Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review - Inception

Although I have major problems with The Dark Knight, the arrival of Inception makes me appreciate that 2008 blockbuster a little more. The phenomenal success of Christopher Nolan's superhero sequel has given the director a position of incredible power and influence in Hollywood, and he has chosen to use that power for good, taking the opportunity to create something daring and original that shames the timid, inward-looking industry it has emerged from. This is the rare summer film that is not a sequel or remake, it's not an adaptation of a comic book or video game, and it's not a rehash of an old franchise. With Inception, Nolan is cashing all of his Batman chips and trusting that the mainstream audience is both intelligent enough and hungry enough for something new to follow him into the remarkable dream world he has created.

It's a disorienting experience, and from the opening moments Nolan makes us question what is real and what is imagined in his film. When we see Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) washed up on a beach in Japan, are we watching reality or a dream? Is this a dream within a dream or – as we subsequently experience – a dream within a dream within a dream? Cobb is a master thief whose domain is the subconscious mind. He has perfected the art of breaking into people's dreams and stealing the secrets that lie within, but he is also a fugitive, on the run and unable to return home to his children in America, for reasons that have something to do with Mal (Marion Cotillard), the figure from Cobb's past who keeps materialising mid-mission. Cobb's battle to overcome the painful personal memories that keep interfering with his dreams form Inception's subplot, and are supposed to provide the film with its emotional weight.

That it fails to do so is one of Inception's major disappointments. The increasing importance placed on the Cobb/Mal relationship as the film progresses is undermined by the fact that emotion is an aspect of storytelling that Nolan is yet to master. No matter how many times the director fills the screen with close-ups of Marion Cotillard's big, beautiful eyes, I didn't feel anything towards her because – as in Michael Mann's Public Enemies – the actress is stuck trying to bring depth and heart to a character who's not really there on paper. There's a gap where there should be a tragic love story, and for much of the film I found my attention wandering from this central relationship and towards some of the supporting actors. In particular, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy stand out as two key members of Cobb's operation, with Gordon-Levitt being at the centre of the film's most memorable action sequence, and Hardy being so good when he's onscreen I started wishing Nolan would give him more than the occasional sardonic one-liner to play with. The director really has cast the hell out of this film, though, and there are fine actors in every minor role, but the downside of this is that a few of them (Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Pete Posthelthwaite) really aren't given enough to do.

The main plot of Inception is the mission itself, and for all of its outlandish effects, the film plays out like an old-fashioned heist movie for much of its opening hour. Cobb has 'one last job', the big one that will finally allow him to quit this life and return to his family, and as he assembles his team, Nolan cleverly makes the considerable exposition slightly more digestible by filtering it through the training of Ariadne (Ellen Page), the group's new architect. There are a lot of rules and boundaries that need to be explained to both her and the audience, but in a few neat sequences, Nolan manages to both explain his premise and show us what's possible within it. As Ariadne adjusts to her newfound ability to shape her dreams, Nolan pulls off some dazzling shots, showing us a city being bent to the will of the dreamer, a world that can fold in upon itself or expand to the limits of that dreamer's imagination. Importantly, however, it's not all grandiose effects, and Nolan incorporates some lovely little details that really sell the situation; like the tiny droplets of blood floating out of Ken Watanabe's mouth in zero-gravity, the ominous shuddering of a dream on the verge of collapse, or a terrific staircase gag that recalls an earlier discussion about paradoxes.

Nolan's direction is so much more consistently fluid and commanding than his work on the Batman movies has been, and with his tightly constructed screenplay driving things forward, the film quickly develops into a gripping and visually dazzling spectacle. It builds up a breathless momentum towards the middle of the picture, as the director stages a chase sequence while Cobb and his team simultaneously try to turn their target against his own dreams. He does a superb job of handling the multiple strands of his complicated narrative, but in the final half-hour, Inception finally grows a little too complicated for its own good. A fourth narrative level is suddenly introduced, and I felt that this element stalled the film's pacing at a crucial juncture, with the notion of time being relative to the dream level currently being experienced not really working as a storytelling tool. As a result, this climactic sequence weirdly feels both rushed and overlong (what were they saying about paradoxes?).

Fortunately, Nolan just about manages to pull through this clumsy final passage and prevent his dream from collapsing completely. Inception may lack the emotional impact that it is truly crying out for, but the impact it possesses in other areas – cinematically, intellectually – is undeniable. It is Nolan's most accomplished film since Memento and the boldest, most conceptually ambitious mainstream American film since The Matrix. It's not often we're offered a film as complex, challenging and thrilling as this as part of the summer blockbuster menu, and Inception feels like a refreshing anomaly. We are being rewarded for Nolan's desire to dream big.