By Jeffrey Overstreet
If Inception sounds a bit heavy, that’s because it is.
The summer moviegoing standard is Fast Food for Juvenile Appetites. But Christopher Nolan’s film joins Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone as 2010’s exceptions. Inception has the necessary superstars—Leonardo DiCaprio, up-and-comers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, Juno star Ellen Page, and veteran Michael Caine—and thrilling effects.
But it also requires your intellect to run on all cylinders.
Imagine if the finale of TV’s Lost were televised in four parts simultaneously, on four different channels, and you had to switch from one to the other constantly, hoping to make sense of things. That gives you some idea of Inception’s complexity.
Here’s the idea:
In the not-so-distant future, an A-Team of secret agents — Salon.com critic Andrew O'Hehir calls them a “Scooby-gang”— have become burglars for hire. But they don’t bust into banks. In order to steal priceless information, Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team infiltrate their targets’ dreams.
Remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Anything can happen as these guys explore a stranger’s subconscious.
And they’re so good at this unthinkably complicated work, they make the Ocean’s Eleven team seem like a bunch of amateurs. Eat your heart out, Neo — Cobb and Company don’t just step into a “matrix”; they can descend into a dream within a dream within a dream, with time measured differently on every level, and still manage to find their way out.
But wait—there’s more.
Inception’s Scooby-gang doesn’t just enter a dream. First, they design the dream. Then they load it, like a multi-player video game, in a sleeper’s mind. The oblivious sleeper then fills that architecture with his own ideas and knowledge. The agents can learn a lot that way. Manipulating the dream, they can find their way to the sleeper’s valuable secrets and collect them. Then they have to escape before any flaws arouse their subject’s suspicions.
This process is called “extraction.”
So what’s “inception” then?
Inception is the act of planting an idea inside the dreamer’s mind—something that will influence his behavior—and then escaping unnoticed. That way the dreamer wakes and acts on the idea without ever realizing it isn’t his own.
Basically, inception is what advertisers do all the time—tricking you into thinking you want something.
Cobb, forced into a corner by a powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe), must agree to perform an inception in order to buy his way back home to his kids, or else live on the run. His target will be the heir to a corporate empire—Robert Fischer, Jr. (the excellent Cillian Murphy)—and his goal will be to make Fischer want to break up that company’s monopoly with incredibly subversive tactics.
Inception looks like several million bucks. Because it is. And it’s full of fantastic ideas. (I’ll say more about those in Part Two.) Is it a must-see? Absolutely.
But let’s not get carried away. It could have been better. Much better.
The Scooby-gang’s process requires so much explanation it overloads the script, preventing us from getting to know the characters. And their explanations—some elaborate, some as pithy as “Five minutes in the real world give you an hour in the dream!”—are delivered with such over-the-top solemnity that the film makes parodies unnecessary. (YouTube spoofs will start dropping in 3… 2… 1…)
Thus, the characters remain so undeveloped, they make The Dark Night’s good guys and bad guys seem positively Shakespearean.
Even worse, they behave so unethically, I wanted them to fail. Cobb is so unstable, so free and loose with the rules he sets for everyone else, so willing to risk others’ lives as he neglects his own disruptive troubles, I quickly lost my sympathy for him. Though the end might be desirable—the breakup of a corporate monopoly—Cobb’s means are reprehensible. By the conclusion, I could only see him as “a rapist of the imagination.”
Nevertheless, the film moves right along as if the only real crisis here is Cobb’s subconscious turmoil. Leading him toward an overdue leap of faith is not enough closure for this story.
And DiCaprio makes the same error with this performance as he has in many others. He mistakes intensity for complexity. He’s becoming Tom Cruise. He delivers a sustained act of ferocious, laser-eyed determination, but gives Cobb no idiosyncrasy or personality.
As a result, my brain was busy with the puzzle, but my heart was not engaged in a human story. That’s a shame. The film’s backbone is an intriguing story that wants to come to life. And I’ve seen plenty of elaborate films that put characters over coolness.
Take Shane Carruth’s fantastic 2004 sci-fi thriller Primer, for example.
Primer is every bit as challenging, and yet it’s populated with characters who seemed real. They made decisions that carry incredible weight. They speak like human beings. I was tied up in knots as they became entangled in the consequences of their own designs.
And Primer only cost $7,000. That’s about what it would cost for me and my friends to catch an IMAX showing of Inception.
Finally—I was disappointed that a movie about dreams would feel so practical, so digital, utterly lacking in the surreality that comes so naturally to Lynch, Kaufman, Gondry, and Gilliam. Inception is full of slow-motion falls, but I never once felt the sensation. The effects deliver information without creating sensations.
Inception probably needed to be an hour longer. The film is belted so tight it can’t breathe. A longer film might not have been a blockbuster, but it could have been a more affecting work of art. As it is, Nolan was determined to draw me into his dreamscapes, but here I am, disappointed, wide awake.
Read Inception, Part 2: The Long Road Home here.