Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review: Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

"Reality" is a relative concept in Christopher Nolan's Inception.
Inception is the film that avid film buffs have been waiting for; a film to remember 2010 by. As one, I have been bitterly disappointed and frustrated by the consistent flow of poor quality, underachieving blockbusters released by Hollywood so far this year. In a business that is now dominated by franchises (although Toy Story 3 was exceptional), it is always refreshing to see a wholly original idea that actually respects the intelligence of its audience. With the exception of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (which was similarly complex and thought-provoking) and Pixar's latest master work Toy Story 3, 2010 thus far has been a very disappointing year for film.

Inception's success at the box office is not a surprise when we recognize the success of Christopher Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight (2008). The truth is, Nolan is yet to make a bad film (though in my opinion The Prestige is his weakest) and following the critical success of The Dark Knight and a series of intriguing trailers, Inception promised to be even better. It stands as Nolan's masterpiece, a stunningly complex work of artistic genius and one of the finest films of the last decade of cinema.

To fully grasp the concepts that concisely define the plot of Inception it will likely take more than a single viewing, but some definitions are obvious upon the first viewing. This is the work of a man dedicated to his craft and driven by perfection. Having ironed out the faults that have plagued his earlier films, most notably the 'too-smart-for its-own-good' premise of The Prestige (2006), and the wallow into cliche during the concluding third of The Dark Knight, Inception avoids even such minor negatives. The screenplay itself should warrant another Oscar nomination for Nolan, but technically, it is also near flawless. I have heard the film described as The Matrix meeting 007, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind meets Jason Bourne, but really it is incomparable. Many of the sequences are filmed like a dream, featuring a vibrant otherworldly luminosity, and works to create that subtle confusion between what is a dream and what is reality.

Cobb, when he is explaining the concept of dreaming to Ariadne, recognizes that humans barely remember how their dreams begin, but are just immersed in the world. The film begins this way, with Cobb washed up on a beach, captured and dragged into a dining room where an elderly gentleman sits with his back to the camera. We do not know how he arrived here, and seemingly nor does Cobb. The film then jumps to what appears to be another dream sequence, which shows Cobb working an extraction mission. The origins are revealed later, but the way the scene is lit also hints at a dream. Many of the sequences in the film begin like this, but as we become wise to the mission and the processes of extraction and inception throughout the film, we begin to think we can differentiate between what we perceive to be reality and dream, and I think Nolan does a fantastic job in making that process relatively simple for the audience. Of course, much of what we perceive during the film is left open to personal interpretation, which is also Nolan's intention. Many of the strange feelings that accompany dreams are examined in Inception, such as the seemingly infinite extension of time during dreaming and that feeling of free-falling that often jolts us awake.

The plot revolves around Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is hired to enter the subconscious dream-state of wealthy corporate businessmen and extract information when the mind is at its most vulnerable, that ultimately reveals their ideas to rivals, who then pay accordingly for the information. As a result of this work, Cobb has been exiled from the United States, both for his illegal thieving, and also under suspicion that he was directly involved with the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who committed suicide after falsely believing she was still living a dream, requiring to kill herself in order to wake up. Cobb seeks to be reunited with his children back home, who are under the watch of his father-in-law (Michael Caine). As I discussed earlier, the film opens with Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) trying to extract information from a powerful business mogul Mr Saito (Ken Watanabe). Cobb poses as the leader of Saito's subconscious security to aid him in a defense against the most skilled extractors who may want to access Saito's secrets. Saito considers their proposal and leaves the room, which prompts Arthur to believe that he is aware of their plot.

Cobb breaks into the safe and steals the documents, but his projection of Mal, who knows how to navigate his subconscious and sabotage his missions, interrupts by revealing the plot to Saito and shoots and awakens Arthur. The dream begins to collapse and Cobb awakens to join the others in a safe house hidden from an angry mob that threatens their position. Saito recognizes that they are all still dreaming when he discovers that the carpet in this room is made of a different material to the real one. Recognizing the mission failure, Cobb, Arthur and Nash (the architect for the mission) wake on the train where the plot is staged and decide to depart separately. They are soon approached again by Saito, who reveals that he had been aware of their attempt to steal his secrets and that it had been an audition for possible future work together. If Cobb could assemble a team capable of a successful inception (the planting of an idea into the subconscious of a target as opposed to theft), Cobb is promised freedom from his exile and any charges to his name revoked.

He assembles a team of experts, including himself and Arthur, Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy) as the forger capable of shifting identities within the dream state, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as the chemist who creates the powerful sedatives capable of allowing the team to share and operate in multiple levels of dreaming. The target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of the dying rival of Saito, Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlewaithe). With the ownership of the company to be soon left solely to Robert, the team's assignment is to plant the idea in his head to dismantle his father's monopoly that threatens to run Saito out of business. On a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, the team joins Fischer as he accompanies the body of his father home and through the injection of a strong sedative concocted by Yusuf, make him the subject of a shared dream.

Yusuf hosts the first dream, which is a rainy inner city district. After abducting Fischer, the team is attacked by endless patrols of armed mercenaries, which function as a militarized subconscious acting as antibodies to destroy the invasion of the team and foreign idea they intend to plant. To enable the team to successfully complete the inception and leave the dream space, a 'kick' (or a feeling of free-falling) within the embedded dream must be staged to return the team to the previous dream level and ultimately reality. Normally, killing a member of the team within the dream would allow them to awake, but solely for this mission will result in their isolation into limbo, unable to differentiate between what is a dream and what is reality. Once the team discovers that the former method is in place, conflict ensues and consensus is to abort the mission immediately.

