Unconvincing leads and too many script problems bring a rude awakening to Christopher Nolan’s latest thriller.
Inception (available December 7 in a variety of gift-ready DVD and Blu-Ray editions) will amaze you only as long as you want to be amazed. If you’re skeptical, you’ll likely feel less so. If you start to think about its mechanics and workings for too long, it might even disappoint. It’s not a film that ages well in the days after viewing, and it requires your more or less unqualified complicity to really work even as you’re viewing it. And like the dreams at the center of its story, logic and internal cohesion sometimes break down, and not everyone within is convincing.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s reportedly worked for a decade on its script, moving it through horror and heist movie genres and refining the dream logic and its trip-wired narrative implications. The final product, as with so many of his films, is a combination of several styles and forms, and he makes them fit together seamlessly. Still, a succession of colorless performances and murky internal logic keep the film from gaining the narrative momentum of The Dark Knight or even The Prestige, Nolan’s 2006 similar examination of reality’s slippery surface. Ultimately, Inception is neither a misstep nor a leap forward, but something in-between and something less than its antecedents.
Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) works in a vaguely suggested near-future as an “extractor,” pulling information out of his targets’ unconscious minds by invading and manipulating their dreams. When he and his cohort Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) fail to extract information by Saito (Ken Watanabe), one of their assignments, they’re compelled to work for him or face the wrath of their previous employer, who it’s said severely punishes unsuccessful operatives. Except Saito doesn’t want information withdrawn from a mind so much as planted into the head of the son (Cillian Murphy) of his business rival, the better to prevent his competitor’s incipient monopoly. This act of imbuing information – the inception of an idea – is much trickier, and one with which Cobb has a complicated and haunting history. Meanwhile, Cobb doesn’t travel into dreams alone: he carries the spectre of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a presence that actively works against his efforts in the dreamscapes.
Cobb agrees to the assignment, in part because of Saito’s promise to help him return to the United States, where the children whose faces he literally can’t bear to imagine reside. Cobb is wanted, it seems, as a suspect in Mal’s death. Journeying instead to Paris and elsewhere, he recruits a new team consisting of a forger (Tom Hardy), a chemist (Dileep Rao), and Saito. Cobb also employs a neophyte dream “architect” named Ariadne upon the recommendation of his ex-father-in-law (Michael Caine.) Despite Arthur’s misgivings that Cobb’s guilt and fear will sabotage the mission, the team embarks into the scion’s mind, invading multiple levels of his subconscious to reach the heavily guarded area where Cobb can implant the spore of an idea.
The levels are for the most part exquisitely staged set pieces, with the final level – a snow-capped, mountaintop fortress worthy of a James Bond villain – offering particularly impressive visuals. The crumbling, tide-battered metropolis that represents the underbelly of Cobb’s own consciousness is also spectacular, as much if not more so than the folding streets profiled in the film’s marketing campaign. If only everything worked as well, or with such imagination. For as lovely as they are to look at, there’s a depressing literalism to the elements of the dreams presented: safe places in the mind are castles and fortresses, inner turmoil is depicted as roiling surf, protectors and defenses are presented as soldiers and military hardware. It’s not a bad creative strategy, per se, but it’s not a complicated or original one, either, and serves to lend an air of predictability to the film that it doesn’t deserve. Perhaps that was Nolan’s intention; maybe it wasn’t.
More troubling is Nolan’s in media res approach to the dreamscape idea and to the explanation of its mechanics. The script offers an explanation that the technology was originally developed by the military, and its various drawbacks and pitfalls are explained and at times – such as Arthur’s weightless jaunt through a hotel – imaginatively staged. At other times, the method of presenting information as it becomes necessary for a given character to know gives the impression, somewhat inaccurately, that the script is making up the rules as it goes along. Nolan surely had all his ideas thought out in the decade leading up to the script’s completion; the invitation to wonder otherwise is distracting, and unfortunate. For the film’s many intelligent ideas to work, every idea and every detail has to make sense. This happens most of the time, but not all, and the one’s that don’t work, such as the collapsing bridges and mirrored walls, seem especially conspicuous in contrast.
The production design is exceptional, with interior and exterior spaces alike having a lived-in realism that contributes miles of authenticity to even the most fantastical story elements. As an example of Nolan and his production team’s persuasive savvy: Cobb and his accomplices are attached to their target’s conscious via wires that connect to the wrist, eschewing the visual need for the complicated and often unconvincing headgear featured in similar movies like Brainstorm and Strange Days. It’s a small choice, but a compelling one nevertheless.
Perhaps the biggest problem comes from a cast that most often isn’t up to the material, with DiCaprio especially lacking the dramatic muscle to bring Cobb’s character to its complete potential. Playing a man that’s a fugitive from himself, his country, and his family and who can find solace only in his nightmares, DiCaprio summons only lukewarm pathos, never letting his own box office persona become submerged within his character. Page, too, seems out of her depth as Ariadne, and somewhat lost without the zingy, snark-flavored dialogue of her earlier films. By contrast Cotillard, lovely and fragile without ever seeming weak, gives the film’s best performance. You understand why Cobb couldn’t stand her absence, even if DiCaprio can’t convey as much on his own. Murphy, Levitt, Watanabe, and Hardy are all good, if underused in favor of more face time for DiCaprio and Page.
Ultimately, Inception is a triumph of ambition but not of achievement; it’s unlikely that it would have been made at all had The Dark Knight not made a bazillion dollars, but it speaks to Nolan’s artistic integrity that for his next effort he set his artistic bar even higher. It’s too simple, and unfair, to say he couldn’t have topped The Dark Knight because his whole body of work suggests that he can and that he will. Inception, the epitome of a three-star film, is a narrow miss on the way to that eventual realization. And like any dream if you want it to amaze you it will, but its impact will fade as it recedes into memory.
- Michael Kabel