Saturday, January 22, 2011

review: Inception

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
‘What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious.’

The above quote, taken from an early dialogue exchange in Inception, perfectly encompasses everything about Christopher Nolan’s latest venture. Ideas are where Inception begins and ends. However, this is not meant in the more traditional sense wherein every film, large or small, must begin with a little light bulb suddenly turning on in someone’s mind. Ideas reverberate in what the characters do, why they perform said acts and how they go about them. The ambition on display, especially for the first time viewer, can be somewhat heavy, particularly with a film that stretches the nature of ideas, thoughts and dreams (which are all connected, after all) to the umpteenth degree, lending them a fluidity and malleability all the while proposing to depict specific ‘ideas’ the characters have concretely, with things that can be touched and felt. This is a high-concept film that chooses to express its fantastical notions in some very literal ways, providing one of the odder viewing experiences one can have when exploring recent mainstream Hollywood movies.

According to the back-story behind the audacious script, Chistopher Nolan spent many years working, re-working and then tweaking his story some more. 10 years if we are to believe him, which is a long time indeed. After every increasingly popular project (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, etc), Nolan would return to his unfinished script and further develop it. Originally envisioned as a small scale thriller, the writer director’s ideas soon took expansion, as the growing possibilities found in such a world where dreams can be professionally created and influenced produced a creative buzz. When one is toying with the notion of entering dreams and manipulating them, one comes to realize that for once bigger just might be better. After this third viewing of the movie, what struck the author the most was the effortlessness with which the script takes the viewers from one fixed portion of the story to another. Straight from the outset, Inception thrusts the audience into the world of artificially manipulated dreams without much explanation as to what is transpiring, followed by an elaborate stretch of time when the stakes for the film’s actual plot are explored as well as how the dream world functions, and concluding with a complex, multi-dream state action sequence that requires at least an hour of the film’s final 75 minutes. Needless to say, the movie is well over two hours long, but none of the three sequences over-welcome their stay. For its intricately detailed and layered story, remaining true to my habitual plot synopses is more challenging today. Very generally, Inception follows a team of robbers, or extractors, who venture into peoples dreams to snatch information through the use of sophisticated gadgetry which grant them god-like powers over what their targets dream about. The team consists of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), the new dream world architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), sleep potion guru Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and their current contractor, Mr. Saito (Ken Wanatabe), a powerful businessman who wants to see the head of a rival company (Cilian Murphy) cause the fall of his own business empire. To do this, Cobb and his gang are to go against their usual tactics which consist of stealing an idea from the target's mind. Instead, they shall plant an idea with the intention that it will discourage the target’s desire to best his father at expanding the family business. Much, much more occurs in Inception than what little is described above, but it seems preferable that the film itself should reveal the rest.

Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor whose resume would cause blushes on the cheeks of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars. From unique plots, an enviable list co-stars and fascinating directors, DiCaprio has done it all. Some actors and actresses rise to fame because they are good at certain things, but nonetheless have limitations to their acting abilities. Other, unfortunately, are served with stardom because they look presentable under the spotlight. DiCaprio’s pedigree as been entirely earned, with consistent quality performances evolving around vastly different characters, a few exceptions notwithstanding. It is the actor’s range that impresses so much. He can play the part with the bravado and confidence of a conman, with the intensity and desperation of a man hell bent on accomplishing a mission that involves personal stakes, and with the tenderness and sadness of a husband who is struggling to put the memories of his deceased wife behind him once and for all. His job, confidence and attire make him cool (does the clothing not make the man, as they say?), his planning and action-man skills make him a leader, and his inability to let go of his wife (Marion Cotillard) makes him vulnerable. Dicaprio’s versatility comes in handy with Inception, as he plays arguably his most complex character to date, a man who cannot come to terms with his past, a symptom preventing him from being all he can be as an extractor. The supporting players each have memorable moments, with special praise going Hardy as the man they call ‘the forger’ who can, once in the target’s dream world, successfully take on the appearance and persona of different people, fictional or not. Still, I would argue that DiCaprio rightfully gets the star billing.

