REVIEW: “Inception” (***1/2)

Posted by · 3:00 pm · July 5th, 2010

In reviewing 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” I wrote that director Christopher Nolan “has made a brief career of exploring characters built upon their somber, in some instances twisted pasts, however distant or immediate.” The theme continues with “Inception,” a film like nothing you have ever seen before that plays out like a two-hour therapy session, wrapped in the accoutrement of a heist film and bathed in the panache of an entirely immersive cinematic experience.

The hero is Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man trying to find his way home, to paraphrase the filmmaker. But is home just a dream, some fantasy trapped in the “what if” corridors of his mind? Or is it possible that maybe through one final job of contrived gobbledygook he might find his way to the life he was forced to flee years before?

Cobb’s black market profession is “extraction,” a type of mind theft dependent on dream manifestation technology developed by military intelligence for training purposes. If you want someone’s secrets, Cobb’s your man. For a price, he and his crew will go into the individual’s subconscious and bring it to you on a silver platter. But it’s a dangerous job, given the complexities of the process, not to mention the complexities of dealing with the kind of people who’d pay for such a thing.

Nolan’s screenplay carefully drops the viewer into the action as Cobb meets with Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman interested in the reverse of extraction: “inception.” Saito’s proposal is to breach a rival CEO’s (Cillian Murphy) mind and plant an idea that appears to be in his own best interests, but is glossed over as perhaps a necessity for the greater good. But inception is impossible, or so Cobb’s associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), maintains. Inspiration cannot be faked, and what an excitingly unique early theme that promises to be.  (The film abandons it in favor of other explorations.)

But Cobb knows better. And the dangling of a carrot — the promise of making his unfortunate past disappear and ensuring him a safe return Stateside — is all it takes to get him on board.

From there the film takes off. Cobb assembles his team, including Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect of the dreamworld they will manifest; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger of personas who can lead the subject this way or that; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a sedative specialist; and, of course, right-hand man Arthur. But danger lurks as Cobb’s increasingly unstable psychosis from past trauma threatens to undermine the mission, and maybe even his own grasp on reality.

Every single moment of “Inception” is more gripping than the last. It’s the kind of film Freud, or more likely Jung, would have delighted in deconstructing.  Nolan takes a leap of faith with his audience, trusting them to keep up with the screenplay’s labyrinthine structure while at the same time conjuring enough cerebral hocus pocus to avert attention from its weaknesses.

More importantly, the film is about something, very much concerned with nuances in character and behavior that elevate material like this to another level.  Nolan springs for Cobb as a complicated, at times ambiguous individual, rather than a do-no-wrong protagonist the audience can blindly trust and comfortably follow.  Care like this makes a journey worth taking as Nolan weaves something close to a participatory narrative for the audience to experience rather than observe, all leading to a brave final image that will surely leave audiences discussing an array of implications.  But while the director deserves plenty of credit for his dense vision, the department heads he’s recruited will hopefully not become unsung heroes of the piece.

Lee Smith’s film editing, for instance, navigates a series of dreamscapes with a slick skill-level deserving of an Oscar. (Seriously, cased closed as far as this viewer is concerned.) Chris Corbould’s digital and practical effects wizardry, in tandem with Guy Dyas’s awe-inspiring production design, paint a cinematic portrait unlike any other. Hans Zimmer’s subwoofer-thumping score oozes ominous intensity while mingling with delicate themes. And, of course, Wally Pfister’s camera captures the unfolding elements with a grace that has come to be a trademark of one of the most talented working lensers in the business.

But like “The Dark Knight,” this re-defining genre effort succeeds in spite of a few problems. Nolan’s superhero sequel was packed with complex ideas on a broad, bloated canvas. This time he’s concerned with ideas no less complex, but they are bridled by plot holes and the simplicity of contrivance on more than a few occasions. And the third act, while a master class in sequence construction, is nevertheless an assault on the senses that can be numbing.

In short, the director may still be closing in on the sweet spot in his newly traveled blockbuster career path. But “Inception” is a movie so vibrant, so alive, so relentlessly original that it can be forgiven its transgressions in an instant. It’s an entertainment with vivid, profound ideas, precisely the kind of daring that ought to be backed by big money. And Nolan has more than earned that sort of risk from Warner Bros. and finance partner Legendary Pictures.

Moreover, this  could be the film to solidify the director’s place among the modern masters. “The Dark Knight” made its mark on pop culture, yes, but “Inception” doesn’t carry the (however unfair) stigma of being based on pulp fiction. It could leave a footprint far more important on the industry: the fulfilled promise, perhaps thanks to a thinly rewarding summer movie season, that expensive, thoughtful, original filmmaking can pay dividends.

With that in mind, when the film hits theaters July 16, you could do a lot worse than showing up with your wallet and telling Hollywood, “More of this, please.”

(You asked for it, so I gave it to you. Therefore, mark “Inception” as the last film I reviewed in a formal capacity in this space. It was worth it to give it one more go on something this inspiring.  Everything will be informal commentary from this point forward.)

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77 responses so far

  • 1 7-06-2010 at 9:32 am

    Daveylow said...

    How were the performances?

  • 2 7-06-2010 at 1:20 pm

    McAllister said...

    I just got passes to see it Monday. Pretty excited.

  • 3 7-06-2010 at 1:21 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Gonna write something separate on performances, too.

  • 4 7-06-2010 at 6:16 pm

    George said...

