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Non-Review Review: Inception

Does the dreamer dream the dream, or the dream dream the dreamer? Nolan’s Inception somehow finds a way to cram a year’s worth of philosophical questions and big ideas into a two-and-a-half-hour epic which seems fleeting even with that runtime. Indeed there’s so much on offer at this cinematic banquet that I feel I need a second helping to fully savour the flavour. I can see Inception being divisive film – between those who feel it somehow is somewhat conceited and not as clever as it would have you think (many of whom, for example, may focus on the movie’s ending – some may even have honestly claimed to call it) and those who favour a movie which intelligently poses all manner of questions for it’s audience, believing answers – like dreams – are subjective and personal, and to offer or share them is a recipe for disaster. I am firmly in the latter camp.

Mind- (and corridor-) bending...

The defining image for Inception is the circle. Illustrating how the mind processes and creates information within dreams, Cobb draws a circle. Asked to offer a challenging maze, his archetect offers a a circle instead of the conventional square. The archetecture of the mind is repeatedly demonstrated with the image of MC Escher’s stairs brought to life, a closed loop always heading upwards – a physical impossibility. Even the film itself is structured as something of a circle. Nolan returns to the non-linear style of storytelling that he has used for every film save The Dark Knight. The film is the inverse of the stairs – instead of always heading up until you reach the start again, the film goes down, deeper and deeper.

The film suggests that balance is the key. Dreams allow us to sustain ideas – physical ideas like structures, but also emotional constructs – that could never exist in real life, and never should. They allow us catharsis, a chance to balance it all in a way we can’t in life. There’s a reason the film offers us the image of a perpetually spinning top, which capsizes in reality (but in the dream it can spin perpetually).

I haven’t offered a plot synopsis, and I don’t intend to. I made an effort to see the film unspoiled, and I think it was the better for it. Besides, a dream is no fun if you can see where it’s going.

Here Nolan continues the exploration of the creative mind, hinted at throughout his work (his filmography is populated with characters that shape and mould their own world, from Batman’s conviction to do what he does by blaming the criminal rather than himself for the loss of his parents (“my anger outweighs my guilt”, reinforced by Alfred, “It was all him, Master Bruce”) to Leonard’s desire to remember things a certain way to make him a hero of a certain story). Here it’s the archetects of the dream who stand in for the artist, in a way which consciously mirrors the use of magicians in The Prestige. Of course, the characters have different goals (although both Cobb in this film and Borden (and possibly Angiers as well) in The Prestige are practiced in the art of self-deception, suggesting none of them truly comprehend the creative process they harness), each of them is a dealer in illusion, a salesman of the fact but magnificent. Both reflect the artist at work, though here Nolan is arguably much more cynical about the dreamsmith, for whom the act of creating is inherently selfish, at both a conscious (he’s a thief) and subconscious (he has some stuff to work out) level.

What’s more fascinating is the deft hand with which Nolan suggests uses ideas as a storytelling device (a macguffin, even, to quote the great Hitchcock), in a movie filled with great ideas. Indeed, the title – defined within the movie as putting a thought into someone’s head without them really realising you’ve done it – could just as easily be a mission statement for the film, which is sure to leave me pondering many a metaphysical quandry over the next few days. Indeed, there are several suggestions throughout the film (and it’s my own pet theory), that the movie itself is Nolan’s attempt at inception within the American popular consciousness – the movie is really just a collective dream shared by all us movie-goers. But I think I might be waffling here.

The film is awash with great ideas...

I don’t know. I need to see it again to fully process it, and probably will next weekend with the better half, who adored it. I can see the movie generating many heated debates (in fact, I look forward to it), but I want to see it again to soak it in. By the way, the better half loved it even more than I did.

Technically, the film is magnificent. You’re unlikely to see a film which looks or sounds better this year. The special effects are wonderful, as are the set pieces. Every single dollar spent on this movie is on the screen, and even with it’s phenomenal budget, it still feels well spent. I hope I don’t spoil anything by suggesting it has possibly the most innovative fight sequence since The Matrix.

The cast is amazing. DiCaprio is a great lead, but Nolan skilfully surrounds him with an assorted bunch of thespians who manage to make fully formed characters out of small supporting roles. Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy in particular benefit from promotion, seemingly earned by time served in Gotham. It’s great to see Tom Berenger on screen again. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are wonderful in roles that could have been easily cardboard cutouts. And I think the movie reaffirmed my man crush on Tom Hardy (“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” sounds a whole smuttier now, eh?). And my hetro crush on Marion Cotillard. It’s that damn French accent.

