FILM REVIEW: Inception (2010)

Inception (USA, 2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy

The experience of watching Inception is one of continual euphoria followed by a creeping sense of doubt. You read negative reviews or internet dissections, you talk to some friends who disagree, and you keep coming back to that one awful question: “Is it really that good?”. Such doubts can soon descend into outright paranoia, where every ounce of praise makes you a fanboy and every ounce of criticism makes you stupid. Under such circumstances, the only remedy is to see it again.Having now seen Inception twice, I feel I am in a more suitable position to judge it. And without any amount of doubt or hyperbole, it is the best film of the year by quite some distance. Inception is an intoxicating experience, combining breathtaking action sequences and nail-biting suspense with a script and storyline of incredible and refreshing intelligence. After such a rotten summer, even without a Transformers movie to contend with, this is the salvation that film fans had been waiting for – and it was more than worth the wait.In many ways, this is the film that Christopher Nolan has been working towards for his entire career. Quite apart from the fact that it took him ten years to write, Inception contains and combines the best elements of his previous work. It has the deceptive chronology of Memento and The Prestige, the identity-driven action of the Batman films, and the bending of genre conventions from Following and Insomnia. These elements are all interwoven by Nolan’s core pursuit of verisimilitude, the art of finding reality and believability in the most fantastical of concepts and characters.

Inception was originally envisioned as a horror film, presumably in the vein of Jacob’s Ladder or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nolan eventually retuned the concept of shared lucid dreaming around a heist premise, a decision which acts as a double-edged sword. Because the plot and character machinations of a heist film are so superficial, there is more room to inject those conventions with deep-rooted substance, and in doing so make decisions which challenge said conventions. That said, after Reservoir Dogs, it is very hard to make a heist film which actually has something to say.Reservoir Dogs took the conventions of the heist film and played them out self-referentially; you knew what was going to happen next, but more importantly the director knew that you knew. The tension and suspense needed to keep you interested was achieved by showing the scenes in all the wrong order; you had to work hard to sit through the violence and keep up with the story.

Inception goes the other way, building a self-contained, hyper-stylised world which looks and feels real enough to convince an audience. Just as he did with Gotham in Batman Begins, Nolan creates an entire world which is so close to our own that we accept it readily, and all the little variations from reality come as believable but pleasant surprises. It’s as though the ‘reality’ which Cobb and the others inhabit is but the first level of our own ‘dream’. As the cinema lights go down, we are in effect being sedated; we enter into the dream as a silent observer and project onto it our own thoughts and ideas.What this means from a narrative point of view is that the various conventional elements of the storyline are neither obvious nor overtly irritating. Unlike Insomnia, Nolan wastes no time in getting things going and confounding our expectations. The famous heist conventions are all here – ‘one last job’, assembling a team of experts, being surrounded in a big building and all manner of things going wrong. But because the film moves at such a frenetic pace, and retains its coherency throughout, we end up not noticing them as much. The thrill of the film lies not in going through the motions but in discovering the deeper layers which are hidden in-between.

Like all great heist films, Inception is not really about the job itself: it is about what the job represents, both internally (to the characters) and conceptually (to the audience). Most superficially, the film is an examination of the nature of dreams and dreaming. Rather than go down the Freudian or surrealistic route, Nolan recreates our dreaming experience as something realistic as possible; as in The Matrix, everything looks normal at first glance but the rules can easily be bent and broken. As Cobb remarks to Ariadne, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them: it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange”.From this foundation of realistic dreaming, Nolan injects the theme of blurring dreams with reality. Because the dream resembles our waking world so closely, it is very easy to lose one’s way – hence the reason Cobb and the others carry totems, to determine whether or not they are still dreaming. Cobb warns Ariadne during her training not to base a dream’s architecture on real life, because that is the easiest way to lose your bearings and perhaps even end up like Mal. Because you have to work so hard to keep up with the storyline, it can sometimes feel like you are getting lost – although, as in Mulholland Drive, getting lost is actually part of the fun.

Both Inception and Mulholland Drive are about using dreams to escape from or replace our reality; we create a world based on our projections and fill it with versions of ourselves which have none of the flaws or failings we carry in real life. They also share a main character who is (on one level) unable to live with themselves. But where Mulholland Drive interweaves this ultimately tragic premise around a savaging of Hollywood and an examination of identity, Inception characterises dreaming through the prism of addiction.The practice of extraction is like a recurring drug high. The different members of Cobb’s team engage in such activity because they love to experience those brief periods of limitless possibility with no real chance of death (one over on The Matrix). In the dream world, Eames is a perfect forger who can be anyone he wants; in the real world, he is a suave fop who can’t hang onto his money. Ariadne is initially shocked by shared dreaming, but as Cobb predicts “reality is no longer enough for her” and she quickly returns for another slice of boundless creativity. The film does, however, give several clues about the negative effects of shared dreaming. Cobb can no longer dream unless he is sedated, and the scene of the men sleeping in the Tangier basement is a chilling foreshadowing of what he could become.The character development in Inception comes from a need for the characters to come to terms with their own limitations and the fragility of the worlds they create. Cobb’s relationship with Ariadne is bound up with his desire to atone for the death of his wife, and in doing so re-establish himself firmly in what he knows to be real. Like Julia Stiles’ character in The Bourne Ultimatum, Ariadne represents Cobb attempting to avoid repeating his mistakes – and as in Bourne, their relationship is some form of salvation. The other team members undergo similar shifts as they adjust to the various twists and misfortunes which occur. Arthur is teased by Eames for being unimaginative, and yet it is his creative thinking in zero gravity which helps send the team home.Inception is a mind-blowing film which has substance and ambiguity coming out of its ears. Like Mulholland Drive before it, it is a bewitching experience, and the ideas which it raises will remain with you for a long time afterwards. The excellent performances (especially Tom Hardy and Ellen Page) are hardwired into a first-class script and accompanied by outstanding visuals from Wally Pfister and a breathtaking score from Hans Zimmer. But at the back of it all is the unrivalled and undiluted skill of Christopher Nolan, who has at long last made his masterpiece.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: Film of the year


Tom Wales said...

Hang on, I've suddenly realised another silly element within the film plot. Ariadne has problems when creating a world when she first goes into a dream with Cobb - the keeps shifting Paris and changing the environment. Cobb tells her to stop doing this and, well, she does and it doesn't feature in the rest of the story at all (or have I missed something?).

That talent would have really helped in some of the later dreams when they were being attacked later on. She could have shifted the environment to stop them in some way.

Ultimately, the shared dream at the beginning with Ariadne and Cobb comes across as a way of closing a plot hole and saying "you can't shift elements within dreams" in order to heighten dramatic tension, but it just seems like a bit of a cop out to me. I think they could have used this as an addition element to make the "heist" more exciting, with architecture within the dream changing more often by the end.

So, as I've said before, its the best and most though-provoking film I've seen this year, but its still rather daft.

Daniel Mumby said...

There is shifting of the worlds in the rest of the plot, just not especially from Ariadne. When Arthur is fighting the henchman on the staircase, he creates a paradoxical loop so he can run round to fight him, and then moves the stairs so it turns into a cliff he can drop him off. Similarly when they're breaking into the ice fortress Ariadne mentions that Eames added an air duct system to take them through the maze.

The point is that if she had shifted the environment to such a great extent, it would have provoked the projections in Fischer's subconscious and jeopardised the mission. It's not like The Matrix, in which Neo is encouraged to bend time and space to defeat the system; here the system can fight back very quickly. A lot of the characters in Inception end up breaking their own rules, but to have changed them to that sort of action gimmick would have genuinely made things silly.

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