    What did you think of the use of handheld cinematography Kris? I think Pfister mentioned that about half the film was shot handheld. But CanMag’s Fred Topel doesn’t seem very happy with it:

    “I was disappointed that so much of the film was shot with shaky handheld cameras. I thought Nolan was one of the holdouts for carefully planning shots and conveying the elements of an action scene. Some of the really cool stuff is visually incomprehensible. If the excuse for shaky cam is that it’s “realistic” (which it’s not anyway), then what’s the excuse for filming a dream that way? To make it disorienting? I’m sorry, if your dream world just looks like a Bourne movie, that won’t sell me.”

  • 5 7-06-2010 at 6:54 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***I thought Nolan was one of the holdouts for carefully planning shots and conveying the elements of an action scene. Some of the really cool stuff is visually incomprehensible.***

    Wasn’t this also an incredibly popular complaint on “Batman Begins?” This wouldn’t be the first time the ‘shaky-cam’ plagued a Nolan flick.

  • 6 7-06-2010 at 7:21 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    George: I didn’t even notice it, to be honest. The film is entirely immersive, more than any other Nolan film, to be sure. I didn’t even register things like that while watching it.

  • 7 7-09-2010 at 9:38 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    For those who were interested in my ranked list of Nolan’s films, after re-visiting them all throughout the week, I came to my (personally, surprising) conclusions.

    1. Memento
    2. The Prestige
    3. Batman Begins
    4. The Dark Knight
    5. Inception
    6. Insomnia
    7. Following

    None of them less than a three-and-a-half star effort, in my book. So I think, while it’s hyperbole (IMO) to hold Nolan up with the idols of cinema (as some are doing in the wake of Inception), he is nevertheless one of the most consistent quality craftsman working.

  • 8 7-09-2010 at 11:05 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    In short, what puts The Prestige at the two spot, Kris? From what I gathered many would consider it a lesser Nolan film, though I don’t think that’s fair. I can’t decide if Hugh Jackman or Guy Pierce has given the best performance in a Nolan film. Haven’t seen Inception.

  • 9 7-09-2010 at 11:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I actually think Jackman is pretty off in The Prestige. Bale owns it. As for why the film is at #2, that’s an essay. But in short (since that’s how you want it), it came down to structure. And only the top 3 films there, to me, are structurally sound. The next two are full of big, resilient ideas but are hampered by excess and contrivance respectively. The final two are wonderful but hold merely the promise of 1-5.

  • 10 7-09-2010 at 11:59 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    But Jackman nails that speech at the end! That sealed the deal for me. Caine is especially good as he’s the only good guy in the story, I guess.

    The guy who plays Cobb in Following is excellent, and apparently he hasn’t appeared in a film since. He just did it because Chris was a friend.

    Might have Bale been a better pick than Leo in Inception? Pretty useless to consider, but I like the Nolan/Bale collaboration.

  • 11 7-10-2010 at 12:05 am

    Q said...

    So then, in your opinion, would any of the films near the top of list be four star efforts?

  • 12 7-10-2010 at 12:07 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think he completely flubs the speech in the end. He extends himself a bit too much.

    I also thought the guy who played Cobb in Following was pretty bad, too. Jeremy Theobald is much more natural opposite.

    And since you mention it, I think Bale would have been a much better option for Inception. Leo’s star power goes a long way and he handles the performance fine, but Bale would have dug deeper.

  • 13 7-10-2010 at 12:08 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Q: Memento is a four-star. The rest are 3 1/2.

  • 14 7-10-2010 at 12:19 am

    DRM said...


    Interesting list. Thanks for sharing it. I too have Memento and The Prestige in the top two spots.

    1. Memento – 10/10
    2. The Prestige – 9/10
    3. Following – 8/10
    4. Batman Begins – 8/10
    5. The Dark Knight – 8/10
    6. Memento – 7.5/10

    Can’t wait to see Inception next weekend.

  • 15 7-10-2010 at 12:20 am

    DRM said...

    Dang it, I meant Insomnia with a 7.5/10. Speaking of insomnia, time for bed!

  • 16 7-10-2010 at 9:49 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Theobald’s performance in Following reminded me a little of Sean Gullette’s performance in Pi, which is to say they both seemed overwhelmed as the movie went on. There are key moments in Following when I thought Theobold just didn’t hit the right notes and came off as too much of a complainer. To me he wasn’t able to do the heaving lifting required in the third act, like the ending scene with the policeman and the confrontations with Cobb and the woman at the story’s end.

    I don’t see in any way how Jackman “flubbed” the crucial speech at the end. The tears in his eyes, the conflicting emotions over the loss of his wife to a profession he loves…he beautifully articulates who he is and why he exists. And most importantly, his speech touches Bale in some small way.


  • 17 7-10-2010 at 11:45 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Agree to disagree.

  • 18 7-14-2010 at 11:54 am

    MovieMan said...

    I wasn’t a fan of “Inception,” Kris. I’ll explain on Friday, with your “Tell us what you thought of ‘Inception'” thingy (which is inevitably coming on Friday, we all know it), as well as Chad’s Friday Forecast.

  • 19 7-14-2010 at 11:58 am

    MovieMan said...

    Oh and my list would be:

    1. “The Dark Knight”
    2. “Insomnia”
    3. “Memento”
    4. “Following”
    5. “The Prestige”
    6. “Batman Begins”
    7. “Inception”

    “Inception” is the only one I outright didn’t like, though I had a lot of problems with the tone of “Batman Begins.”

  • 20 7-18-2010 at 12:49 am

    Zach said...

    Inception was a four star movie! Brilliant! You’ll see…dollars and fanfare won’t lie.