I'm always suspicious of movies that are massively hyped months and months before their release, so I was unimpressed with Inception's nonstop promotional drumbeat and the legions of fawning critics. In fact, instead of hurtling myself to the nearest theater on opening weekend, I was able to restrain myself and finally caught a screening of it last night.
Boy, am I glad I waited.
I confess I haven't seen director Christopher Nolan's first two films, but I certainly enjoyed Memento (2000). All the Dark Knight hype (especially about the late Heath Ledger's performance) convinced me that I was going to see a masterpiece. Although I found the first 90 minutes or so absolutely riveting, I thought Nolan gave the film far too many climaxes, which exhausted me and made me really not care how it finally ended. How did it end, anyhow?
Inception also suffers from multiple climaxes (ha!), but it has other problems, too. First of all, it's incredibly pedantic, with the characters feeling the need to explain the concept every few minutes. A reviewer on IMDB who disliked the film as much as I did summed it up best: it's a simple action film dressed up as a "thinking person's" thriller, inviting those who grasp the plot to feel that they've accomplished something great. To them all I can say is, "Try reading 'Naked Lunch,' pal!"
Although the plot is quite routine, the multiple dream levels, incessant jabbering and shifts in time and locale make it wearying to follow. And when it comes down to it, the entire scenario can be broken down into probably five or six scenes, repeated over and over. You can read about the plot in excruciating detail here if you so desire, but these are the highlights:
A bunch of people run around the world and through self-designed dreamscapes in order to help some powerful rich guy obtain vital energy secrets from some other powerful rich guy. Oh, and the head of the team, Dom Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) is a former Inception architect and now disillusioned burnout, having been accused of murdering his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) and forced to run around the world until his name can be cleared and he can return to the States where his young children await.
So when Saito (Ken Watanabe) proposes to help him do just that in exchange for using Inception to invade the brain of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a powerful energy magnate (Pete Postlethwaite) who's just kicked the bucket, he signs on.
Cobb can't design the dreamscapes anymore, because his late wife keeps popping up in vengeful and murderous forms, so he hires Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young student who is also supposedly a brilliant dream designer, to do the work. He adds a forger, Eames, (Tom Hardy), who can impersonate people that Inception subjects recognize and trust, and a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who designs the drugs that will put everyone in the Inception kind of mood. Already aboard is his trusted associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The first 20 minutes of the film are completely baffling and obnoxious, and I wanted to pack it in then and there, but when it more or less settled down to tell a story, I thought I'd give it a chance. And 90 agonizing minutes later, I was bound and determined to see it through—no Christopher Nolan movie is going to beat me! Fortunately, there are lots of unintentional laffs to keep it amusing. First of all, the character names—Dom Cobb? Ariadne? Mal? Why didn't Nolan just name 'em Bubble and Squeak? And if dreamscapes can be designed in any way that the architect wants, why are all the battles with the bad guys your typical smash-and-crash, fought with conventional weaponry? Why couldn't Ariadne have built in space-age stuff like flying or time-travel? Or Godzilla?
There's a hilarious scene in which Cobb is describing his life with Mal to his young protege. As he speaks, his monologue is accompanied by hilariously literal images straight out of a high school filmstrip show. For example, when he says something like "We built our life together," his words are accompanied by the two of them building a sandcastle on the beach. And when he takes Ariadne through the imaginary city he and Mal built when they were stuck in Limbo for 50 dream years (don't ask), he points out the houses they lived in, which are all tumbledown and half-submerged in water. Inexplicably, he adds, "We always wanted a house, but we always loved this type of building," accompanying her into one of those impersonal, steel-and-glass high-rises you'd find in Toronto or Dubai. Huh???
I also love the whole jangled concept of Inception itself. The director never shows it explicitly, but the characters must constantly jam intravenous needles into their arms and pump themselves full of drugs to enter the dream state. Nolan even throws in a scene where Cobb is shown to a room full of Inception junkies who voluntarily put themselves under for hours each day because the real world has no meaning for them anymore. It's just like an opium den.
And everyone's always talking about how dangerous Inception is, but no one ever seems to hesitate when it's time to shoot up.
In order to be awakened from their dreams, the team must experience a "kick"—a violent action that will cause them to come back to the real world. It's actually pretty much like a muscle spasm anybody gets that jolts them into consciousness in the middle of the night. (Don't you hate those?) In one of the dream levels we visit during the never-ending climax (There are three; in each level one of the team members is conscious while the others are asleep), Arthur finds the other members of the team passed out in a hotel room in which there is no gravity. He must get them somewhere grounded to administer the "kick," so he bundles them all together like a cord of wood, face to crotch, and "floats" them down the hallway into an elevator. It's hilarious.
In another level, the unconscious team is riding in a van driven by Yusuf that crashes through a guardrail and falls ever-so-slowly off a bridge, so we're treated to repeat slo-mo shots of the actors inside, strapped into their seats but looking like orchestra conductors as their arms wave around in the air. Yet another flipping level is set in some sort of military fort in the Great White North that makes you think James Bond or Wolverine is going to pop in at any moment to join the fun. I can't remember who was passed out in that level. I think it was me.
And Lord help me, about 14 hours into the film, Ariadne tells Cobb that they still have to go somewhere else to do something else, and I realized in horror that she was introducing another act. DAMN YOU, ARIADNE! Man, I really needed a "kick" at that point. I won't reveal the "A-HA!" ending, but let me just say it was really risible.
I didn't recognize the actor who played Fischer's godfather and trusted right-hand man, but just now, as I was going over the credits on IMBD, I see that it's Tom Berenger. My God—was he wearing a mask or did he go to Mickey Rourke's plastic surgeon? Whoops—look at the picture. I vote for Rourke's surgeon.
As for the other actors, DiCaprio displays his trademark intense, eye-bulging snarl throughout most of the film. He's such a committed actor that he brings real dedication to some of the film's most ludicrous lines, adding to the unintentional yucks. Page looks too young for her part, and Cotillard, so magnificent in her Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf, is one of those Gallic beauties America can't seem to figure out what to do with.
With his glacial eyes and androgynous face, Murphy always looks like an alien to me, and it's off-putting when he's playing a regular human being. Gordon-Levitt is given the film's very few laugh lines, but they're trampled to death by the frenetic editing and blasting score. Speaking of the score, Hans Zimmer seems to have written enough music for four or five films but decided to use it all. The soundtrack hammers at you constantly to remind you that you're watching a super-duper, "important" action movie.
Inception is certainly not the first film to utilize dreams in its plot. Some of them are much better and cost a fraction of its budget. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) comes to mind, although the characters are technically trapped in a videogame rather than a dream, but it works the same and is a lot more fun. Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998) combines interesting visuals with an miuch more intriguing plot. And Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is a true dream masterpiece. Hell, even Douglas Trumbull's 1983 Brainstorm, which was plagued with multiple problems during production—most tragically the accidental death of star Natalie Wood—had more memorable moments than this frenetic, self-important piece of bombast.
And what was that other movie that was set inside a dream? Oh, yeah...