Friday, July 16, 2010
There really isn't a better way to usher in your 40th birthday than to helm a film that is receiving almost universal acclaim, and that is precisely the enviable position Christopher Nolan finds himself in after the release of the elaborately realized Inception. Few writer/directors have the goodwill Nolan can claim, but after delivering quality blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" and well regarded small budget films like "Memento," Nolan has absolutely earned bragging rights as one of the best in the business, and "Inception" is sure to add to his golden-boy shine, even if it doesn't, quite, hold up as his best effort. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an "extractor", a person who specializes in entering another person's dreams and retrieving highly classified information. As the film opens we're immediately thrust into the middle of one of Dom's intrigues as he attempts to ferret out a secret embedded in the mind of the mysterious Saito (Ken Watanabe). Unbeknownst to Dom, Saito isn't the pawn in Dom's game; he's really auditioning Dom and his team to determine if they can take their skills to the next level and implant an idea into someone's subconscious (hence the name "Inception") rather than take information out. Dom initially balks at taking the job, but mysterious circumstances have put Dom on the run from the law and it's ultimately Saito's offer to clear his name, and reunite him with his children, that motivates Dom to accept. Like any other caper film (and "Inception" is a caper film at heart) there has to be a team and Dom's team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the "point man," Eames (Tom Hardy) the "forger" (who can forge counterfeit identities within dreams) and Ariadne (Ellen Page), the "architect" who creates the dreamscapes the team operates in. "Inception" is an almost excruciatingly complex film based on a fairly simple premise. Like "The Matrix," the film trades on our natural preoccupation with the boundaries between reality and our subconscious-- so comparisons between the two movies are inevitable. But "Inception" is a far more intimate movie than "The Matrix," despite its lavish landscapes, because it is essentially the story of Dom and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), and a shadowy secret that hovers over the two of them. As Dom and his team plan for the job, the movie really ramps-up the complexity of the plot. We understand from the beginning that part of the methods Dom uses to extract information involves a "dream within a dream" strategy-- which means convincing the mark that they are no longer dreaming, having "woken" from their dream state, and leaving them ripe for manipulation. But implanting an idea is much more difficult and requires the team to go further down into the dream state, layer upon layer, but that also exposes them to more danger. Adding to the risk is Dom's wife, who seems to be lurking on the fringes and sabotaging everything he does. "Inception" is actually a really, really hard movie to review because it takes awhile to process the movie and decide how much you like it. At least that's how it is for me. It's generally well cast and Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent, as always, and plays Dom to perfection. The only surprise as far as I was concerned was how much I liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt-- I expect this movie will springboard him very well into a solid movie career as he has an excellent presence for the big screen. Ellen Page is serviceable, though not especially compelling, while Tom Hardy is likable and charismatic enough to make you wish he had a larger role. Marion Cotiallard is lovely and tortured while Michael Caine is barely present. I've read some reviews that say there isn't much chemistry between the characters, but I'd say it isn't a matter of charisma so much as opportunity. There is very little real time spent between the characters, as the movie belongs so much to Dom, and the characters of Arthur and Eames are little more than archtypes. We know a tiny bit more about Ariadne, but only on the most superficial level. And it's the lack of characterizations that keep "Inception" from moving from a very good film to an exceptional one. Nolan spends so much time on the intricacies of the dream world, and how it can be manipulated, that the characters fall by the wayside. Perhaps it's okay that we're only invested in Dom's story, but there often is a feel of unrealized potential that hovers on the fringes that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I also think that the movie bogs down a bit in the middle because of the heavy focus on describing the technique needed for the job as opposed to the subtle moments that define the characters. There has also been a fair amount of buzz over the "twist" at the ending of the movie, but I found that none of the revelations were really that unexpected. It never had the kind of "whoa" moment that I had hoped for, though the audience is basically given the choice at the end to interpret events in their own way-- which makes plot points I previously thought implausible to actually make perfect sense if viewed in a certain way. The beauty of "Inception" is that it's one of those movies you'll want to watch a few times so that you can see if your initial impressions were correct, and you'll probably walk away with a different opinion each time. The more I think about it, the more I am impressed with Nolan's craftsmanship. Despite a few nit-picky observations, "Inception" does deliver on multiple levels with a good balance of action, complexity and mystery. I wouldn't quite rank it as high as "The Dark Knight" on my list of favorite films, but it it doesn't do any damage to Nolan's reputation as a filmmaker of unusual talent.