Lowdown: A tormented hero’s only salvation is in planting an idea is someone’s head by invading their dreams.
Judging by the hype, one would be forgiven for thinking Inception was this year’s Avatar: the biggest thing out there in the cinemas that everyone must see and that would leave a hole in your life were you to miss it. I was highly skeptical: hype is often generated through pure consumerism and herd tendencies. Besides, while I liked director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins I really didn’t think much of his other – over-hyped in my book – efforts, including The Prestige and Dark Knight. With arguments in favor of both sides, I was curious to see which end of the scales would tip for Inception.
The idea behind Inception, as well as its execution, reminds me a lot of The Matrix. In the world of industrial espionage, the latest fashion is stealing ideas from people’s brains by invading their dreams. Apparently, while dreaming there is this whole tangible world inside the dreamer’s head, and other people can dream their way in (using the latest gadgeteria), take part in the dream, and put their hands on the ideas so that when they wake up they have it, too. So far so good: much worse ideas were used to base science fiction films around.
Our hero at Inception is Leonardo DiCaprio, who, we quickly learn, is not only a master dream thief but also a tormented lover. His wife (Marion Cotillard) used to be his collaborator until she died in mysterious circumstances that left him hindered at his day job through her haunting him in his dreams and trying to jeopardize his success at “work”. In real life DiCaprio is wanted for the murder of his wife, which prevents him from going back to his native USA to see his children.
Opportunity knocks, as they say, with an offer DiCaprio can’t refuse: Ken Watanabe offers to ensure allegations against DiCaprio are removed if DiCaprio does the ultimate job for him. Not stealing info from one’s head, but rather planting an idea inside a competitor’s head. Planting an idea, or the act of inception, is so hard it hasn’t been done before (or so tells us the film); yet odds don’t matter for DiCaprio as he plans the impossible, arranges a crew of supporting actors to help him in his plot, and goes ahead with an intricate plan for planting an idea in someone’s head without that someone noticing: doing it via a dream inside a dream inside a dream. When going that deep one should expect complexities; when doing it in the head of a person trained against dreams’ theft one should expect commando guards everywhere. Thus us, viewers, have ourselves two and half hours of sophisticated action.
I have many problems with Inception, starting from the idea in its premises. Actually, not the idea itself; as I said, there have been worse ideas at the core of films. Sure, if you can access someone’s brain, why do you need to do it through a live action dream instead of randomly accessing it the way you would a hard drive, but hey – let’s not get carried away and forget we are dealing with an excuse to run a film around. No, the problem is with the way the premises are justified and explained to us: again and again we are told that ideas are the most viral thing out there, more so than viruses and microbes; that is, again and again the film bullshits us, since viruses and microbes were there long before the first idea ever had and will be there long after intelligence bearing brains required in order to form ideas with are long gone. Then there is the theory behind the power of dreams, which starts with and is based on – you guessed it – “we’re only using a fraction of our brain power” and “by utilizing the subconscious we can get more”. It’s all repeated again and again, the way pseudoscience always assumes that by hammering down the same message it can make it true; and then piles upon piles of assumptions are thrown on top of that to justify what DiCaprio’s gang is doing and to conjure a set of rules “explaining” to us what’s going on. A lot of time and effort in what is already too long a film is spent doing that, only that, at the bottom of it all, there is no escaping the fact it’s all bullshit! By all means, base your film on a fictitious idea; but don’t forcibly coerce us into thinking it’s anything but a fictitious idea.
Once you accept the bullshit framework what is left is an admirable collection of action scenes with some crafty special effects that is overall incredibly predictable. You know the question of whether this whole thing is a dream or not is going to come up, and once you learn that “no one has gone to the level of dream inside a dream inside a dream before” you know the film would take you one level further – it has to in order to keep the flame burning, otherwise the film can’t be as exciting: you never excite people by meeting their expectations; you need to go over the top.
Going over the top is exactly what Inceptions does. The exaggerated way it does it with belittles it: after less than an hour I stopped caring about its explanations for what is taking place and started laughing instead at its continuously over-stretching arguments.
One of DiCaprio’s mates tries to shoot a dream protecting sentry with a rifle. Another comes in with a suggestion: since they’re in a dream, dream big; he kills the guard with a huge grenade launcher.
The point about this scene is that it recognizes one of the biggest issues I have had with The Matrix, which applies to Inception just the same despite this scene. If everything takes place in a dream world, why shouldn’t you dream big? Why can’t you be a shape shifting, all capable flying superman with your own time machine up your ass? Why should you be limited by what seems to be a studio’s budget for special effects?
My point is that for something that’s meant to be imaginative, Inception is not half as imaginative as I can imagine its world to be.
The film’s climax, in which all the different layered dreams come together, is a study in crafty direction work and editing in particular (including sound editing and the use of music). The main reason for it being a case study is its length: Nolan manages to pull the climax over a period of many minutes.
Does it work? Does Nolan pull it off? Yes and no. It works because it managed to keep me suspended for a long while, but it didn’t work because it drew too much attention to itself at the same time (especially by overusing slow motion).
Technical assessment: There is something that makes the picture on this generally excellent Blu-ray look artificial to me; perhaps it is the way the look of each dream was tailored to make it unique. But that is only a minor complaint. The sound is impeccable, with Hans Zimmer's music delivered with force and extra low frequency special effects.
Overall: There is more to Inception than your average time wasting action flick. That said, there is also more bullshit to it than ten stupid films crammed together. I would therefore say it’s better than the average 3 star action film but it’s not as good as a proper 3.5 out of 5 stars film.