The most surprising thing about Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is that it’s really not a very surprising movie. Mind you, not that that’s a bad thing, and perhaps “Inception’s” best surprise is that it doesn’t feel it needs to shock the audience with a major twist in order to be fully appreciated. A melding of Nolan’s “Memento” (a film with a great concept) and “The Dark Knight” (a film with a lengthy running time and elaborate action set pieces), “Inception” takes place in a near future where dream technology is apparently commonplace enough that corporate businessmen take lessons from specialists on how to thwart dream invasions by competitors. And yet, the film isn’t so futuristic that it looks any different from the world we know.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a wanted American fugitive hiding out in Europe, who specializes in invading the dreams of corporate bigwigs to steal secrets. When we first meet him, Cobb is in the middle of a job with partner-in-crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), where they are attempting to extract corporate secrets from Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe). The mission goes awry quickly (Saito, it turns out, is quite the smarty pants), but yields surprising results: instead of sending armed goons to dispatch them, Saito wants to hire the thieves for a job of his own. Arthur bristles, but Cobb is tempted when Saito offers him the one thing he can’t buy: the freedom to return to America, back to his two young kids.
To complete this new job for Saito (who insists on tagging along), Cobb recruits architect wunderkind Ariadne (Ellen Page), a counterfeiter named Eames (Tom Hardy), and a pharmacist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao). Their new target: Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a man who is about to inherit his dying father’s company, a rival of Saito’s. To accomplish the job means invading Fischer’s dream and inserting a single idea without him knowing – or as it’s known, “inception”. Arthur insists inception is not possible, but Cobb knows better. For you see, Cobb has a secret that he hasn’t told anyone, and that is intimately connected to his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death made Cobb a fugitive in the first place.
Coming off the worldwide success of “The Dark Knight”, writer/director Christopher Nolan clearly has a lot to work with, both in terms of bringing his ideas to life (thanks to an estimated $200 million production budget) and studio good will that allows him to do just about anything he desires, including eschewing the 3D gimmick that the studio, no doubt, was begging him to partake in. The results are at times inspiring (the early parts of “Inception” is an introduction to the film’s many dream concepts, many of them outlandish but highly creative), at times bloated (the middle dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream section just seems to keep going and going), and surprisingly, very straight-forward. Nolan leaves the film on an ambiguous note, but for those expecting a major twist near the end, they will be disappointed.
“Inception” has two stars – Leonardo DiCaprio in front of the camera, and Nolan behind it. The rest of the high-powered supporting cast are all very competent and bring their A-game, but they’re not exactly fleshed out individuals. Aside from Cobb, who gets all the pathos and character development, notable exceptions include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is excellent as the clinical Arthur. Gordon-Levitt is also in the middle of the film’s best action sequences, involving a fight in a hotel floor sans gravity. The intricately choreographed sequence required Nolan’s production staff to build a completely rotating hotel floor that probably cost them a pretty penny or two. Future Mad Max replacement Tom Hardy brings plenty of charm and action chops to Eames, so it’ll be very interesting to see him turn all gritty and dirty for George Miller’s post-apocalyptic warrior.
Ken Watanabe (re-teaming with Nolan again after “The Dark Knight”) is excellent as Saito, a character that is surprisingly human for a corporate big shot intent on bringing down his most dangerous competitor by literally invading a man’s soul. Saito’s character doesn’t always ring true – he’s sometimes too much a part of “the team” despite being their employer, and a man who can have them all killed with a phone call. Still, Watanabe plays the part well enough to stand out. Ellen Page is less successful, though that’s more the fault of the script than Page’s. The movie introduces her as a vital component of the film’s central heist, but she ends up really just tagging along with the group and then later with Cobb as he confronts his past within various dream elements. Lukas Haas has a brief role as Page’s predecessor, while Tom Berenger gets his first A-list work since, geez, in a long while.
As Cobb and his partners plot, counter-plot, and re-plot their way through Fischer’s dreams, it becomes increasingly clear that it’s not just Saito’s plans that are at stake, but Cobb’s past and future. His past continues to haunt him in the literal form of Marion Cotillard’s Mal, a “projection” of Cobb’s making that he can’t shake or, indeed, control. (As an aside, there are a number of haunting scenes in the film that makes you think Nolan could be a very effective horror movie director if he ever chose to take a stab at the genre.) For Cobb, the success of the mission depends more on just the ability to “infect” Fischer, but defeating his own demons, and he can only do that by confronting his past. Cobb’s character arc is not particularly Earth-shattering, but it does provide the needed resonance to the character. Unfortunately, it also reminds you of just how limited all the other characters are compared to him.
It’s easy to see how “Inception” started off as a single idea – a movie that takes place in the human mind – and grew from there. The film’s highlights are elaborate sequences that take place in dreams, then dreams within dreams, and then still dreams within dreams within dreams. Don’t worry, though, Nolan keeps everything clearly delineated and it’s relatively simple to keep track of where everyone is (that is, in what layer of dream each character is currently working in), though I suppose if you ran off to the bathroom at the wrong time you could easily become lost. Nolan has always been a master at keeping everything in their proper place regardless of how much is going on at any one time in his movies. He showed the same kind of expertise in the maze-like storyline of “Memento” and in the thick layer of characters and plots of “The Dark Knight”.
“Inception” has an excellent premise, and the execution is classic Nolan – smooth, intricate, and on a purely technical level, masterfully done. The film is certainly expensive looking, though you can’t help but wonder if Nolan couldn’t have done the exact same movie except with 1/10th of the budget, since although many of the film’s major CG effects are excellent eye candy, they are not entirely necessary for the film’s central plot. Of course, one can’t fault Nolan for going “big” with the money Warner Bros. was throwing at him. Why hamstring yourself with limits when you don’t have to? Or, indeed, when the studio doesn’t want you to? The result is another very solid, very good entry into Nolan’s already impressive career. I can’t wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
Christopher Nolan (director) / Christopher Nolan (screenplay)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio … Cobb
Joseph Gordon-Levitt … Arthur
Ellen Page … Ariadne
Tom Hardy … Eames
Ken Watanabe … Saito
Dileep Rao … Yusuf
Cillian Murphy … Robert Fischer, Jr.
Tom Berenger … Browning
Marion Cotillard … Mal
Pete Postlethwaite … Maurice Fischer
Michael Caine … Miles
Lukas Haas … Nash