Film Review: Inception (12A)

2010 – 150mn – 12A

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Review by Walter Nichols

ARGUABLY the most anticipated film of the summer, Christopher Nolan’s Inception tells the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), extractors. This means that they are thieves of the unconscious: they break into people’s minds, build a dream in which their subconscious can open up, and thus steal their innermost secrets. Cobb and Arthur are the best at what they do. One day, extremely powerful Saito (Ken Watanabe) comes to them asking for the exact opposite: inception – the planting of an idea in someone’s mind…

The less you know about Inception’s plot the better, as is the case with most movies, and you’ve probably already heard too much. You may have heard the film described as groundbreakingly original, when it is in fact extremely derivative: a Philip K. Dick idea spun into a Michael Mann heist film with a third act by way of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. You may also have heard that it boasts the year’s best cast, but even that’s true only on paper. It’s often said that the sign of great acting is when the actor takes something simple and makes it unexpected; only Tom Hardy does that here. Everyone else, from DiCaprio down, walks the obvious road. The stunt casting doesn’t work either. You’ll spend half the film remembering that Ellen Page is the sassy girl who got knocked up in Juno and that Cillian Murphy is the Scarecrow; and every time an Edith Piaf song vital to the plot comes on you’re roughly reminded that Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for slapping on cakes of makeup and playing Piaf in a movie.

You may also have heard that Inception is the film to “save cinema”, and it probably isn’t – cinema’s in a very dire state indeed if this is all it takes. What Inception IS, however, is a very good heist movie paired with a very good science-fiction movie, and that’s not something you come across very often either. It’s well-written, ambitious, slickly played, and – at least until the unfortunate last third, when the action becomes noisy and overlong and all tension quickly leaks out – thrilling. It’s visually inventive, and takes the kind of stunts present in The Matrix and uses them in an elegant, intelligent way, with characters walking on walls and floating towards and away each other mid-fight. I can remember a time when cable work stunts were derided as the death of traditional, believable screen fights. Inception, relatively CGI-free, makes cable work feel cozily and reassuringly old-fashioned. When all said it’s done, it’s far and away Christopher Nolan’s best film (full disclosure: this statement comes from someone who thinks The Dark Knight would’ve been a mediocre, self-important mess without Heath Ledger; and that Memento is all gimmick and no smarts).

The final thing you may have heard about Inception is that it’s confusing, but it’s not; and that’s both the only way the plot can function as well as the film’s downfall. To fit the science of dreams and the subconscious into the plot of a heist movie, Nolan has to streamline and simplify the way all these things work, and even then trips over a couple of plot holes. But that process also means that Inception lacks any of the magic, mystery, and awesomeness of our unconscious minds. The characters spend the whole film in dream worlds inhabited and run by their subconsciouses; yet not one sexual fantasy, not one violent fantasy, not one paranoid insecurity dares to peak its nose. Their deepest selves are organized, robotic replica worlds, thoroughly logical and predictable (in one early scene, Cobb even explains to new recruit Ellen Page how to anticipate the subject’s subconscious’s every move). Nolan would rather stick with the cool, superficial appeal of the special effects, the designer clothes, the big guns and the bank robbery plot to dare to try and shine any light on any kind of unforeseen – and potentially baffling – part of our souls. He even throws away any emotional weight the film collects along the way for the sake of a cheap, inevitable, patronizing twist.

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In the end, for a film that promises to raise daring, intelligent questions about “the architecture of our minds”, that cravenness can only feel hugely disappointing. No matter how fun the ride.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars