This morning I saw the “mind blowing” and top grossing movie, Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page (of Juno), a host of other all-star actors and directed by Christopher Nolan. Supposedly this film was ten years in the making, the “genius” of Nolan working on a complicated, surreal plot as fresh and original as his Memento and as jolting as his Batman: The Dark Knight. While Inception possesses the same impressive visuals as The Dark Knight and is equally entertaining, it also contains the same flaws, the worst being convinced in its own conceit that it is far more original and smarter than it is.
The Tangled Plot
The film takes place in the present day but with a twist. DiCaprio (“Cobb”), through the help of a machine that connects several sleepers, is an expert thief who can enter the dreams of others to extract something of importance, such as the combination to a safe. After being caught in a confusing, failed attempt to extract such information from Watanabe (“Saito”), the Japanese executive of an energy conglomerate then proposes to hire Cobb to work for him to accomplish the reverse. Saito wants Cobb to plant an idea the mind of Fisher (Murphy), a competitor, in exchange for arranging Cobb’s clearance to once enter the United States again to see his children. Cobb then assembles his Ocean’s 11 mental break-in team consisting of an “architect” Ariadne (Page) who can create convincing worlds for a dreamer to navigate; a “chemist” (Rao) who provides the sleepers with enough sedation to keep them asleep through multiple dream layers; a “forger” (Hardy) who can assume the identity of another person sufficiently so as to fool them into disclosing secrets; and finally the mental maintenance engineer (Gordon-Levitt) who manages the entire act of deception and deals with all the potential problems that will occur during this process. The fly in the ointment is that Cobb’s dead wife, somehow related to all of this but not explained, keeps reappearing in these dreams to foil Cobb’s escapades. You have no idea how deep that rabbit hole goes.
The Complicated but Not Original Concept
A short dream in actual time can feel like 100 hours for every hour you sleep. Following that logic, a dream within a dream can feel like 100,000 hours to the sleeper (doing the math, 100 hours for each hour of the 100 hours that represent a 10 hour night’s sleep.) Now if you’ve been able to grasp that concept, if a couple could somehow stay in a dream within a dream, they could build a lifetime of memories together which will somehow remain vivid and on-demand for replay after waking (don’t ask, just accept.) In order to successful plant an idea in one’s mind artificially, it is necessary to make it feel as if it has been with that person all along. Cue the Mission Impossible team: sedate Murphy during a several hour plane ride and implant an idea in his head that he should break up a corporation once he receives the power to do so from his estranged father. This involve putting Murphy into a dream state, gaining his confidence and convincing him to enter a dream within that dream that will put all their lives in danger from the metaphorical forces that will try to kill them. The price of failure? Being in a vegetative state – madness resulting from an eternity of time being in a dream within a dream while your body lives in the real world for but a few hours.
The visuals in this film are superb, even for a budget in excess of $140 million. They truly shine on the IMAX screen. The actors are all top rate and none of them disappoint, although the lack of any character development leaves them hollow and as forgettable as the architect who disappears at the beginning of the film. Despite being confused and left figuring out what is occurring all along the way, the film does engage the audience as the movie progresses towards each successive scene (also known as “eager confirmation of what you may have already suspected” effect.) Only once or twice did I glance at my watch to determine whether this film was reaching a conclusion based upon real time (or dream time.) I was as curious to figure out what would happen as I was to figure out what the heck was really going on.
The Dizzying Development
If I am unable to understand the plot or events occurring on screen, I usually find that it is a flaw within the film rather than any failure of my cognitive abilities. Read most of the glowing, fawning reviews of Inception and they are unanimous in insisting that this film must be seen a second time to truly comprehend the film’s brilliance. I disagree. The second viewing is required just to comprehend the highbrow, existential jargon that resembles The Matrix sequels on speed. The jocular crew mix rapier wit with multisyllabic, verbose, clinical dialog to describe how the Dream Machine works and introduce a convoluted plan to break into Murphy’s mind like a mental version of The Sting. People don’t talk this way. Terms like “the catharsis” are quickly intertwined with metaphors such as “the kick” (an impulse that will wake a dreamer) which whiz by quickly towards some reference of the use of blaring music and water pressure to wake dreamers (which somehow serve to provide convenient warnings) at certain moments during REM.
