Sometimes, in some ways, it feels as though Christopher Nolan might be tricking us. After Inception‘s release there were endless conversations and references made to the film’s strenuous complexity. People spoke of it as though it were as mysterious as Lost, when the reality is that it just sort of feels that way. Sure, Nolan is weaving a complicated fiction, but are there really that many stones left unturned? Are there really that many elements of this story left ambiguous? It seems much more the case that Nolan has simply done a masterful job of convincing us that if we want to appreciate this story, we had better stay on our toes. Meanwhile, as we kill ourselves trying to appreciate every last technical tidbit, we become immersed in this: an astonishing action movie with a broken heart.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are dream spies; men capable of entering dreams and extracting information. It’s a form of corporate espionage where the rewards and stakes are much higher, and Cobb is the best there is. When the cogent Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers Dom the chance to return home to his children after years of exile, his only apprehension comes in the degree of impossibility inherent to Saito’s task. Inception is the act of planting an idea in someone’s mind. The “someone” in this case being Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the newly-minted heir to his father’s vast energy empire. While extraction comes with its own set of hurdles, inception is an entirely different challenge, and one Dom has no choice but to accept. He builds a team of dream thieves, including the young Ariadne (Ellen Page), the brash Eames (Tom Hardy) and the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao). Together they make their way down into the bizarre and malleable world of the dream.
Early in the film, Dom’s father-in-law Stephen (Michael Caine) says to him vaguely, “Come back to reality Dom. Please.” This is one of a few glaring hints for anyone in the audience not paying close enough attention. Inception is bursting with suggestions that Dom is perpetually in a dream state, and it’s these hints that, among other things, make the film such a fantastic second watch. However, despite the enumerable allusions to the ambiguity of reality, it’s important to understand that there’s just not enough evidence provided to answer the question decisively. It’s a fun ploy, and Nolan does a fine job of inundating you with suggestions while still maintaining some mystique, but it can also distract from the elements of the film that aren’t as ambiguous. The most significant being Dom’s relationship with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); a tumultuous feud that expresses profoundly the depth’s of his mental and emotional distress.
While the inner maelstrom of Dom Cobb is executed perfectly by Nolan, the addition of Page’s Ariadne as the sole interpreter and expositor of his breakdown ends up a chink in the film’s armor. It’s simply a case where the youngest character ends up being a moral authority, and frankly, nobody likes profundity from a kid. And this is not the only case of exposition getting in the way. The film’s first third is essentially a breakdown of everything we as the audience need to know to understand the next two thirds, and while it may be necessary, it remains a bit tedious. It’s not even the technical exposition that’s troublesome, so much as the exposition of story. We need to know how the dream world works–the rules and conditions and consequences–but the characters do too much reiterating of the “plan.” Certainly this is a heist movie trope, and nothing new to the genre, but it nonetheless dumbs things down. There’s an extent to which your audience either gets it or they don’t, and sometimes it’s all right to make them work for the plot. All that said, there’s something really admirable about how intently Nolan sells us on his bullshit. It’s certainly well-conceived bullshit, but no matter how you spin it this is nearly all an invention. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Inception is how often you’re presented with a scoff-worthy line that ends up feeling, in the moment, entirely plausible and smart. This script simply is a bit hokey at times, yet the film rarely feels anything other than remarkable.
It’s hard to take a look at Inception without appreciating the visual effects. Though mostly it’s the settings that impress, there are a handful of grander moments that should help nab the Visual Effects Oscar come February 27th. A train lumbering down a busy street; Arthur’s anti-gravity acrobatics and mid-air brawl; Dom and Ariadne’s freaky stroll through Paris, in which the city is flipped backwards on to itself, certainly one of the year’s most incredible visual moments. Nolan uses his fantastical fabrications sparingly, and to great effect. Unlike an Alice in Wonderland or Tron: LEGACY, full immersion in these reality-based effects comes easy and without pause.
Moving past The Dark Knight without doing a complete 180 really says something about Christopher Nolan’s talents not only as a director, but as a storyteller. He quite apparently takes seriously the job of riveting his audience, and has yet to disappoint. It’s not that his films aren’t flawed, so much as they’re so thoroughly enjoyable they don’t need to be flawless. In interviews, Nolan tends to come across as serious and a bit aloof; a man whose mind never stops moving forward towards his next project and next story. Yet, in spite of this stoicism, he is currently producing some of the most exciting and enjoyable films in recent memory. A Nolan film is an all-too-rare pastiche of action and adventure coupled with intellect and philosophy. Far too few films even approach this recipe for success, which is just one of the many reasons Christopher Nolan has become a household name.