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Your day is going well. Shockingly great, even. That band you wanted to see, you know the one whose closest show was locatedthree hours away, has just revealed a new date in the town adjacent to yours. Why anyone would play in Closter, New Jersey, is besides the point, because they also resurrected Jimi Hendrix from the dead and he will be jamming at this show as well! The opener is Radiohead. Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe have speaking engagements on top of that. Wait. You begin to question the origins of this situation. You do not remember necessarily how you were confronted with this joyous news, only that it seemingly came to be. The patterned, hardwood floor snaps to black nothingness. As your eyes fly open, only to find yourself lying on your disheveled bed with its tousled sheets, disappointment pours over you as you realize it was merely a dream, a fantastical figment of your subconscious. This was a pleasant dream, but there were undoubtedly some dark secrets hidden deep within. The line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, leaving us wary of where, or who, we really are. Such is precisely the concept of Inception, Christopher Nolan's latest (literally) mindbending thriller with huge setpieces and an even larger imagination.
It is not easy to condense Inception's storyline to a mere few paragraphs, as well as leaving out any spoilers, so it is best just to provide the bare synopsis. Dom Cobb ( Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at a very specialized form of espionage: entering the subconscious of those his employer specifies, and then stealing critical, secret thoughts. Cobb is estranged from his children and his mysterious wife, Mal, whose fate is left in the balance until the end of the film. He is given a chance to reunite with his children if he accepts the job the wealthy Japanese magnate Saito ( Ken Watanabe) offers him. Fittingly, the task is near-impossible. Known as "inception," it is the process of implementing new thoughts into a person's subconscious, as to make it seem that the subject thought of them himself. The subject is Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cillian Murphy, who is the son of an ill energy tycoon and Saito's main competitor. The job, and its rewards, seem straightforward enough for everyone to agree. Obviously, as in any dream, nothing every works that easily.
The film opens with a spectacular action sequence, which this film is full of, as Cobb and his partner, Arthur, a suave Joseph Gordon-Levitt, invade the mind of Saito in order to extract an important piece of data. The "rules" of subconscious engagement start to materialize. For instance, the sleeping Cobb is kicked into a bathtub, while the Cobb in the dream is surrounded by a world that suddenly fills with water. The opening hour or so focuses on exposition, which may seem to be a slogging introduction to some, but I equated it to a tutorial for a video game. Before you can master an action game, you must learn the basics. Same goes with this original, very different take on the human dreamscape. The film introduces the rules of this unique form of combat, such the need for an architect, or someone who builds a complex dreamworld in order for the subject to have difficulty realizing that this world is a foreign creation. Other neat ideas include the fact that the "dream invaders," let us call them, experience pain inflicted in the dream upon their true, grounded self, though a death will simply wake them up (the exceptions to this rule prove interesting). The different levels of a dream (yes, they dream within dreams, and continually stack them), are given different standards by which time is measured, though pounding music with a defined cadence will apparently resonate equally. A recurring motif that plays a critical role in the movie is the totems that these agents use to ensure them that they are back in the real world. Arthur has a red die, while Cobb has a silver spinning top. This mechanic is an original way to explain the realities, or lack thereof, of the dreamworld.
It is not often for a movie to have such an intriguing premise, yet deliver on nearly all counts. Inception does this, and, while it is not completely flawless, it is the most refreshing, intelligent sci-fi film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I found myself grinning and shaking my head in disbelief when plot strands would tie together so well, or just at the genius behind many of the mechanics. The interesting thing is, this film spells out so many rules and details about the laws the world occupies that it makes the viewer believe they conquered all the small storytelling nuances. Of course, by the ending (and what an ending it is), as one analyzes the bigger picture, many questions are left unanswered. Some are left up to your own interpretation, while the established fiction can answer the rest. Naturally, the whole process of subconscious extraction is never fully explained, which is perfectly fine. A suitcase filled with cryptic lights and circular dials holds a number of tubes that, presumably, are inserted intravenously into each dreamer, who then are left unconscious and free to bob around without much resistance. Explaining the science behind the whole process is about as necessary as revealing the true nature of the Force in Star Wars (and don't you dare bring up midi-chlorians).
A number of different influences run throughout this film. An obvious pick is The Matrix, where the worlds are built upon unreal creations of people's minds as well. A liberal use of slow motion is shared between the two films, though it is integral to the storytelling of Inception in a sense. There is also, somewhat shockingly, an "Architect" in both, though the roles are reversed. The Architect in The Matrix seemingly knows all the answers, while Ariadne ( Ellen Page), the architect in Inception, is the audience surrogate, new to the practices of these agents and as initially bewildered as the viewer to the process. The heist and spy nature of the film can be traced to Ocean's Eleven or James Bond (the ski sequence is an obvious throwback to Spy Who Loved Me), both involving a wide range of diverse, wisecracking characters. Traces of Blade Runner can be felt, as the uncertain nature of certain characters hangs in the balance. And of course, Christopher Nolan's greatest film (which may still hold the title, though only time will tell), Memento, is the lifeblood for the script itself. It is worth noting that Memento, which chronicles its events backwards, is dwarfed in complexity by this film and its limitless intricacies.
