A Spinning Top

Inception is a great movie, and one that really must be seen. Christopher Nolan delights moviegoers once again with a summer blockbuster that is sure to have everyone talking. This sci-fi heist movie is held together by great performances by the leads which tie in the resolution of emotional issues with strong dialogue and themes which constantly call into question the nature of reality itself. As much as the opening lines of this review seem clichéd, this is an unusual movie in that it truly does deliver on those promises.

Like the last epic blockbuster to grace the silver screen – Avatar, this film was almost a decade in the making. While James Cameron certainly had the kind of bankable reputation in Hollywood that would have allowed him to make Avatar whenever he wanted, he chose to wait until the technology was up to the task. Christopher Nolan’s setback was that he lacked the requisite reputation to convince a studio to give him the kind of funding that a movie like this really deserves. So, in the last ten years, he made Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. To borrow a well-used line, he had me at Memento (to any who haven’t seen it, it comes highly recommended). All the films except insomnia were also written by him or by the team of him and his brother. His remarkable and meteoric rise gave him the ability to bring us The Dark Knight, a true cinematic masterpiece (and, in my opinion, still his finest work), and the commercial success of The Dark Knight has allowed him to bring us Inception.

I will aim this article towards those who have not seen it, and will try not to give too much away. I may pen a later article packed with spoilers in which I will attempt to start some kind of discussion about the film, aimed at moviegoers who have already seen it.

I was fortunate enough to see it both in a regular cinema and at IMAX within a few days of each other. First a technical note – there is little to be gained by seeing this film in IMAX. With the Dark Knight, certain scenes were shot in IMAX format so for those scenes, you really noticed it. In Inception, no scenes were shot in IMAX format, although some were shot in 65mm (rather than the regular 35mm anamorphic standard). However, if you live in a part of the world where the quality of the seats in an IMAX cinema is significantly better than in a regular one, then perhaps it is worth it, as the film runs for 2:28 minutes which is a long time to be sitting in a seat. Something else unusual that I noticed is that, in Hong Kong at least, there were no previews and very few ads shown before the start of the movie, so it started very close to the stated start-time. Most people (myself included) are used to anywhere from 10-20 minutes to pass between the start time on your ticket until the time that the movie actually begins. This may not apply anywhere else in the world, but if you’re reading this and live in Hong Kong – don’t be late. Despite the length, from a plot perspective, this is a very dense film, especially at the start and at the end. Missing the first 5 minutes can completely change how you perceive the movie.

The pace never seems frantic though. It is sometimes difficult to keep up with what is happening and it pays to pay attention to the small details in every scene. Having seen it twice, I can say that I picked up a lot of things on my second viewing that I hadn’t noticed on my first. Those familiar with Nolan’s older work, in particular Memento and The Prestige, will know that Nolan, being a student of English Literature, loves to play with narrative structure. This film is no different, although instead of the usual tools of flashback, and cutting between parallel storylines with different characters, he plays with the perception of the passage of time in the dream state.

Indeed the perception of reality is at the very center of this work. We ask ourselves “what would it be like if we could share dreams?”. There are hints of the Matrix here with characters interacting in a constructed reality, but in Inception that reality is constructed on the fly, by participants in the dream, out of a combination of their conscious and subconscious minds. One of the dreamers constructs the world, while the others populate it with their subconscious. The implications of this are many and varied, but as a heist movie the aspect which is explored is stealing information through the subconscious, because how can you guard against something over which you have no conscious control? As the title suggests, this particular story arc takes it one step further and explores the possibility of inception – planting the seed for an idea rather than stealing one.

The man hired for this job is Dominic Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio who does very well in this role. His character’s interaction with their new “architect” Ariadne, played by Ellen Paige, lends the plot an emotional backbone that draws the audience in and makes us care in what would otherwise be just another silly action film. At times the supporting cast seem only there to advance to plot and I would have liked to see a greater degree of character development for them. However, I suspect that it is likely that that character development existed at some point but had to be cut out due to time constraints. In any case, each of the cast members brings something to the table, especially with veterans Michael Cain and Marion Cotillard keeping it real. Marion especially brings exactly the kind of chilling, haunting quality to her character, befitting of the role she plays as DiCaprio’s character’s wife’s projection in his subconscious.

