Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inception **

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy
Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy
Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Inception gets wrong everything that film noir got right. Perhaps, because in its attempt to create something groundbreaking and original, while obviously referential, it forgot that complexity and depth are often found within simplicity.
Nolan alludes to some of his idols like Stanley Kubrick and Michael Mann to come up with an ambitious facade that reveals deep inside there wasn't much to be said after all.
To put it in a blunt analogy, the movie is the equivalent of receiving a beautifully wrapped package for your birthday only to realize it contains socks.
Inception takes place in a future where corporate espionage has moved to the next level. Instead of sending spies into the companies; ideas and thoughts are stolen directly from the minds of its creators.
Using a machine and a series of sedatives, these dream thieves are able to navigate the minds of people and access hidden information. They create entire dreams, populate them with characters and other tricks to invade the person's subconscious.
But these dreams are made out of different levels and contain all kinds of rules that make this much harder than one would think.
This process is called "extraction" and Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is the go-to-man for these kind of jobs. Of course he has a dark past that led him to this line of work; in his case it's his tempestuous relationship with his wife Mal (Cotillard) and the fact that he's a fugitive who's been trying to make it back home for a while.
One day Dom receives a unique request from powerful businessman Saito (Watanabe), he doesn't need information, he needs "inception", to implant an idea inside his main competitor's (Murphy) mind.
Inception is some sort of urban myth, few people think it can be done, and Cobb reluctantly takes on the job after Saito promises he will clear his charges and make sure he gets back home safe.
To proceed with the heist, Cobb recruits Arthur (Levitt), his main partner and logistics man, Eames (Hardy) a clever impersonator capable of taking on anyone's personality in dreams, Yusuf (Rao), an experienced chemist who provides the sedatives and Ariadne (Page) an architect meant to design the various levels of the dreams.
The plot then moves like your regular heist movie and just like one, pulls cards out of its sleeves to make every twist and turn feel like the ultimate thrill. The thing about Inception is that it's so in love with its own grandiosity that it forgets to have any fun.
By providing certain rules that regulate the dream world (and are sure to become part of geek boy lexicon like the dialogue in Fight Club) the screenplay tries to conceal the fact that Nolan isn't capable of handling different levels of existence in the way Robert Altman did (without the fantastic sci-fi aid mind you).
One of the major elements about the dream world is that as the characters go down one level, time changes. This gives Nolan the opportunity to push slow motion to the limit and come up with some nice looking photographic tricks that make less obvious the fact that Nolan's eyes were bigger than his creative stomach. He tries to inject complexity into pausing action.
Because honestly nothing really happens during these time swifts which usually require the characters to fall asleep in order to work.
The whole movie actually functions on a paradoxical premise: we get the rules but they don't make much sense.
Sure, one could say that sci-fi allows its creators to bend reality and push the imagination but what are we supposed to think about a movie in which the characters are so faithful to the regulations of the world they inhabit, when the screenplay is constantly telling us to take a "leap of faith". Is this leap meant to make us ignore the plot holes in Nolan's writing?
How then, one might wonder, is it possible for the characters to keep secret from each other when invading someone else's mind?
If they are all in one person's subconscious and get to travel together from mind to mind, wouldn't it make sense that they all knew what the other was thinking? To go into these kinds of questions would make the movie fall like a house made out of playing cards and perhaps it's better to give Nolan the benefit of the doubt.
Yet even if it wasn't for the lackluster writing, Inception is doomed by its exhaustive and exhausting attempt to seem clever.
Nolan draws from film noir to come up with the whole plot. We have the "last job", the "man without a past", the femme fatale and other basic elements that made up the film style.
However noir was effective because it took place in a universe where dreams didn't exist, where people became archetypes trying to rediscover humanity.
In films like The Maltese Falcon ("the stuff which dreams are made of") and Out of the Past we saw human decay being explored in such a unique way that we saw the stories take place in locations that seemed real but we knew were representations of larger themes.
These movies about detectives, prostitutes and disloyal crooks were actually studies of the pathologies found in society and explorations of the implications popular culture was beginning to have on the collective psyche.
Yet talking about them, it's hard at first to see them for more than what they are. Inception on the other side, takes these stories into the location they were actually taking place in (the human mind) and by overexplaining them ironically robs them of their entire oneiric qualities.
Film noir is dream-like, Inception somehow is not.
Added to this, we have to wonder about the reality suggested in the world where Inception takes place. Nolan never bothers in suggesting there are any sort of ethical implications to what the dream thieves are doing.
We have to wonder if more people in this world are aware that this exists. Without this it's almost impossible for this technique to feel menacing. How can someone fear what they can't fathom possible?
The movie lacks a feeling of threat that goes beyond what the characters are going through. As personal as the subconscious they're invading might be, there is still a body that owns it and is presumably regulated by things like the law and societal rules.
Why then does the movie forgo all this and tries to trick us by making it seem as if it's only these characters who exist in the world (even taking into account some plot twists, it would still be rather limited to stick to such a facile theory).
It would be easy to dispute almost any element about the film's structure but the one thing nobody can deny is the lack of coherence in the dichotomy between mind and emotion.
We are constantly reminded by the characters that as logical as dreams may seem, they are ruled and commanded by feelings.
It's even one of the main points in planning the heist.
When it comes to executing this though, the movie falls apart disastrously even if a lot of the characters are constantly talking about emotions.
"What do you feel?" asks Mal, in what should've been the movie's emotional center. Instead of making the audience shed a tear, this scene just proves how disconnected the movie is from its own speech.
As if Nolan too chose to forget a truth he once knew...or maybe just lacks the directorial skills to aim at both mind and heart.
Not that there's anything wrong with it, in fact Kubrick made a career out of the purely cerebral, Nolan perhaps should also stick to what he knows best.
Sadly because the movie doesn't have the emotional core it refers to so much, we are denied the opportunity of watching either an entertaining heist flick or a tragic romance.
But not everything about the movie disappoints. The action sequences are interesting although their reminiscence to the Batman flicks and Insomnia make it seem like all these characters dream of are Christopher Nolan movies. It would've been interesting to see him play with these landscapes in a more surrealistic way, perhaps not pushing it all the way into whimsical territory like Hitchcock and Dalí did but at least toying a bit more with all the fuss about how in dreams you can build whatever you want.
Then there's Marion Cotillard who not only gets the film's most interesting "character" but also makes Mal so rich and complex that an eventual plot twist will leave us scratching our heads in awe. Watching her walk with the elegance of Marlene Dietrich while the world, literally, falls apart around her is watching an actress at the height of her powers. There is nothing she can't do.
The same can not be said about the movie, which proves that the more you talk about ideas doesn't mean you are particularly enlightened.


