by Norm Schrager, Meet In the Lobby
4 / 5 stars
It’s usually not a great idea to overwrite, overdesign and overstuff a movie, but Inception is a worthy exception. Who is to say how complex the depths of the human subconscious can go? Writer-director Christopher Nolan is, actually, and he says it with audacious confidence, diving headfirst into a bold brain-bender that may stand up as the ultimate thinking man’s Hollywood blockbuster.
Focusing a good portion of his film in people’s manufactured dreams, Nolan challenges us viewers to keep up with his heady constructs and reams of rules, with plenty of tasty rewards along the way. This should come as no surprise from the man who created the backwards-running Memento or the twisty The Prestige. Inception makes the idea of a multi-layered plot literal, with puzzles within realities within other co-dependent realities, all for the sake of the thrill. You can imagine Nolan’s early table reads for the film tying the actors’ minds in knots.
A team of experts, led by main dream weaver Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is able to enter people’s sleeping thoughts and steal vital information the victim either has forgotten or holds secret. Cobb and his crew spend hours of practice and plotting, much like preparing a bank robbery, to architect an artificial thought world which they can enter and control. Usually.
When a near-impossible job presents itself, Cobb leaps at it with the promise he can return home to his kids after years on the run for a crime best left unmentioned here. This is classic “one last job” genre stuff, and it fits Inception like a glove, keeping up the film’s noirish style and attitude. There’s even a damsel in distress getting in Cobb’s way (Marion Cotillard), except here she’s his own creation, part of his tortured guilt-trip of a subconscious.
Nolan and production designer Guy Dyas (Agora, Superman Returns) go to extraordinary measures to make anything possible, in worlds that have their own logic and physics. Collapsing landscapes, barren cities, actual elevators mining a person’s soul. Fascinating, sometimes jaw-dropping, and never gratuitous; nearly every effort is meant to elaborate on the labyrinthine plot or open up the raw wounds of a character. DiCaprio, combining his Body of Lies attitude with his Shutter Island confusion, is the man for the job, easily taking us from the sci-fi details to the emotional heartache, and back again.
His supporting crew members are fair and believable, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer) and Tom Hardy (Bronson) playing the steely cool genre tone for all it’s worth, a better decision for the latter of the two. Ellen Page (Whip It) is a good choice as the naive newcomer (there’s always one), acting for our benefit so we can learn the rules and the ropes as she must.
What prevents Inception from near-perfection is a final sequence that nearly slows down under its own weight. It’s a layer within a layer within… well, you get the picture. It’s fascinating and fun to keep up as the story switches from one fantastically designed setting to another (again, with real purpose), but there’s a lag in there that feels heavy. This is pretty inconsequential considering the overall excitement and brilliance of the film, but in the depths of that setpiece, I nearly forgot the reason it existed.
Ulimately, Inception is a metaphor for the moviegoing experience. Nolan takes us deep into a dream world, full of thoughts and visions we can accept as real, even temporarily, or opt to question. How does the dream maker play with our thinking and alter time? And how do we feel once we “awaken”? When the world in question is Inception, the answers range from tantalized to inspired to wholly satisfied.
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