The acting is very good. Notable among the cast are Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who in this film make the transition into mature adult actors. Not that they weren’t before, but they had always played less-mature, less-serious roles. Page of course best known for her role as Juno in Juno and Gordon-Levitt whose last significant role was 500 Days of Summer, which was decent until it was shot in the foot with an awful ending, and who we thought would forever struggle to shake off his identity as Tommy from the TV series 3rd Rock From the Sun. An actor normally thought of as a teen/chick flick type is graduated to the role of right hand man to the lead, and action hero giving a strong performance of a strong character who incidentally will now be remembered for “winning” one of the coolest fight scenes ever to take place in a hotel corridor.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a hotel corridor

In true Christopher Nolan style, the layers of narrative slowly build throughout the film and eventually crash towards their inevitable climax. The plot never feels terribly tired or predictable, and although the action sequences could be criticized for being slightly on the fantastic side of reality, since it all takes place in a dream, it is difficult to be able to pin down a technical fault with that. Perhaps the naming of Ellen Page’s character “Ariadne” was a little bit over-the-top as she not only builds the labyrinth world of the dreams, but also helps DiCaprio’s character out of his own labyrinth (although thankfully there was no appearance of a Minotaur).

The special effects are well done in that they aren’t particularly intrusive. They also don’t look particularly “unreal” as effects shots tend to be in films these days (really Michael Bay, a robot climbing a pyramid?). This is no small feat considering that the dream worlds, by definition, had to be unreal yet believable. The difference really is between taking something that is obviously not real; like rows of abandoned apartment blocks collapsing into the sea in the way that glaciers calve, and then making it real as opposed to taking something that in principle could be real; like a plane crash, or shark, and making it look like it was faked.

It’s difficult to do anything other than recommend the film, and it is difficult to write too much about what makes the film great without spoiling too much of the story. So I will simply say that you should see it. Don’t forget to pee before entering the cinema, don’t sit in the front few rows (a lot of deliberately shaky camera work is used and those susceptible to motion sickness may feel ill), and be prepared in your mind to absorb a lot of detail and dialogue in a short space of time. While I still believe that Nolan’s best work is the Dark Knight, and while it is still only August, I will say that I believe strongly that this will be the year’s best film. Will it get an academy award? Who the hell knows – I didn’t think the Hurt Locker was that great a film (and the Academy needs to learn how their own voting system works), and the Academy and I often have our disagreements (not that ANYBODY gives a hoot).

As a frequent lucid dreamer myself, I should warn others in a similar way that the realism of the portrayal of lucid dreaming may scare you, especially the way in which unexpected elements of your subconscious often make intrusions. Also, if you are in the midst of an existential crisis which is severe enough to cause panic attacks, then I would highly recommend that you let that episode pass before seeing this film. Like Nolan’s other works, this film has that rare ability to entertain in very conventional ways, while also being challenging to the viewer, and quite original in it’s concept and vision. I give it five stars out of five.

5 Comments on Inception

  1. Seriously, check out Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Mysterious Skin” and even “Brick”, he’s been the real deal for a while. Ditto Ellen Page and “Hard Candy”.

    I thought the film was pretty cool. I liked the idea of the subconscious attacking the ‘invading’ for especially.

  2. “I will aim this article towards those who have seen it”… I think you left out a “not”.

  3. I think you should see this 2007 Japanese animation “Paprika”. See if you have similar feeling.

  4. Sorry to disagree with you, but I consider Inception to be the ultimate expression of American puritanism. The most basic physiological fact about dreaming is sexual excitation, so dreaming and sex are completely inseparable (one of the only correct observations of Sigmund Freud). Lack of any sexual scene in this movie sums up the state of American culture. Strangely enough, the movie does have a veiled reference to total sexual expression: the Paris bridge in the movie is the same one as in Last Tango in Paris.


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