Status: In theaters (opened 7/16/10)
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard
I honestly can’t decide if I should fault Christopher Nolan for helping to dumb down film as we know it, or give him credit for capitalizing on the already-existing phenomenon. I think the answer is probably both: he’s a guy who’s recognized the fact that movies don’t need to make sense to be considered “smart” anymore, that hand-waving can take the place of legitimate plotlines, that repetitive sophomoric “explanations” can get an audience to go along with whatever nonsense you present them with, and yet he also knows how to present an entertaining spectacle, to throw excitement on the screen in spades and just hope you don’t try to make sense of it while enjoying the ride. Inception is probably the most direct example of what I’m pretty sure will become Nolan’s trademark style from this point on: it’s a big, fun adventure that moves fast and asks you not to question where it’s going, except for when it takes the time to explain the parts that don’t matter. For instance: the plot revolves around a guy named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of dream-snatchers, except that what they deal with aren’t really like dreams at all. Consider a scene that I’m sure you’re familiar with if you’ve seen the film’s theatrical trailer (see the 0:40 point)—or the poster above—where the streets of Paris fold over onto each other, demonstrating the control over the dream world that these experts have. Does this have anything to do with the movie whatsoever? Of course not; it’s an excuse to show off an eye-popping effect (and it does, admittedly, look amazing), but one that has no relevance or consequence to the film’s story. This one small example, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much tells the whole story of how Christopher Nolan makes movies, and Inception is one long, loud, and in-your-face treatise on what a summer blockbuster in 2010 is going to be.
The formula should be recognizable from Nolan’s The Dark Knight: there’s some amateur psychology loosely stringing everything together, here explained by way of audience surrogate Ellen Page, with help from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (doing his best bad-Keanu Reeves impression), who are charged with delivering the kind of embarrassing dialogue I found so distasteful in the Batman movie—it’s of the form, “Here is what must happen, otherwise this will happen, which would be bad,” and it’s repeated multiple times just to make sure that you didn’t miss it, because at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure Nolan’s view of you, his audience, is that you’re a complete idiot and can’t follow the most simplistic plot developments, even when their ramifications are explained to you every 20 minutes or so. And then on the other hand, he expects you to not question the major aspects of his story: how does this whole dream-stealing thing work in the first place? The description that’s given is about as useful as Norville Barnes’s explanation of his brilliant idea to the heads of Hudsucker Industries—”You know,” you can virtually hear DiCaprio saying, “for dreams!”
The central conflict—and would-be moral—of the film is basically more psychobabble nonsense, but I don’t want to delve into it too much here because it’d fall into the realm of spoilers. Let me just say that I absolutely love Marion Cotillard, and think that she’s as beautifully mesmerizing here as she’s been in everything else I’ve seen her do, and yet her role in Inception feels like little more than an excuse for the script to attempt to screw with your head. Hell, that’s basically all the whole movie is, come to think of it: Nolan is going for a roller-coaster ride of a mindfuck, and anything that helps him achieve that end gets thrown in whether it really fits or makes sense or not.
Structurally, things are pretty strange, too: we get the Return of the Jedi style of setting up several simultaneous action sequences that are intercut with each other, to all be resolved at roughly the same time, except here there’s an additional twist: each thread of the action is actually a different layer of dream, because in the world of Inception it’s possible to induce dreams-within-dreams (with the to-be-expected laborious explanations of how this works, and what its arbitrary limitations are). What Nolan basically ends up with is an hour-long exposition, then an hour-plus action setpiece, and then an abbreviated concluding scene that aims to leave the viewer with some open-ended questions that are inconsequential anyway. While the action is happening, though, it’s something to behold. Things happen at a fast and furious pace, and the action, like the plot itself, is best enjoyed if you just let it overtake you instead of trying to make sense of it all as it goes. Wally Pfister shoots the film like he did The Dark Knight, which is to say with a sense of scope that’s uniquely fitting and awesome. And Hans Zimmer seems to have put in overtime, his score maintaining a throbbing build for a good 45-minute stretch towards the film’s climax, which is quite a feat in itself.
I realize a lot of the above may sound like a lot of bitching over a movie that’s really not as bad as I might be making it sound. In fact, I think I like it quite a bit—I just find it to be extremely frustrating. Inception has some good ideas, is creatively very unique, features amazing practical effects that suck you into its world, and takes you on a mind-bending ride that’s quite enjoyable if you’re able to just sit back and allow your mind to be bent, rather than expecting it to be used for other purposes. As far as this type of movie goes, I’ll take the Nolan version over the extremely disappointing attempt at a brain-twister Scorsese brought us earlier this year with that other DiCaprio vehicle, Shutter Island. And I don’t think it’s any question that Inception has a lot more to offer than a mindless effects-fest like Avatar. My main issue is that, like most of Nolan’s other films, Inception feels like a) it could be so much more, and b) it thinks it already is.