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.