Simon said...

I liked it, but I was still buzzing from geeky 'Holy shit lookit THAT!' factor. Cotillard certainly is one of the best things about it, anyway.

Dan said...

I love adulation for Cotillard.

Interesting look at the film. I've seen it once - need to see it again - but I enjoyed it a lot. I have to admit to having a 'holy schnikies' moment like Simon when the car/building spin and no gravity thing was going on - loved that!

Castor said...

Wow 2 stars? Ahah excellent review though and I agree with your assessment for the most part. Inception confuses complexity with depth. Ultimately though, it is a satisfying summer blockbuster, nothing more and nothing less.

Jose said...

Simon. you're right, it is kinda mind blowing sometimes but then it's not.

Dan: adulation for Cotillard is my new MO. What a fantastic actress she's become!

Castor: I was actually going to go with less stars but Cotillard won me over, seriously she's the only reason why I went watch this again.
Nolan should make up his mind whether he wants to make us think or entertain us. Not that you can't have both but he sure doesn't know how to deliver it.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I probably should not have read this. Ah, what the hell. I'm surprised yet unsurprised but the review is long - and you know how I love long reviews - and excellent. So much to think of, but I hope I forget yours whenever I end up reviewing, I hope I like it...but I'm not that anxious. I already got one good Leo performance this year, so I'm not being a glutton. I'm way too analytical with movies sometimes (Toy Story 3 eg.) so I may not love it.

Kudos on the Kubrick/Nolan references. I've never been a big fan of Kubrick either...

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

And yes, other than the ten words Nick (of Nick's Flick Picks) this is the only Inception review I read (interestingly he gave it a C-, wasn't too much of a fan - at all)

Jose said...

You know how I feel about the other Leo movie Andrew, actually the two of them would make for an interesting double feature, seeing how they pretty much discuss the same things and Leo plays an angsty detective with girl troubles.
Marion>Michelle though.
I haven't read any other reviews but had expected them all to be insane raves. Let's see what you make of it when you watch it!

Kit van Cleave said...

Cotillard once more proves what she can do -- anything. In 2009 ad 2010, she has worked with the top directors and leading men, sometimes in supporting roles, giving a totally committed and professional performance. She's just been building her international credibility. Watch this career; she'll be around for many years.