“An idea is like a virus: resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”
Christopher Nolan has certainly made a name for himself over the last ten years. He received widespread populist acclaim for Interstellar a few years back, an interesting but tedious film that stuffed its run time with pretty pictures and exhausting exposition. Nolan is often praised most highly for his work with the Batman trilogy, and there’s a case to be made that this is his best work. However, I’m still waiting for the day that he drops his pretentious scope of vision and makes something as smart and captivating as Memento (i.e. if he ever makes another film under 2 hours.) Memento actually makes an appearance on the 1001 List, so I’ll table that discussion for another day and get to the real meat of this review: Inception. Is it a groundbreaking film? Certainly not, but it isn’t a bad film either, and you have to give Nolan some credit for his ambition with this script and for captivating audiences with a complex, new idea that is exciting and well executed.
Our story’s hero is Cobb (played by Leonardo diCaprio), a dream-infiltration agent who is able to enter dreams to extract information. What makes this story unlike any other day for Cobb is that he is assigned to practice inception, the implanting of an idea as opposed to the extracting of one. This proves to be a challenging task, and it leads us into a complex heist-style film wherein Cobb and his partners (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy among them) must work their way through the mind of a young CEO under the orders of his billionaire business competitor to implant an idea and sabotage the rival business. Meanwhile, the story teases out an inner struggle with Cobb himself as he finds conflict with his own past and must ultimately face whatever may be lurking in his own subconscious.
Inception gets a lot of discussion for its plot, the “dream inside a dream” aspect particularly, with the film’s own title taking on meme status across the Internet for such a convoluted concept. Upon first viewing, I really had expected to need online diagrams to understand the story along the lines of a movie like Primer. However, the plot is fairly simple to understand, even if you aren’t able to catch every detail. Nolan lays out the structure in as simple a manner as possible visually, with different lighting and constant cuts to remind us what “dream level” we’re currently in and who is still awake in which level. Although the plot never feels too confusing, the complex nature of the story can lead to a muddled cinematic vision at times with so much being juggled on the screen at once. This also leads us into Inception’s biggest issue: exposition.
If you’re going to create a new type of world in which people can enter each other’s dreams, this already lends itself to some heavy need for exposition. Viewers want to know how this process works. What happens if you die inside the dream? How do you come out? How is reality different inside a dream? Are people aware they’re dreaming? Right away, the premise of the film has so much to explain. This brings us to Ariadne, Ellen Page’s character who serves as the exposition dump. A major chunk of the film, and a trend that really continues up until the end, is simply characters explaining how this all works to Ellen Page. This is typically a good technique for screenwriting: bring in a character who doesn’t understand what’s going on so you have a reason for it to be explained. In the case of Inception, they do about as good a job as they can. Nolan is no dummy about telling this story (having worked on the script for roughly ten years), and he knows that this exposition can get tiresome. He manages to make it visually interesting by showing instead of telling, bringing Ariadne right into the dream world to show off these neat tricks and lay the groundwork for the meat of the film. However, these efforts still never feel like enough, and Inception can become such a “talky” movie at times that you wonder if the concept will even pay off.
Thankfully, Nolan is a strong storyteller who finally manages to deliver on a thorough exploration of his premise. A worse screenplay wouldn’t have been so interested in Cobb’s subconscious: the subplot involving his deceased wife, but this is what saves the film. As a viewer, I wasn’t too interested in this billionaire succeeding in his scheme. The heist is certainly fun to watch, but in terms of substance, the film really comes through at the end by spilling the details on Cobb and his past. While I still believe this movie could have been a lot tighter, diCaprio’s strong character work and the intrigue of his character’s backstory make this film a really great watch. Without it, Inception would feel like a simple heist movie with a neat spin. However, Nolan refuses to settle for meager blockbuster status and writes a captivating script with honesty and emotion behind it. For this, Inception becomes a great, albeit overstuffed film.
All types of film-goers loved this movie upon release and continue to love it to this day. While I was never ready to heap such heavy praise upon it, I’m still unable to deny what a fine piece of cinema Inception is. It’s a movie that really doesn’t require a lot of focus to follow, but it still challenges your mind and makes you delighted as a viewer that Nolan trusts you to handle so much information. It’s major flaws are simply by-products of the type of film he’s making. For this reason, Inception will never go down as one of the greats, but it will always be a great film.
Films Left to Watch: 937