Movie Review – Inception
Principal Cast : Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, Talulah Riley.
Synopsis: Dom Cobb, an extractor who steals information from peoples dreams, is given the chance to see his children again after a job goes wrong: he must implant an idea inside the mind of the son of a dead businessman. In order to do this, he must create, and enter, many levels of dreaming.
It’s hard to imagine that prior to reinventing the Batman franchise for Warner Brothers, Christopher Nolan was a damn fine filmmaker anyway: films such as Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige are mini-classics in their own right. Since Batman Begins and The Dark Knight swept public consciousness towards his talent like never before, Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight was always going to be one of the years most anticipated films. Many people wanted to know if Nolan could back up after Dark Knight with another film of equal, or increased, quality, even if it wasn’t a Batman related movie. And so we are given Inception, a long-in-the-pipeline saga Nolan and his brother Jonathan have been working on for almost a decade. Starring the always solid Leonardo DiCaprio, and a supporting cast of Nolan’s gradually building troupe (including Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy), Inception is a brain-bending journey into dreams and alternative reality. Is it a good film? Assuredly. Is it a great film? That will remain to be seen in the fullness of time, but hyperbole and fanboy hysteria aside, Inception could quite possibly be the best film of the year.
Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, an “extractor” who goes into peoples dreams and removes information they’d otherwise wish to keep secret. This technology has found its way into the world of corporate espionage, and at the time the film opens, we find Cobb trying to obtain materials from a man named Saito (Ken Watanabe), alongside his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Things go pear-shaped when Cobb’s wife arrives and appears to betray the mission. After escaping to the real world, the real Saito offers Cobb another job; to implant a thought into somebody’s mind, rather than “extract” one. This theory of “inception”, long thought impossible to most who enter dreams, triggers in Cobb a desire to return to the US and see his children, who through some tragedy are now kept away from him. By completing this mission, he will be granted immunity from prosecution (for an unseen crime) back in the States. Cobb puts together a new team, including Ariadne (Juno’s Ellen Page), a young girl who will design the “dream world” the mission will take place in, Eames (Tom Hardy, best known here in Australia as Shinzon from Star Trek: Nemesis), a wisecracking “forger” capable of appearing like somebody else in the dream world, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the “chemist” who drugs the crew to sleep. The target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is the young son of multi-billionaire industrialist Maurice Fischer, whose imminent death is the catalyst for this mission.
Before I launch into the various things that I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy from Inception, let me make this perfectly clear: Inception is a fantastic movie. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot, and no doubt repeated viewings will, I feel, allow me to grow an appreciation for Nolan’s pet project, but if you’re wavering on whether or not to see it, see it. It’s a film that must be experienced on the big screen – moreso than even Avatar, truth be told. There were things that prevented Inception from achieving the true greatness (more on these in a moment) initial critical reviews may have espoused, but for the vast majority of film-goers, these will be footnotes in an otherwise amazing story that you really need to see. Christopher Nolan has, once again, created a complete world in this film; the film revolves primarily around DiCaprio’s Cobb, something DiCaprio himself insisted on (apparently) prior to singing up for the project. It’s a character driven piece with some amazing effects, not the other way around, and apart from being the most intellectually refreshing film to emerge from Hollywood in years, the “cleverness” of it all never seems phoney or contrived. It’s a film to stimulate the mind, rather than stimulate your adrenaline per se. It will do the latter, of course, but only after the former.
First, the good. Inception’s story, as I mentioned, revolves primarily around Cobb, his struggles and emotional arc forming the basis for the majority of the events past the first scene. At the introduction of Ariadne, in particular, I felt Nolan shifted focus to her, rather than Cobb, momentarily, which felt a little weird considering the majority of the film up to that point had been told from Cobb’s perspective. Ellen Page, as Ariadne, does a good job, although she’s outclassed by DiCaprio in their scenes together. The cast, overall, are uniformly good, with extended cameo’s from Michael Caine and a blink-and-miss-him Lukas Haas; I never thought I’d say I saw a good film featuring Tom Berenger, but Berenger is actually up to the challenge of this multi-layered narrative. The effects, of course, are superb. You only have to watch the trailers to see that. Paris folds in upon itself, buildings crumble and rebuild in moments; Inception has some gargantuan moments in it, but Nolan places them firmly in the background, almost as throwaway stuff, which is also refreshing. In-your-face effects often detract from a film, especially one involving actual coherent thought, and it’s good to see Nolan isn’t a slave to having effects for the sake of it.