Upon leaving the theatre room after my initial viewing all those many months ago, I was under the impression that I had watched an excellent action movie, but not much more. The second and third viewings were beneficial in how they slowly peeled away the glossy veneer of a big budget action festival, thus exposing a tale that wrestled with far stranger and ambitious ideas than I originally gave the film credit for. It is one thing to have dream sequences that correspond to what most of us associate with our mysterious subconscious (unpredictability, oddities running out and about), but another altogether to take over them, which is precisely how our protagonists go about their business. Emotions, ideas and dreams intermingle continuously. Whether the emotions come before the idea or vice versa is less important than the reality that they are the closest of siblings. You think of something, anything at all and you produce an emotional reaction of some kind. This complexity factors into the world building and manipulation exercised by Cobb and his gang, leading to awkward situations where, even though they may have constructed a fictional world with painstaking detail and preparations, there exist very human, emotional variables which can cause everything to fall apart. Nolan makes things most interesting by suggesting visual representations of emotions and of ‘ideas’ that elicit desired emotions. Where do people hide there secrets? What do people have in mind, literally, when thinking of something that makes them happy, that makes them sad, which makes them feel guilty? When Cobb is haunted by the memories of his wife while performing jobs in dream worlds, the film is willfully creating an image of the character’s troubled emotions. Even the notion of having memories, some stored in the ‘back of our minds’ is explored. As I wrote earlier, to actually provide visual depictions of these realities, intangible as they are, is highly ambitious. A person’s willingness to go along on the bizarre ride Christopher Nolan invites us for can depend on one’s own, very personal ideas and definitions of, well, ideas, but also of dreams and memories. I know of some who dislike the film and, quite frankly, their reasons are well thought and honest.

Much of the movie’s success hinges on this idea of Nolan’s characters controlling the dream world, which consequently will avoid the traditional notion of out of the world dreams that are sci-fi depictions of our subconscious. However, therein lies my personal interest in the movie, the fact that protagonists are toying with the subconscious, a power that probably should not rest in the hands of man, and most certainly not in the hands of people who do it for money. Naturally, director Nolan gives the audience relatable characters, not strictly thugs in suits (although that would have been something). I return again to the character of Cobb, who partakes in this last mission not for money, but for the opportunity to finally return to the United States to see his children. In any other movie, his arc would still be interesting and worthy of ‘central character’ status, but in Inception he genuinely has to fight off evil memories produced by a deep sense of guilt. This ambitious decision to visualize the subconscious, to visualize its inherent dangers to a person’s well being when the thoughts that dwell in it are less than pleasant,, even destructive to the owner of those thoughts, all that was fascinating and really, really bizarre.

Inception is a film for which there is much to discuss, too much in fact for a simple review. For that reason I am going to end the discussion here. Granted, if there are readers who really want Between the Seats to go deeper and all ‘geek bomb’ into Inception, it would be a pleasure. For now, I can but offer Inception the highest of recommendations. It is Hollywood trying to not be Hollywood, while still being very Hollywood. If that sounds strange to you, then you should watch Inception.


thevoid99 said...

Great work Edgar. I really liked this film and amazed at how easy it was to follow the story no matter how complex the story actually is. I really think Nolan definitely topped himself with this film.

Leonardo DiCaprio I believe gives his best performance of his career with this film and he certainly proved it. Most of all, he had a great cast to work with. If there was a prize for great ensemble, the cast for this film would get the prize for me (unless Mike Leigh's Another Year nabs it once it arrives in Atlanta. Keep it up.

edgarchaput said...

@thevoid99: I saw the movie at a midnight screening on the day of its theatrical release and admittedly didn't understand all the little details around which the plot is structured. The second and most recent third viewing clarified a lot. I may have just been tired that night...

DiCaprio is such an accomplished and respectable actor, it's ridiculous. I don't remember the last time he gave a performance that wasn't really good. Even his work in 'Titanic' which I think is far from his best, is still decent.

Anonymous said...

A brain-twister to be sure. But the fact that the plot demands attention only adds to the exhilaration. This is a story about dreams that requires the audience to stay awake. Good Review!