Regular readers of this column will know that I’m an admirer of British filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Before he became Hollywood’s wonder kid with the “Batman” reboot, I was taken aback by the dexterity, originality and mysteriousness of Nolan’s first feature, “Following,” one of the best noir films of the past 25 years.
Each of his subsequent projects was a step forward, peaking with 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” one of the key films of the ‘00s. But there were always drawbacks to his filmmaking: his close attentiveness to plot over human drama, the lack of stimulation, invention and coherence to his action and, most infuriating of all, the frostiness of his universe; the absence of a convincing emotional crux to his stories.
Yet in “The Dark Knight,” he managed to overcome these shortcomings, producing a near-perfect crime allegory that vividly captured the overriding moral ambiguity and death of heroism of the Bush era.
That’s why I had sky-high expectations for Nolan’s massively hyped sci-fi thriller, “Inception,” one of the few original Hollywood releases this summer.
Everything about the movie screamed “must-see”: A high concept, an impressive cast, and the fact that Nolan has not produced a single dud in his solid 12-year-old career.
Early reviews were raving. Critics left and right heaped praise over Nolan’s latest opus. Some called it a masterpiece; others went as far as hailing it the best American movie of the year, a shoe-in for a best picture Oscar nomination.
A small number of dissenting voices were crushed by the film’s zealous devotees, accusing Nolan’s critics of failing to understand the film.
Well count me in the minority here because, in my book, “Inception” is a minor Nolan; a clever, highly entertaining genre-bending actioner with underdeveloped ideas and a baffling lack of imagination. This is a film about dreams that shies away from exploring the boundless realm of the subconscious; a story of guilt and redemption rendered with exasperating emotional flatness.
Adopting the same scheme that made “Following,” “Memento” and “The Prestige” huge sensations, Nolan constructs “Inception” as an intricate puzzle with plenty of mysteries, twists and revelations. Yet somehow the whole affair feels less compelling, less edgy than his previous films with a predictable payoff that left me cold, apathetic even. The second coming “Inception” certainly is not.
Without giving away the plot, “Inception” is essentially a futuristic heist movie set in an unidentified future. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert conman who steals valuable information from the subconscious of targeted sleepers. For the past few months, Cobb has been on the run for reasons I shall not disclose.
In order to return home and reunite with his two little children, Cobb must pull off one last job; a seemingly impossible one. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a commanding billionaire, hires Cobb to perform an ‘inception’: planting an idea inside a person’s head, eventually altering a fundamental component of the victim’s belief system.
The target this time is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a corporate titan and Saito’s principal competitor. The goal of the ‘inception’ is simple: to drive Robert to give up his father’s empire.
Taking a leaf out of the ultimate heist pic, Jules Dassin’s “Rififi,” Cobb assembles a first-class team — Arthur (a scene-stealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy from “Bronson”), Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne (“Juno’s” Ellen Page), the architect, leaving noting to accident.
But of course things do go haywire early on, compounded by various problems, the foremost of which is Cobb’s crushing guilt over his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard), who’s death he may, or may not, be responsible for.
The first 15-20 minutes of the film are stunning (at least in the first viewing). Permeated with inscrutable details and a sense of delirium, Nolan jumps back and forth between the indistinguishable dream state and the real world in perplexing fashion reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s underrated “eXistenZ.”
Nolan then slows down the pace, laying the groundwork for his grand maze via a nearly 30-minute exposition sequence of which Cobb spends a large chunk tutoring Ariadne on the nature of dreams, the rules of the game and the different means used to infiltrate, and manipulate, the subconscious. The first part is replete with intriguing details and queries: How can you distinguish between the dream world and the real one? How do you know you’re truly in control, that you’re not just a figment of another person’s dream?
The problem is, as soon the operation goes underway and the film turns into another action spectacle (albeit a rather superior one), the hazy distinction between the dream world and reality becomes unmistakably clear for one simple reason: Nolan’s dreamscapes are too lucid, too calculated, too tangible, to be real dreams.
Thus the larger part of the mystery automatically evaporates, replaced with countless chases, gun-shootings and blaring explosions. As expertly executed as the action sequences are, they lack novelty or thrill when compared to the first “Matrix” film for instance.
The film does soar when Nolan lets his imagination loose. The scene where Paris is seen folding unto itself and the gravity-defying action sequence with Gordon-Levitt near the end are awe-inspiring; signs of the film that could’ve been.
The majority of the film’s critics complained that Nolan’s dream world is not loopy or surreal enough; that by working within such a mainstream genre, Nolan was prevented from roaming undirected. In all fairness, the argument seems somewhat feeble.
Each of the four dream layers Cobb and his team navigate through in their journey are carefully constructed, all serving as steady platforms for the ‘inception’ planting. Actions, behavior and consequences have been watchfully studied and prepared for. The room for recreating the perverse flight of fantasies of Lynch and Buñuel, when taken within the tightly-concocted framework of Nolan’s story, is relatively narrow.
Problem is, that doesn’t make for very exciting cinema. It doesn’t help when emotional involvement is almost non-existent, especially with Robert, whose relationship with his father comes off as rushed plot point culled from an entirely different movie.
Cobb’s relationship with Mal, although believable on paper, feels hollow and listless. Cobb is another tortured Nolan hero, haunted by remorse and his moral fall-out.
Critic Steven Boone describes best when he writes that “Cobb’s memories of his lost love and shattered family are the kind of stock images you find in a brand new wallet: pretty wife strolling a sunny beach; adorable kids frolicking in a backyard, hair backlit with a Miller Time glow.”
His traumatic fits are devoid of heart, and so is his relationship with Mal that did not engage me for a second. Unlike Tarkovsky, Nolan doesn’t give his characters the space to weigh their actions, to absorb the cost of their decisions, but Nolan is not Tarkovsky, and “Inception” can never be “Solaris.”
“Inception” is a plot-driven film, not a character study; every element functions as a piece of Nolan’s puzzle and by the end of it all, I felt overwhelmed and stifled by his over-egged stratagem.
“Inception” works best when seen as a fable about movies. Nolan’s dream-creation is analogous to moviemaking: the construction of dreamscapes (hence the compulsive focus on architecture) abounding with promise, exhilaration and, most imperative of all, relief. The most fascinating aspect of the film lies with the dream-making process itself: the desire to escape, to reach a resolution, to make amends with an irreconcilable past, to find logic in a senseless world.
The recurring question that largely defines Nolan’s work is, once again, put forward in here: If you have the chance to choose between the real and the fantasy, between the detrimental truth and the illusion, which would you choose?
Alas, all these ideas are trampled by the stampede of pedestrian action, leaving the viewers with little to chew.
I watched “Inception” expecting the kind of dazzle I experienced with Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” or Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” one of the greatest films about the joys of storytelling and fantasy. For a film about dreams, whimsy and desire though, “Inception” is thoroughly deficient in magic.