The music, from Hans Zimmer, is bold and brassy, while also feeling a little noirish, an accompanies the on-screen action perfectly. I’ve felt a little ambivalence to Zimmer’s work over the last decade, since his success with the Gladiator score, and I’ve often felt he recycles his ideas a lot. This isn’t the case with Inception, as Zimmer’s score not only encapsulates the discordant and jarring narrative structure, but evokes its own feelings of unease and mystery. Wally Pfister’s wonderful lensing of the film, the muted tones of the “real world” and the heightened mid range of the “dream world”, is to be applauded. His work in lighting this movie is astonishing, and if you’re studying to become a lighting designer, or a production designer, this is definitely a film you’ll want to watch and learn.
But the key element that makes Inception so good, an element that stands above the rest, is the galvanising performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, and co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both these actors do a superb job in their respective roles, with DiCaprio getting the lion’s share of dialogue leaving Gordon-Levitt to brood and grin in what is essentially a “sidekick” role. DiCaprio, an actor whose ability is gradually improving since he managed to squirm his way through Cameron’s Titanic, does what I feel is his best work here. Cobb is a vastly flawed individual, and rather than make us hate him for his actions (which, when you stand back and look at it are quite reprehensible from a moral point of view), DiCaprio actually engenders some sympathy. It’s not an incredibly emotional journey he takes us on, even if the themes around his character are incredibly emotional, but his convincing and uninhibited portrayal of a man desperate to see his children is powerful indeed. I’ll stick my neck out now and say that both DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt could be up for an Oscar next year. Both are exceptionally good.
Inception isn’t, however, without flaw. The first is the dearth of character development beyond Cobb and Arthur; none of the other characters are allowed the same dramatic arc that Cobb goes on, and this imbalance in audience empathy for the rest of the cast is tangible when the stakes are raised in the final act. I would agree with those who argue that a film with such a large cast cannot possibly hold such a trove of depth of character, but I say that Inception’s second-tier characters are given particularly short thrift by Nolan in this instance. Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps not, but that’s the way I feel. Ellen Page, as the second lead female in the piece (behind Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife) is given the worst of the character stuff: she’s the one who discovers the secrets Cobb has , and tries to get him to open up to her. At times, I felt Ariadne was merely in the film just for this to happen, rather than any organic reason (except she can draw a maze real quick like!), a foil of sorts for the usually unflappable Cobb. Ariadne wasn’t well written enough for me to feel that her actions were either justified or mitigated, instead she was just there, like a pimple you can’t pop. Tom Hardy, as Eames, is probably as close to “comedy relief” in Inception as you’re likely to get, since the film doesn’t lend itself to a lot of funny bits. Strangely, he doesn’t get Inception’s best line, however: that honour is up to Gordon-Levitt. The dark nature of the film is such that humour is virtually strip-mined from the script, something which may have actually improved the story. Hardy doesn’t get a lot to do, really, which is disappointing because he’s normally a great dramatic actor.
But by far the most hard done by of all the cast is undoubtedly Marion Cotillard, as Mallorie “Mal” Cobb, whose presence in Inception is both the cause of, and resolution of, the entire story. In order for DiCaprio’s dramatic arc to work well, we had to “get” the connection between him and Mal before the events of the film. The problem here is that Mal is inherently a character of anger, the unreasoning, unpredictable ID in Cobb’s mind, and as such, is the true danger whenever the crew goes into the “dream world”. But we don’t get any true light and shade with her, at least not in relation to Cobb, so our feelings about her are drawn from Cobb himself, and even then only a tiny bit at a time. We’re never given a reason for her journey with Cobb to be so important, save that it ends up being about his kids. The emotional connection between them isn’t built: we’re told to have one and by the end of the film, this dramatic storyline kind of whimpers over the line. Which is disappointing, because this is the key part of the film, and the place from which all the angst and dramatic momentum is derived.
Yes, the main issue for Inception is character development, particularly of the supporting cast. While the leads do their bit with astonishing effectiveness, the support cast seem more like they’re there simply to fill out the roster, rather than go on their own, personal journeys. I would have liked to see more of Eames, definitely a more character developed Ariadne (a role which felt like a great idea had been undercooked at the last minute… I mean, what a cool name is Ariadne! How can you not like that as a character?) and more back-story on Saito. But these are minor quibbles in what can only be described as an intelligent, well directed film from a man becoming used to widescreen epic film-making. Christopher Nolan has delivered a top class film, a film destined to be nominated at Oscar time for many awards, probably even for Best Picture. Inception deserves such a nomination, although only time will tell if it deserves to win. Many people will back it based on the complexity of the plot, the quality of the acting overall, and the wonderfully seamless effects, but I’m still not convinced. Inception deserves multiple viewings, none the least for the scene in which Arthur, in a gravity-free environment, not only fights security agents but a race against the clock as well. It’s a complex, well thought out mind-trip, and as well as being brilliantly executed leaves several unexplained things dangling in our subconscious. While not having the twists and turns of, say The Prestige, or Memento, Inception is quite possibly Nolan’s most comprehensive achievement outside of the Batman films.