Eames assumes the role of Peter Browning (played by Tom Berenger), Maurice Fischer's closest adviser and Godfather to Robert, to cloud Browning's motives in Fischer's subconscious. Browning reveals that Maurice had left a will for his son in the safe in his office instructing that he dismantle the company, and that the combination should exist in his subconscious, he just isn't aware of it yet. The interrogation is interrupted by the mercenaries. Yusuf drives the team through the city in a white van, battling the slick roads and pursuing mercenaries, allowing the team the time to inject themselves with the sedatives and move into the next dream state, a classy hotel hosted by Arthur. In this state Cobb adopts the role of Mr Charles, who poses as the head of Fischer's subconscious security, making Fischer aware of the strangeness of his 'reality' and conning him into assisting him with the defense against his own subconscious. They force Fischer to believe that he has been kidnapped and is traveling in a van, a plan orchestrated by Browning. They suggest they go deeper into Browning's subconscious to find out his motives with the learning the combination and taking control of the company.

Inside of a hotel room, the team enters the next dream sequence (in fact the next level of Fischer's subconscious). This is a snowy mountain hospital facility that Fischer must infiltrate to reveal the embedded idea. Fisher works with Saito to infiltrate the facility, while Eames distracts the seemingly infinite attacking mercenaries. Saito dies of his injuries experienced in the first dream level, and Fischer is shot and killed by Mal, who once again sabotages the mission. Ariadne and Cobb follow Fischer into limbo in an attempt to kick him back to the facility to ensure the successful inception. Eames remains behind and scatters charges for the final kick. In limbo they find Mal who tries to convince Cobb to stay with her by taunting him about his perception of reality, and that she is the only thing that is real. Ariadne kicks back Fischer, who awakens and opens the vault to find his father dying in a bed. He concludes that his father would be disappointed if he turned into him, and decides to dismantle the empire. In limbo, Cobb decides to remain and search for Saito to bring him back, and misses the kick. Eames blows the charges causing the facility to be destroyed, while Arthur (in zero gravity) has moved all his colleagues into a lift and places charges that cause the lift to rise from the impact, while the van, which has been free falling from the bridge, finally hits the water. The activity within the different dream levels is masterfully edited together and the extension of time present in the lower dream levels is fused together to create cohesive linearity. The trio of kicks causes all of the team to awaken on the plane.

The conclusion is intentionally ambiguous. Cobb tracks down Saito, who is incredibly old, to remind him that he is stuck in Limbo and that his perceived reality is in fact a dream. Saito remembers their agreement, and recognizes the top found on Cobb. It is assumed that Saito shoots them both, and with the timer now ended and the sedative worn off, this causes them to wake back in reality on the plane. Saito calls his customs contact and Cobb is allowed to enter the United States, where he is greeted by his father-in-law and taken home to see his children. But if Saito shoots just himself, then Limbo would be solely in control of Cobb. Remaining in this dream state, his world could be transformed into his perfect reality, free of pursuit from the authority and granted freedom to see his children. This is confirmed if the top keeps spinning at the conclusion, while it signifies reality if it topples. This is left completely to the audience to decide, but i establish it is the former theory.

Another somewhat plausible theory is that the entire film is a dream, and that Cobb is attempting to perform inception on himself while in one of the dream dens revealed by Yusuf. The entire film is a plot to free himself of the guilt he feels because of the death of his wife, and to be able to see the faces of his children again, he creates a scenario that requires him to control and alter his subconscious. The team are his projections assigned to assist him with his personal inception. One of the most interesting theories, and I'm not sure if this was Nolan's intention, is the idea that the film is about the film making process itself and that each of the characters represents a piece of the puzzle. For example, Saito is the studio funding the project, Cobb is the leader and the director, Ariadne is the architect and the screenwriter and Eames is the actor within.

The cast is brilliantly assembled, and features some striking performances. Leo is as solid as always as his performance effortlessly balances a figure capable of confident leadership but clouded by a heartbreaking emotional vulnerability at his core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are two of the best young stars in the business and their diverse skills shine through here. Ken Watanabe, as usual, is great, and Tom Hardy (whose recent breakthrough performance in Bronson has drawn comparisons to Ed Norton) has lots of fun, and shines through as the hero here. Mario Cotillard, whose luminous beauty is unrivaled, also gives a powerful performance. Time was taken by Nolan to ensure that the characters were interestingly conceived and then impeccably cast. I can't fault this cast, and even wily veteran Michael Caine effortlessly extends his wisdom.

I really loved the incredibly calculated deconstruction of the time image that succeeds in being both meticulously crafted to enable such an enormous scope to this ingenious concept, while at the same time valuing the intelligence of the audience and allowing them to deconstruct the plot concisely. It is never too smart for its own good. The action is intense and thrilling, and the dream levels possess such an originality. Technically, it is flawless, especially Hans Zimmer's score, which is amazing, and one of the greatest film scores I have ever experienced. The cinematography by Wally Pfister is stunning and Lee Smith should have the editing Oscar wrapped up already. It demands and rewards on multiple viewings, and it is one of the most engrossing cinema experiences since There Will be Blood (2007).

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)

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