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- Movie: Inception
- Rating: PG-13
- Running Time: 2 hrs. 28 min.
- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao and Michael Caine
- Written By: Christopher Nolan
- Directed By: Christopher Nolan
- Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Inception Movie Review
By Rob Vaux
July 15, 2010
Men are children in their dreams
And boys, their father’s equal
Christopher Nolan’s Inception officially joins Toy Story 3 as the savior of the summer. The two films stand so far beyond anything else onscreen right now that comparisons seem almost quaint.
In the case of Inception, one can only hold it up against Nolan’s previous efforts: a collection of masterpieces as impressive as Pixar’s own. The director maintains his fixation on perception, on the delusions which seduce us and the way they shape our relationship with reality. In that sense, he understands the philosophical underpinnings of film in ways few directors before him. Film itself is an illusion, created by persistence of vision and sustained by the way it fools our subconscious into believing what we see. Critics have compared going to the movies as entering a dream state, and—like Nolan’s other films—Inception finds a keenly clever narrative to explore that possibility.
To discuss the plot is to spoil all manner of surprises. Nolan structures it like a heist film, with a team of individual experts brought together to conduct a specified job. Only these experts resemble no others. They enter people’s dreams—those points when mental defenses are weakened and we’re vulnerable to all manner of manipulation—in order to steal secrets and other items of interest. In some cases, they can snatch entire ideas away. But now they receive a job from a mysterious benefactor (Ken Watanabe) who wants them to insert an idea into someone’s mind, something rarely attempted and fraught with danger.
Revealing anything beyond that gives the game away. Most of the drama centers around team leader Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of Nolan’s typical noir protagonists who breaks his own rules and reaches for things forever beyond his grasp. His cohorts (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his reluctant partner and Ellen Page as his de facto conscience) try to keep him focused as they plan and execute an elaborate scheme penetrating multiple layers of dreams within dreams. The entire affair entails stunning complexity, and yet it remains easy to follow once you’re immersed in the world. Editor Lee Smith deserves an Oscar for keeping each level of dream/reality clear, allowing us to move through it without becoming confused. I stress “confused” over “intrigued” here, because Inception’s enigmas prove every bit as mind-blowing as the early hype suggests. We question what we see—whether we’re witnessing a dream or a reality—but it feeds into the story’s psychological depths rather than detracting from them.
Nolan does the film a further service by insisting on practical effects whenever possible. We’ve all seen the head-trip shots in the ads—cityscapes folding back on themselves and hallways where gravity shifts on a whim—but he achieves them through models, wirework and photo compositing as much as CGI. That brings with it a indefinable sense of frisson, allowing us to buy into the reality of the vistas in ways that computer-generated images can’t. It also allows for some staggering set pieces, most notably a fistfight in which the combatants must repeatedly shift from walls to floor to ceiling as the center of gravity alters around them. It’s one of the best action sequences in years, and the fact that the actors are actually on a set instead of in front of a green screen heightens the excitement levels considerably.
Most importantly, Inception doesn’t allow its imagery to eclipse the human drama. Nolan hypnotizes us with his elegant dreamscapes, but uses them to draw attention back to the figures at the heart of it all, struggling with their own demons while attempting a unique variation on the theft of a lifetime. The psychological foundations of the tale play into the more straightforward set pieces, coloring the drama with regrets, desires and the charged relations between parents and their children. The cast is stronger than any in recent memory; DiCaprio can spend ten minutes twitching his facial muscles and still keep us spellbound, while comparative unknowns like Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao match the gaggle of Oscar nominees step for step.
If the results rank somewhat lower than Nolan’s previous films (it won’t top the likes of The Dark Knight or The Prestige), they still reach the levels those earlier works have led us to expect. Few filmmakers can challenge us the way Nolan does under the auspices of mainstream entertainment, and few filmmakers understand the nature of the medium as well as he does. Only Pixar can match his record for sheer quality, and they have the benefit of acting as a group. Nolan’s vision is solely his own… and as Inception reminds us, we may never see its like again.