9 thoughts on “Movie Review – Inception”
I think Tom Berenger is a great American actor. I know that after the 80's, he was in some bad films but that happened to other actors. I have seen Gene Hackman in some embarassing roles! But, considering Tom Berenger's work overall as an actor, his breadth is incredible. His work is convincing and he always has a big authentic presence, including an uncanny, intuitive ability to transform himself and use samall gestures, vocal intonations, and body language so that acting is never visible. Now, there are more intelligent actors or at least actors who give more verbose interviews; there are better known actors who covet stardom. Yet, he speaks Italian and Spanish fluently and is a true history buff. His work as a whole showcases a unique portrayal of masculinity as a combination of sensitivity and testosterone…. and this he has done better than any other actor.
If you have not read the opinions of Stone and at least three other great directors, then take a tip from this visual artist/professor: Tom Berenger is unusual in his individualism and his abiding interest in history (see One Man's Hero, Rough Riders, and Johnson County Wars). He HAS wanted to own his life and his career has probably suffered as a result. But considering his role in excellent films like Betrayed, Platoon, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Did you know that he was the first actor in the history of film to embrace full frontal nudity for most of the film in order to authentically portray the life of indigenous people), Someone to Watch Over Me, and The Field, I think your comment, "I never thought I’d say I saw a good film featuring Tom Berenger, but Berenger is actually up to the challenge of this multi-layered narrative" was mean-spirited. He is an artist; let's welcome him back to an important film with the respect and encouragement he deserves.
You're right Judith, upon reflection my comment about Mr Berenger does seem rather mean spirited. Looking down Berenger's filmography, he's done some very good work (not the least was the astonishingly good Gettysburg, as well as Training Day and Born On The Fourth Of July), so consider my opinion changed in this regard.
With Inception, and the upcoming Faster (with Dwayne Johnson), perhaps he's coming back to the A-list standard he deserves.
You seem to have an intimate knowledge of Mr Berenson's character and motivations: do you know him personally?
I liked your review and greatly respect your openness. Let's share opinions again!
Your new painter friend, kansasslick
Always good to gain a new friend!!!
I LOVED this movie.
I went in without having seen any trailers, knowing what it was about or who was in it and have to say, I REALLY loved it. I couldn't sleep properly the night I watched it cause I was thinking about it so much and how awesome it is.
I'd give it a 9/10, or at LEAST an 8.5
It's got an amazing script, awesome cast and crew, flawless production values and overall just blew me out of the water.
This is now replaced The Matrix as my most enjoyed film.
Replaced The Matrix? Impressive. Most impressive.
Well well well. I don't know how this slipped by me or us for that matter. We seem to agree on a great many things in the trenches of cinema, from films and filmmakers to actors and crew – even adaptations we seem to feel similarly. But this? O.K. This is old news now. The movie has made the rounds, there have been countless discussions, generally favorable if not salivatingly so, and to go on and on now seems unfitting and perhaps even unnecessary given the absolute 180 degree variance of our opinion about this, ahum, film. But that being said, here's my two cents.
"Is it a good film? Assuredly. Is it a great film? That will remain to be seen in the fullness of time, but hyperbole and fanboy hysteria aside, Inception could quite possibly be the best film of the year." I'm going to go against the grain and say no, this is not a good film and great never entered the room. Best of anything remains to be seen, though popular opinion and box office receipts should be noted as perhaps the most inferior quotient for the quality of a film or book. Lets face it, Howard Stern's biography was on the New York Times best seller list for 15 weeks or something like that. I read it. Well, I read the first paragraph. Muck.
I've written extensively about this film. Perhaps too much. Please drop over to Above the Line and let me know your thoughts if you want to raise the rapier. The reason I detest this film so much is a simple word: Exposition. This is the word you learn about in screen writing 101. No, not even 101. This is intro to screen writing where you don't actually get to write anything but read the master works of those who came before you. And then you add in the cardboard characters, flimsy dream nonsense and the drawn out, painfully annoying use of repetitive images and slow-motion chicanery and my head is already spinning.
And truth be told, Nolan tried to make this film prior to the Batman flick but the studios didn't trust that he could handle such a big budget project so they made him do Batman first. Given that that film was so vastly successful he was given the keys to the kingdom which, in my opinion, was the reason why so many mistakes were made in making this film and no one had the chutzpa to question Mr. Nolan. Let me summarize:
1. DiCaprio is rarely if not remotely as talented now as he was in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. I'd say after The Aviator, he's never stretched beyond the same stiff, emotionally vacant caricature of himself. Example, watch Reservation Road and Shutter Island. Same character, same suit I'd bargain, with the same emotions worn like a cheap button on a two dollar suit. He's padded the air around himself with accolades and praise to the extent the only way he might save himself is to strip down to the bone and make a truly independent film like The Wrestler – something gritty, something that forces him back to that creative place we've seen, just not in a long while.
