCartney
Seven rating: * * *
While recounting the detail of one’s own dreams is invariably fascinating, the minutiae of other people’s can be unbearably dull. This is presumably why psychoanalysts are paid handsome sums to appear interested in their clients’ rambles.
It also explains some of the difficulties I experienced with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a thriller that embarks on a headlong chase through dreamland, often pursuing an interesting idea through patches of frantic and confusing tedium.
The central conceit is that a clutch of highly trained professionals can climb into the minds of their sleeping targets, and extract thoughts. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one such operative and his skills are greatly sought after in the game of global psychological espionage.
No sooner does he dip into a stranger’s lively subconscious, however, than he tends to come up against the elegant but furious figure of the late Mrs Cobb, Mal (Marion Cotillard), a perpetual ‘projection’ of his own. Mystery shrouds the nature of their relationship, and its untimely end is at the heart of the film.
Cobb, exiled from America for an undisclosed reason, longs to return to see his two small children and thus accepts the time-honoured ‘last big job’. His customer is a Japanese magnate, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who is powerful enough to make Cobb’s legal problems vanish and who wishes him to do something even more radical than thought theft: thought planting, or ‘inception’.
This is a near-impossible art because – as we are portentously told – ‘the subject’s mind always knows the genesis of an idea’.
I can think of several cases in which the subject clean forgot the genesis of an idea, but then this kind of bogus jabberwocky is a hallmark of the script. Cobb is required to seed the notion in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a business rival of Saito’s, that he must split up the business empire inherited from his father (Pete Postlethwaite).
There are a few explanations to fob off any embryonic queries about how we got here, but the writer-director Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) is mainly concerned with getting Cobb and his crack team of specialists inside a drugged Fischer’s heavily policed subconscious, from whence they descend into a perilous helter-skelter of dreams within dreams.
I have heard it said that fans will return to Inception for further viewings in a bid to extract more meanings from its layers. Good luck to them – I’m not sure they’ll find much. Nolan’s modus operandi here is to present a muddle at such a breakneck pace that it gets mistaken for profundity.
There are simultaneous dreams about skiing across frozen wastes, running around hotel rooms and plummeting in trucks, and when Cobb’s junior sidekick Ariadne (Ellen Page) looks up in desperation and yells, ‘Whose subconscious are we in exactly?’, I knew just how she felt.
Although buildings reliably bend and explode, there are very few moments of real magic or feeling. Even the encounters between Cobb and his late wife are shorn of poignancy, since we scarcely get to meet the real woman, only his embittered ‘projection’ of her. When cinema plunges into metaphysics, I would much rather find myself in the company of Mr Spielberg, who at least takes the time to make himself clear.
Inception isn’t a dud but nor is it a masterpiece. It’s like a very ambitious, overlong potboiler: visually beautiful, ingenious in parts and dragging in others. Its talented cast have little time to display their acting skills, because they’re thrust into perpetual motion.
I wish I could recommend it more enthusiastically, but in truth there were too many times when I yearned to close my eyes and drift off into something more compelling.