Sunday, July 18, 2010

Totems & Trances

I've tried very hard to avoid putting any spoilers in my review. That said, if you want the freshest experience possible with the film, it's probably best to watch and then come back to read.

Christopher Nolan is one of the smartest men in show business. He’s got an incredible knack for taking a story that you’ve heard before and giving it that little extra something to propel it into territory you’ve never visited. He’s done it with murder mysteries, superheroes, and magic tricks, and with Inception he tries to tackle the single most complex entity on the planet: the human mind.

Does he succeed? That’s going to depend in large part upon your definition of success. Is it the accomplishment of a certain set of goals and objectives predetermined by the narrative, or the ability to take the expectations of a viewer and supersede them? I suppose that I think of success as a combination of both variables, with the overriding hope that the piece is going to hold together thematically, conceptually, and emotionally.

To answer my question about whether or not Inception succeeds: well, mostly.

Ironically, the story that had seemed to be incredibly complex is actually rather straightforward. Cobb (a strong Leonardo DiCaprio) works as an extractor of information by infiltrating people’s dreams. In the real world, he’s unable to return home to his family because of some trouble with the law, and voila! Saito (Ken Watanabe, solid although sometimes unintelligible) offers him a dream job (no pun intended). If Cobb can plant an idea in the mind of his business rival, Saito will make all of his problems disappear.

One thing that struck me about much of the film is how much of it involves talking heads. Now, we certainly get our share of action, but there’s a ton of time where characters talk to one another explaining exactly what will happen later, what might happen later, and what they didn’t say originally about what could have happened later. Not necessarily a flaw, but certainly a point of interest in a film that seemed to promise a world of visual wonder after visual wonder. In fact, the biggest “wow” moment was already revealed in the trailer when the city folds back on top of itself and becomes, essentially, its own horizon.

The performances are uniformly good, with particular notice going to Tom Hardy. I thought he was great in Star Trek: Nemesis, and he’s very good here as a charming and very effective “forger.” I hope that he gets a chance to shine in a lead role sometime soon. Marion Cotillard, one of my favorites, is solid here, if not ascending to the heights that she’s capable of. (note: is it a coincidence that Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien has such a pivotal role in Inception, given Ms. Cotillard's recent history? I think not.) Sadly, Ellen Page might have bitten off a little bit more than she could chew. Verbal comedy, her strength, is on a positively spartan diet here, and the way that she interprets some pivotal dialogue is very nearly groan-inducing. It’s great for the car to handle well when you’re driving through the countryside, but when it’s a matter of life and death, you’ve really got to hope that the thing’s going to be able to take the quick turns.

The real star of Inception is Christopher Nolan’s concept. The idea of people being able to enter dreams at will, to dream collectively, and to find endless amounts of time present in dreams within dreams is fascinating, to say the very least. The way that he deals with certain logistical problems is inventive, effective, and follows dream logic as “rationally” as possible. I’m very grateful for the fact that someone with Nolan’s clout is using the resources and talent available to him to make high-concept films that attempt to break new ground. In today’s cinematic landscape, filmmakers like him are sadly few and far between. We live in a world where it’s much safer to spin the same yarns over and over again with faces and minor details changed than it is to try to tell a truly original story that no one’s ever heard before. Sure, The Matrix and Minority Report come to mind as precursors, but Inception has an innovative spark of invention that sets it apart.

So why the hesitation? Why not proclaim it the cinema's newest masterpiece? Why not wax eloquent about how great Inception is?

Because, sadly, there are flaws. What’s incredibly unfortunate is that I cannot go into very much detail at all without discussing major plot points, and I wouldn’t dare spoil anything for someone who’s not seen the film. I will outline a few. While Nolan’s a brilliant conceptual thinker, I didn’t feel anywhere near the amount of emotion that the material should have been capable of generating. Some of the major plot motifs seemed simplistic and, while some of his directorial flourishes are nice touches, there are certain pivotal slow-motion shots that were unintentionally silly.

My single biggest problem with Inception is the ending. Unfortunately, I figured out a big part of it midway through the picture. With films, we may enjoy being one step ahead of where we feel we’re “supposed” to be, but what we really want is to be slapped sideways by something we never saw coming. While it ends (I suppose) the only way that it really can, I think Nolan painted himself into a bit of a corner. By ending it on the note that he did, he was forced to do something with the final shot of the film that I can’t help but think is a major cheat. I love the idea that it be the last image we see, but don't think that it works in execution.

I'm sure that a number of people are going to say, if they haven't already, that they can't wait to see Inception again (and again) to grasp the supposed riches within. I've felt similarly about many, many films in my life, but, strangely, in this case I'm not sure that a second viewing would really help me understand anything any better. We'll see. . .

Should you shell out some hard-earned cash for Inception? Yes, I’d say you should. Nolan’s risk-taking is something that you don’t see often enough, and it’s the single most audacious film you’re likely to see all summer. What’s unfortunate is that something that sets out to be this daring in its approach needs to be flat-out incredible to fulfill its potential, which Inception isn’t. Look, I enjoy a good game. I’m just not someone who loves being toyed with.

3.75 stars out of 5.

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