2. Exposition. If Nolan had allowed the characters to inhabit the space of the story without the need to yap through the entire film, making sure we knew where we were and why and how and what was going to happen next. I could have closed my eyes and listened to the movie and got every bit of it without the repetitive slow motion and frequently ridiculous special FX fight scenes that were originated in The Matrix and handled better.
3. Ellen Page. Period. If she never makes another movie, at least we have Juno and Hard Candy. By the way, if you want to see a bare bones indie movie with brass tacks, check out Hard Candy. Here she's a dough eyed woman in a child's body. If only she could have wiped the "what am I supposed to be looking at because all I see are green screens" look off her face.
4. The ensemble cast never had a chance. They were relegated to miniaturized supporting roles, more prop devices and guys to be killed off so the main character can seem to be defying death (same as the guys in the yellow shirts while everyone else wore another color on Star Trek, you know, the ones who always got killed in action).
5. And Marion Cotillard, really? She portrayed a singular emotion for the entire film and even that was plastic, hard shell and uninteresting. I got tired of looking at her to be honest as there just wasn't anything going on either from the actress or the character. She was a plot device with big, round wet eyes.
Oh, and the trailer – perfect. But that's not the film I saw and I'd bet it wasn't the film anyone else saw either.
Another very detailed and interesting review, Rodney. I just very nearly completing disagree with you. But isn’t that by far more interesting? So I guess you can consider me either the first of those 12 people you mentioned or the twelfth – either way I’ll go on the fence any time to point out the massive holes in Mr. Nolan’s epic disaster movie. Maybe it would play better backwards, like Titanic?
Allow me to respond.
1. Ellen Page – I was never that big a fan, and her role in this film felt like somebody said "we've got to get a girl into this picture" to make it appeal to the female audience a little more (as if they had to worry, because Leo's in it, right?), and aside from Juno and Whip It (a great film, by the way) I haven't found her as appealing as an actress as the rest of Hollywood seems to think.
2. Marion Cotillard – Reflecting on things, I agree with you.
3. Exposition – I guess you could say that Inception is fairly talky, but I would posit that the exposition is finely balanced in between the action sequences, much like The Matrix, as you referenced. The trouble with this film, I think, is that it essentially deals with a fairly ethereal concept (dreams, the substance of the subconscious) and a lot of people have issues with such a… how shall I put it… open-to-interpretation?…plot. I guess thats the most interesting thing for me – is that every event isn't neccecarily explained and set in stone, allowing for people to have different ideas on what's happening.
4. Ensemble – I'd disagree with you there a little, although I can see your point on the limited screen time and character development. Still, it's an ensemble film with DiCaprio in the lead, so it was always going to be about Leo instead of everyone else. I think the British tend to "do" ensemble films better than anybody, but the problem with such a film element is the reduced time allowed to each character – it's a default that can work against even the best film, and I think you may be slightly right in this regard with Inception. There's stuff there for the supporting cast to do, it's just they don't seem to be able to get out from under Leo's enormous <del datetime="2011-02-18T22:07:37+00:00">ego</del> shadow.
5. Leo – agreed: he does seem to be playing the same character over and over in each film (and I didn't like Shutter Island). Often (as was the case with casting Keanu in The Matrix) it can work for the character, and I think here he's just frustrated and on-the-edge enough to remain believable in the role, but I agree that he does need to get out of the ego-inflating stuff and go back to his roots…. rediscover his amazing acting ability…..
6. The Trailer – is indeed among the very best ever.
You do raise some good points, Rory (I expect nothing less!), but I am in agreement with you one one major point: only time will tell if Inception is the great film everyone seems to think it is, or the muck-puddle others see as a gigantic ego-stroke for Nolan.
O.K. So you caught me trying to be productive and given that production is slipping away as the hour goes, I'll return your serve accordingly. I must say this is EXACTLY the reason I started my blog, btw. I love the idea of discussing films on an intellectual level and not just fanboy or fangirl blowby.
That being said, and all things being equal (sort of) ->
1. Don't forget – check out Hard Candy. You might just find a new appreciation for Page.
2. Nuff said.
3. I think I'll agree to disagree with you. My gut is a pretty good barometer for exposition and I was nauseated by the talkety-talk. I think it didn't help the film that I wasn't exactly impressed with the FX either. I like your idea of 'open for interpretation' but that falls a little too closely to directors allowing an actor to "do whatever" simply because they've delivered solid performances before. Actors need direction period. Story needs plot period.
4. Agreed – The Brits have the ensemble a finely honed thing.
Thanks Rodney – always a pleasure exchanging thoughts and cinema. Time->cheers<-