REVIEW REVISITED: Inception (2010)

This is a revised and rewritten version of my Inception review first published August 19th 2010. The original review can be found here:

Inception (USA, 2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy

Most of us have at least one film which we can watch over and over without necessarily getting anything new out of it. But there is a small number of truly magnificent films which keep rewarding us, intellectually and viscerally, even when there is no need for the gift to keep on giving. Inception is a worthy member of this club, sharing pride of place with A Clockwork Orange, Mulholland Drive and - dare I say it - Blade Runner. Every new viewing opens up new theories and interpretations, while confirming its status as the best film of 2010 and of Christopher Nolan's career.A lot has been written about the reputation of Inception as a 'smart blockbuster' which proves that audiences aren't stupid and lays down the gauntlet for the rest of the film industry. While all of this is completely true, it has been said so often that people have been led to doubt whether the film has anything of offer beyond what it represents: in other words, is it meant to be admired rather than enjoyed. Make no mistake: Inception is a smart blockbuster, but in order to appreciate it we have to look beyond its possible implications for the industry, at least for the moment.Inception is the culmination of Nolan's career, at least up to now. It shares a number of qualities with his previous efforts while having its own identity, like a series of jewels that have been waiting ten years for a crown. There is the deceptive chronology of Memento and The Prestige, used to make you question everything you have seen and distrust the editing over where stories begin and end. There is the nail-biting action of the Batman films, with real characters exploring ideas and experiencing pain in the midst of outstanding special effects. And there is the genre integrity of Following and Insomnia, creating in this case a film which follows heist film conventions without being in any way limited by them.All of these elements are woven together by Nolan's constant pursuit of verisimilitude, the art of finding reality and believability in the most fantastical of stories and concepts. Rather than go down the surrealistic route, filling the heist with scenes from Eraserhead or Un Chien Andalou, Nolan creates a hyper-stylised world which is so akin to our own that his artistic flourishes feel all the more surprising. His use of organic, physical effects wherever possible confirms his desire to keep us rooted in reality even as the world around us becomes extraordinary. The story introduces the mechanics of dreaming incrementally, so the film never grinds to a halt for plot exposition or loses its way by twisting too much at once.At its most superficial (if such a word is appropriate), Inception is about the nature of dreams and dreaming. In previous films which have explored dreaming, particularly as part of a thriller storyline, the boundary between dreams and reality has been all too obvious. Think, for instance, of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, whose dream sequence directed by Salvador Dali is in stark contrast to the rest of the film.Inception corrects this, blurring the lines so seamlessly that we quickly understand the danger the characters are facing - both in failing their mission and in losing themselves to their own sub-consciences. During her training, Cobb warns Ariadne 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. The feeling of getting lost is reflected in our experience as an audience: the film is constantly asking us to keep up, and there are only so many points where we can rely on totems or editing to tell us where we are. But as with Mulholland Drive, feeling lost is not only fun, it enhances the experience, making the dream-state all the more believable, threatening and fascinating.Like all great heist films, Inception is not really about the job itself. Nor, indeed, is it entirely or primarily about the nature of dreaming. The mechanics of dreaming, involving inception and extraction, heavy sedations and multiple dreams-within-dreams, are there to serve the plot by putting an enticing twist on the conventions of the heist film. But they also provide an introduction to a host of other interesting themes and ideas, each as enticing and multi-layered as the dreams in which they appear.One of Inception's biggest themes is identity, namely the ability in the dream world to be whoever you want, potentially forever. Like Mulholland Drive before it, it examines the idea of characters creating whole worlds or lives for themselves within a dream or fantasy. In this case the dreams can be designed and engineered to such a degree that reality becomes unnecessary: characters spend so long in dreams that reality seems like a pale imitation of the world which offers them everything they need.The one factor connecting all the members of Cobb's team is that their abilities and worth are enhanced by being in the dream. In reality, Eames is flippant, soft-headed and can't hold onto his money; in the dream he is brilliant, impersonating people and garnering information with ease. Arthur begins as a "stick in the mud" with no imagination, but in the dream he gains the imagination needed to bring the team home. Cobb is the exception to this rule: haunted by guilt, any potential enhancement in the dream in cancelled out or undermined by his troubled, unrestrained psyche.There is a counterpoint in the characters between Mal and Ariadne, played with superb skill by Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page. Both are to some extent experiments of Cobb: he trials inception on Mal, in a move which produces the impossible (inception) at the cost of creating the unbearable (her death). Ariadne represents Cobb trying to avoid his past mistakes, revisiting the impossible for the sake of catharsis. His relationship with Ariadne is sensitive because she sees through him, providing his salvation from the dream while giving him the chance to atone for Mal's death.When Darren Aronofsky made Requiem for a Dream, he commented that it was not so much a film about drugs as about addictive impulses - what constitutes or defines a drug, and therefore what makes a drug addict. So much of Inception is about addiction, with the characters being sedated to experience dreaming and their dreams being a pursuit of the high that is unlimited creativity.As with Aronofsky's work, Inception contrasts the limitless possibilities of the characters' fantasies with the threatened or actual destruction of their lives, minds and memories. Cobb was drawn to extraction by the ability to design whole new cities which could never exist, and when Ariadne runs away he remarks that "reality won't be enough for her anymore". But these optimistic sections are given perspective by the revelation that Cobb can no longer dream of his own accord. The chilling scene in the Mombasa basement hints at what he threatens to become if he does not restore his grip on reality and work for something more than the selfish high of extraction or inception.The performances in Inception are magnificent across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio has been working hard to cast off the pretty boy image of his early career, and in this case he manages it, turning in his most layered and accomplished performance to date. Cillian Murphy has an intriguing fractured quality to his performance which brings subtlety to his relationships with the other characters. And Tom Hardy is outstanding as Eames, providing much of the light relief as the world falls apart around him.Inception is a mesmerising masterpiece which improves with every viewing. Its mind-blowing, hyper-tense action sequences are perfectly complimented by its multi-layered examination of dreaming, addiction, catharsis and identity. It is visually superb thanks to Wally Pfister's outstanding cinematography, and Hans Zimmer's unusual score is nothing short of breathtaking. But at the centre of everything is Christopher Nolan, possibly Britain's greatest living director, who has delivered a film which is not only smart, but utterly flawless.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: The best film of 2010


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