Unfortunately Inception wastes too much time with visuals none on character development. DiCaprio’s Cobb is the clone of his role in his last movie, Shutter Island, wandering through pangs of guilt about a dead ex-wife and children he yearns to see once again. Without time being invested to familiarize the audience with the grieving anti-hero, there is no sympathy for an empty shell. Numerous movies invest time in a back story for our protagonist, such as Minority Report, but Inception provides none, only a mystery which soon becomes obvious. Cobb is portrayed as just another thief who will ruthlessly use unsuspecting people in order to accomplish his own selfish goals. Watanabe’s Saito is yet another corporate executive as is the weepy Cillian Murphy. Who cares about any of these characters or which energy company controls the market? The young Ellen Page is entirely unconvincing as the master architect but this is not solely due to poor casting. There is also no foundation laid that establishes her genius intellect. It is only suggested by the insistence of our trustworthy friend, Michael Caine (who seems to drop in for a cameo), as well as in a 3 minute test where Page draws mazes on a page you’d find in a puzzle book in a 99 Cent Store.
While I tried to enjoy the story and just suspend my disbelief for 2 hours, Nolan tries so hard to be clever that he trips over his own convoluted rules for his alternate universe. The Matrix is a relatively simple concept where people “travel” in a world that consist of electrical impulses fed to their brain that are generated by a machine. To some degree, each participant can help create the alternate universe. Dark City is an even better film which explores the question of what is the fabric of our memories and character. With Inception, I found it extraordinarily difficult to figure out whose dreams and visions I was seeing at any time. An architect is the relative equivalent of The Matrix. Despite DiCaprio making a distinct choice to not be the architect, somehow his mind is the only one of the Dream Team that continues to project subliminal thoughts (of his wife and children) into the dream, which is controlled by the dreamer and the architect.
There is a dazzling sequence where most of the members of the dream team are suspended in mid-air and manipulated by our existentialist janitor. The team is asleep within a van that is falling from a bridge. They are heavily sedated and impervious to sound, smell and a facial slap, but are somehow able to perceive gravity which makes its way into the dreams of our team and on screen Fred Astaire style. The only way to explain this sequence is that, without it, perhaps the coolest part of this movie would never have made it to the big screen. These plot holes, perhaps better explained by mindless fans in some Facebook Mensa group discussion of Inception, certainly was my token to remind me that I was unfortunately not dreaming.
Let’s Move On Folks, Nothing Much to See Here…
A significant part of any blockbuster film includes “the fight scene.” Hundreds of characters carry clubs, guns and proceed on an all out assault against the dreamer, which are metaphors within the dreamer’s subconscious. These defense mechanisms occur when a dreamer detects artificial, unnatural elements introduced within the natural universe of the dreamer. They may also manifest themselves as an intentional defense against dream extractors, as in the case with Murphy’s character who was trained in mental self-defense gymnastics. In one interminable scene, I was reminded of a skiing Roger Moore as James Bond, replete with yet another set of shaky cam sequences involving an unidentified protagonist doing something clever such as a using a rope to eject dozens of would be deadly assassins from their skis or assault vehicles. More detonators than I could count were placed on The Empire’s fortress in the snow during the Rebel assault on Hoth, and the van containing our heroes took more time in reality to fall than in any of my dreams. An assault on the senses to simply provide suspense for Murphy to “unlock the door” to his secret. Yawn.
This movie contains so many components in its 148 minute running time that it cannot be adequately discussed in this review – and that’s part of the problem. The revelation of the source of Cobb’s guilt is “poetic” in a sense but obvious and old wine in yet another new bottle. While I found the ending to be predictable, Inception does provide entertainment value for it’s prolonged duration. In no way is this film worthy of an IMDB Top 250 honor, let alone the #3 film of all time, as has been bestowed by ballot stuffing teenagers desperate to praise another film that is as “mind blowingly brilliant” as The Matrix sequels. I was also not impressed with Batman: The Dark Knight, providing blockbuster explosions, gratiuitous violence, exaggerated melodrama and an absurd, illogical ending that was not “deep philosophy.” I loved Nolan’s The Prestige, which is a much more clever film that is rich with emotion and character development than the antiseptic Inception. The original mystery of Memento does leave you with an uncertain but well placed ending while Inception clearly avoids one. I’m sure my review will take a beating by the horde of Inception fans but I’ll generously award this film with 3 out of 5 stars. My suggestion is to wait until you can see it on cable so you can hit the rewind button when necessary or turn to another channel if you’ve had enough ingenuity for one evening.