In the same way as The Matrix, this film is paving new ground in its special effects. Every visual trick is incredible, such as when Paris folds in on itself and Cobb and Ariadne nonchalantly walk vertically, upside-down, and every which way on the circuitous grid. However, Nolan does not garner all the respect just for the computer wizardry he accomplishes but for his steadfast commitment to live-action effects, with limited digital tampering. A freight train storming through the city streets is something that could only occur in a dream, yet the scene was actually filmed on a expansive stage, not on high-processing computers. The most stunning feat is the zero-gravity hotel scene, in which Arthur fights and flies through long, spinning corridors. This is not the first time that actors have ran, or danced, on spinning setpieces; Fred Astaire dazzled audiences in 1951 with his Royal Wedding ceiling dance. However, nothing of this scale has been done before, and the added fact that the actors are floating the rest of the time is simply stunning. I should give a shoutout to the sound design as well, which, like any Nolan film, is impeccable. Notice the crisp "clank" sound when the taxi runs over an assault rifle on the ground, or the cacophonous shattering of glass. Hans Zimmer's pounding score is sometimes overwhelming, but it fits the epic feel with heavy brass and bass. In the end though, it is the visual feats of wonder that resonate. Neo's first bullet time scene, or Terminator 2's mix of computer and physical effects were revolutionary for their time, and this is the modern equivalent.
No amount of special effects can counter a bad script (ask a bare, DVD version of Avatar) or flat acting, but Inception encounters no such problems. The screenplay, penned by a likely exhausted Christopher Nolan, is imaginative and rife with emotional conflict. That's not to say that it is without fault (a few events at the end could qualify as deus ex machina), but few screenplays have dared to venture in such risky, complex territory as this one, while simultaneously aiming for huge audiences. While it is the mind of Fischer that the specialists invade, the story ultimately belongs to Cobb. DiCaprio impresses once again with a demanding role that calls for action hero antics on top of perpetual psychological dilemma. His character is deeply flawed, as his relationship with his wife can attest. The memories he holds of his wife are of questionable authenticity, and once the answers are provided by the conclusion, the ending proves even deeper than initially expected. Many parallels can be drawn between the mind-centric roles of this film and Shutter Island, another Leo DiCaprio vehicle, but it is safe to say that he has been in two of the best films of the year and supports them with ease.
The rest of the cast is varied but no less impressive. The youthful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who balanced elation and melancholy perfectly in (500) Days of Summer, is an ideal partner to DiCaprio. He plays the sane(r) man to Cobb's rapidly spiraling mind, and this is the first blockbuster for the young man that will surely launch a career of many more successful films. He exchanges entertaining banter with Eames, played by Tom Hardy, the typical British bloke. The two provide most of the comic relief in the film, which is not terribly often, but humorous when it appears. Ellen Page, who narrowly missed an Oscar for Juno, excels in her role that begins in perplexed naivety to end as the only one besides his wife to truly understand Cobb's psyche. Her genius draws her to Cobb's attention through Miles, played by Michael Caine, who stops by for only five minutes total. He apparently is one of the main minds behind this "subconscious security" process, so when he sits behind a desk in a 19th century lecture ampitheater, it does not really meld with his character's reputation. Still, there is no harm in Michael Caine, and I would have welcomed more screentime. Avatar's Dileep Rao is the chemist behind the operation, supplying the sedatives for the subjects. It is strange, however, that these complex chemicals are simply stored in some dusty old store, which seems a bit off the mark. Nonetheless, Cillian Murphy plays his extremely critical role with an apt blend of wealthy elitism and frightened disorientation. A larger Tom Berenger, somewhat similar in complexion to Mickey Rourke nowadays, is the righthand man to the Fischer family, and proves to be a key point in successful inception. A scene when Eames, who is a "forger," alters his appearance to become a physical manifestation of Berenger's character is clever as the sparse editing makes the effect seem lifelike.
Letters From Iwo Jima's Ken Watanabe, one of the greatest English-speaking Japanese actors in Hollywood, is excellent as the wealthy, occasionally quite humorous catalyst to the whole operation. He not only assigns the operation but proves to be a vital figure in the mental unraveling of Cobb. The chief figure in Cobb's life, however, is undoubtedly his wife, Mal, played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard. Her performance is never consistent because Cobb's projection of her constantly vacillates to fit his mental state. Cotillard, who won an Oscar for La Vie en Rose two years ago, nails the emotional nuances of this complex role no matter the situation. She can be frightening, romantic, philosophical, or just smooth like the best Bond girls. Cotillard has not had a bad role in her career, and the transition to blockbuster films has not mitigated her talent at all. If anything, she is getting better with each new movie.
As much as I would like to call Inception perfect and close shop with that, it is not. No film is really, but there are a few qualms I should note. Mulholland Drive this is not, and while that will please most viewers who do not want to be savagely assaulted by perverse images and jagged storylines, it is almost too straightforward for a dream world. Dream logic is, well, devoid of any real logic, so the ease at which the agents move around the world and control themselves does not really align itself with the true science of dreams. The one problem that was notably apparent, however, was the bland nature of the dream worlds. As my opening paragraph attests to, dreams are supposed to be discordant, senseless and fantastical scenes that center around an impossible notion or ideal setting. Instead, the settings of these dreams are just city streets, hotels, and snowy fortresses without any conflict. The straightforward nature of these dreams is the only way a mainstream audience would be able to digest them, and there is already enough abstract content to deal with, so I understand where Nolan is coming from with these alterations. These minuscule flaws have little to no impact on the final product, but I feel obliged to express my thoughts.
Inception is a rare beast. The visual effects are astonishing and unlike anything you have ever seen before. Better yet, its wholly original and brilliant story qualifies every action scene as intrinsic to the progression of the plot, and not merely pedestrian eye fodder. Christopher Nolan may be the greatest filmmaker of the new millennium, as he combines the old, traditional ways of making classic films - huge soundstages, stuntmen, and, most important, a limitless imagination - with the technology of today, and, never leaning too heavily on either, crafts a product that is irresistible to every form of audience. In Inception, your dreams are never safe. But this film proves that the Hollywood dream is alive and strong.
5 Stars Out of 5