Inception. It’s an action thriller about people sleeping. Really.
A filmmaker’s greatest challenge is getting the audience to suspend its disbelief. After about 30 minutes of Inception, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan, I had suspended disbelief. Not easily, but I did. But then another 30 minutes later, I had to do it again. And 45 minutes on, once again. By the time Inception finished, I was exhausted. I had suspended disbelief so often I wasn’t sure where I was for real. Which maybe is what Nolan was after. I just don’t think he wanted me to get there that way.
Nolan’s film starts with an intriguing premise – Cobb played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a master thief – an extractor of information from people’s subconscious. His MO is to enter people’s dreams and take what they know. Like any good thief, he has his team and they join him in the victim’s dream. (Yes. It gets crowded). Cobb’s clients are corporations who have found his technique ideal for stealing industrial secrets. No disbelief needed on the motivation anyway.
As we go deeper into the story and its “dream science”, Nolan could take a lesson from vampires. They are simple: no sunlight, wooden stakes kill, blood sucking keeps them alive. Inception cries out for this type of simplistic view of the dream state to enable the plot to move along and the characters to engage the audience. Instead we get a couple mini-classes in how dreams work (and you better pay attention), architecting the dream worlds, and the risks to the thieves if certain dream “events” take place. To paraphrase Frank Costanza, “Suspension now! Suspension now!”
Even if a bumpy mattress hinders sleep, redemption for Inception was still possible but alas the visualization of the dream states is completely underwhelming. Two-thirds of it is standard fare from various action movies including Bourne and Bond, to name a couple. Specifically, when the van containing our sleeping thieves careens through city streets being chased by assorted villains it seems quite real, even though it’s actually a dream of the real gang who are safely aboard a jumbo jet (Suspension now!). Meanwhile the van’s occupants are participating in yet another dream, one level down. Or up. I’m not sure. When cities move and buildings crumble, you get a hint of the pseudo-reality that is real dreaming but it never quite envelops the story and characters in what could have been true cinema magic. The only sequence where the dream’s detached reality is captured is a fight between Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a bad guy. It takes place one or two dream levels down (maybe an elevator floor read-out would have helped) but the body movements over walls, ceilings, and floor with no fixed up or down shows the potential of what might have been.
The story builds tension through Cobb being retained – not for an extraction – but for an inception. This opposite move involves planting a thought in the dreamer’s subconscious that will motivate the dreamer when he wakes. It’s never been done before or so the gang believes. The only previous time it was tried is Cobb’s dark secret. This plot element helps bring some real emotion to an otherwise ordinary reverse of the Ocean’s Eleven idea without the star power.
Our actors struggle, I think, to bring life to a pretty ordinary script. It veers between the aforementioned dream mumbo-jumbo and the banalities and buddy talk of any one of hundreds of action movies. DiCaprio delivers his unique intensity to the part while inadvertently echoing his role in Shutter Island. Ellen Page seems out of place as a dream savant but it was worth trying. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is curiously flat. Tom Hardy as Eames hints at good things but then slowly devolves into a typical action flick second-banana.
As a big fan of back-stories, I have to say that maybe that’s what sinks Inception. The film’s “dream logic” is probably well worked out by the filmmaker. And to give Nolan credit, it was an ambitious plan to film a story that has reality vs. unreality at its core. But presenting the rules for a state of mind that is known for no rules gets the brain in a twist and the audience confused. The visual presentation then needs to be pretty
rigorous to let the audience know whether they are in the real world or one of the multi-levels of the dream world. As Ariadne says late in the movie “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” If she doesn’t know, can the audience be far behind?
My significant other describes this movie more succinctly “What a mess”. Her standard
requirements for a clean plot that progresses very briskly with some engaging characters
were not met. Looking for redeeming qualities is not something she spends time on. For
people of a similar disposition, consider this a benign walkaway alert. — Curt