Inception a Good Summer Film but Don't Get Carried Away

Phsyics don't apply in the dream world.

Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

148 mins. PG-13
* * *

Inception is a film that will remind you of other films: The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Waking Life, What Dreams May Come…. There are even elements of director Christopher Nolan’s own Memento, though the latter is a far superior film to Inception.

Inception has been hyped to the gills and it has a clever hook and a complex plot that has left some viewers reeling. To grasp all its twists and turns would require multiple screenings, though to our eyes the movie just isn’t good enough to warrant this. So before we go any further, here’s the two-sentence verdict: Forget the ballyhoo and enjoy this film for what it is—a better-than-average summer film that’s basically a high-tech chase movie. It’s stylish and has a high wow factor, but don’t confuse narrative incoherence with profundity.

In a nutshell the movie is about the possibility of dreaming within a dream. It is set in the near future and Dean Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a sophisticated thief who invades people’s dreams to extract profitable information from them. The setup is that Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb to go a level deeper by having Cobb enter a corporate rival’s dream to plant an idea (the “inception”) in his subconscious that will ultimately benefit Saito’s firm. Can one plant a dream within a dream? Yes—and Cobb’s incentive is a chance at redemption. He pioneered the technique on his own wife, Mal (the delicious Marion Cotillard), but it didn’t work according to plan. Cobb assembles a crack team to do the job, the keystone of which is Ariadne (Ellen Page), a precocious lass who can find her way though mental labyrinths (get it?) and who suspects that Cobb has undisclosed issues that could endanger them all.

If you get lost in the layer-upon-layer-upon layer, there are three things to remember. First, psychologists believe than if we dream our own deaths, we die in fact. Conversely, dreams do not conform to waking logic. It is thus possible in a dream that the bad guys never shoot straight and you can literally weave your way around machine gun fire. Finally, insofar as anyone knows there is no limit to what the imagination can conjure in the dream state.

The last of these means that Inception is fascinating to view in places. The worlds constructed in the mind are far more interesting than what we see in cartoon-like fantasies such as Avatar simply because the mental constructs are simultaneously exotic, yet vaguely plausible. The film is strongest when it lurks in the imagination, both its marvelous and its dark sides. There is a wonderful scene—one of the simpler set ups, actually—in which Ariadne takes control of a dream by building a fortress of mirrors around herself. Likewise, Cobb’s dream city yields nothing to futurists and sci-fi writers.

All the performances are strong, except for Watanabe. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, his English simply isn’t good enough and it’s exceedingly difficult to make out what he’s mumbling. That’s a problem when he’s one of the three major characters. But where the film suffers most is that it’s often blinded by its own flash. There are way too many chase scenes, explosions, and shootouts. Since we know they’re dreams in the first place, the only suspense is whether those involved pull out in time. In essence, the film’s violence is not only gratuitous, it’s pointless. We found ourselves growing bored by endless shoot-em-ups in the service of nothing and these consumed screen time that could have been devoted to developing the character back stories more fully. (Here’s all you’ll learn about Ariadne: young, perky, brilliant.) And when we get right down to it, half the story is about which mega-corporation gets the upper hand, not exactly something we care about or should.

Still, Inception is a mind-blower in its best scenes and one should give Nolan credit for challenging audiences and for having ideas more provocative than anything else you’ll see this summer. For a far better take on the alternative worlds the mind can build, rent Synecdoche, but see Inception on the big screen—the visuals will linger long after you’ve forgotten what “big” issue you were supposed to contemplate.

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