Nolan himself continues to impress. There’s a lot of world-building here, and a whole host of fascinating ideas thrown out together quickly. I’m not sure I got all “the rules”, but the film is smartly enough constructed that I can zero in on the important ones. And Nolan does an amazing job presenting us with an abstract threat in an engaging manner. Let’s face it – ‘the dream is imploding’ is a threat a lot more difficult to realise and generate tension around than ‘this bomb will detonate in ten seconds’. Making the abstract and philosophical dangers tangible to the audience is no small feat, and another feather in Nolan’s cap.

Of course, the film is not perfect. There is a price to pay for the originality of the venture. The first half is chocka blocked full of exposition and setup – most of it beautifully executed – before the story is finally allowed to kick off in the second half. The whole film is a bit of a jumble, to the point where you risk a migraine concentrating too hard on certain aspects. But this is the cost of new ideas. Indeed, the reason so much time needs to be devoted to set-up is because it’s such an unconventional movie – there’s no cinematic shortcut to take, no way of delivering the setup by framing it in familiar pop conscious terms.

I’ll likely have more thoughts into next week, but for now it’s a wholehearted recommendation, with a caveat. Inception calls its audience out – it asks you whether you really want an original film in the midsts of all those sequels, remakes and reboots. The cost is high – it’s a dense and challenging piece. However, “dense” and “challenging” are not negative remarks, and perhaps it’s a cruel reflection on the dumbing down of popular culture that they have become such. The film is also, I’d suggest, a rewarding one. It’s a film lover’s dream come true.

14 Responses

  1. Very very well-said good sir. When I sat down today to write my review, it took me about three times as long as it usually does – for me that’s a sign that the film was a challenging one to dissect!

    • Thank you very much. I did have a bit of grizzle-chewing to do – and I really wanted to avoid spoilers – so it took a while.

  2. Great review, then. It took me longer than usual to write my review (…) than usual, I kept going back adding shit about how awesome it was in different variations and whatnot.

    I don’t really feel a need to see it again, though…I thought I would, but aside from a few performances and plot bits, I kind of get it–at least to the extent that I’m not pouring over message boards looking for plausible answers. I can wait for the DVD.

    While I’m here, what do you think happened to Nash?

    • Seems to be a trend with longer-review writing. I’m not necessarily looking for plot-points the second time around. It just took me several viewings to really “get” The Prestige and I think that multiple viewings might reward this film.

  3. I feel the need to discuss the ending of this, so affecting. This is Nolan’s most beautiful film.

    • Certainly his most ambitious and visually stunning. It’s an amazing filmography, nothing he has done has dwarfed what came before, they’re all so markedly different, yet brilliant.

  4. I’m going to see it on Sunday morning. I can’t wait!!!! My thoughts later that day 🙂

  5. Ok I saw this today and wrote my review (which took a lot more time than usual as well!). It certainly is an entertaining and well-made movie and the best blockbuster movie of the year. However, I think a lot of people are confusing a convoluted story with emotional depth and meaningful complexity, things that Inception strangely lacks.

    The characters are nothing to write home about, aside from Cobb who is given just enough depth, the rest of the characters are merely 2-dimensional, serving Cobb and the plot only. Everyone indeed was competent as you would expect from an all-star cast but the characters did not allow for any great acting to take place. This world of dream is strangely similar to the real world in all aspects except for the intermittent discontinuity. Sorry but my dreams are rarely ever that coherent…

    This is why I am not over-analyzing Inception. There isn’t anything in the movie that proves to me that there is any real depth behind it all and all the little strands left unaddressed by Nolan may well just be that, strands that lead nowhere.

    • Yep, like a dream. Though, I think, even if you’re right (and you might be), I think it’s still fun to think about. Though maybe it’s just because there’s been so little to actually engage with this year that we’ve latched on to Inception.

  6. Freakin amazing!! I loved almost every single second of this!! Nolan is going to be considered as one of the best directors of all-time now, and I will stand by and say, yes, I have to also agree. Check out my review here: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/inception-2010/

    • Yep. I think he’s my favourite living director, but he had been since The Dark Knight. One classic (Memento) is fluke. Two (Batman Begins) is good luck. A third (The Prestige) is just happenstance. But the fourth? That’s when you gotta buy-in.

  7. really good review Darren. knew yours would be. glad i waited until id seen film first but youre very good about not leaving spoilers, unlike some reviewers in respected newspapers who basically wrote out the whole plot. lazy bastards.
    i really enjoyed the film even though i missed so much of what was going on. looking forward to seeing it again. the great thing about Inception is that its a great conversation starter, which can only be a good thing

    • Hey, it’s been a while man. I try to avoid spoilers, but I think one or two slips through the net every now and again.

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