Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

USA/UK 2010

148 mins

As Christopher Nolan’s Inception is all about dreams and the persistence of memory, it’s entirely fitting that my feelings about the film changed as time elapsed after it ended. Immediately after leaving the cinema, my overall impression was that I loved the experience and wanted to watch (at the least the beginning of) the film again, preferably in an IMAX cinema. However, after a couple of days’ reflection, while I still would happily recommend the film as one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen this year, the flaws of the movie became increasingly apparent.

One of the main themes of the film is the seductive nature of subconscious fantasies, and indeed the world(s) the film presents are often beguiling, and the audience enjoys being immersed in them as much as some of the characters do on screen. However, while Inception is laced with great (if familiar) ideas, their strength and novelty diminish as the film progresses.

The plot of the film, which presumably is set in the near-future - although only the concept of the technology, which allows people to share their dreams, is futuristic, not its rendering, which looks like a 1980s child’s toy - is about corporate espionage, with characters entering the minds of CEOs to steal secrets and subvert their future decision-making. Corporate espionage was fairly common in late 20th-century speculative fiction, but hasn’t really taken off in the cinema outside of films such as Cypher (2002) and Largo Winch (2008), which both deserved greater attention but slipped under the radar of many genre fans. Indeed, in a world where corporate interests have greater power than national ones, it’s surprising that, in contrast to cyberpunk fiction in print, films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999) have focused more on protagonists struggling to define their humanity under the onslaught of technology rather than on man versus (evil) corporations. Perhaps as big-budget films are financed by corporations, filmmakers might be worried about biting the hands that feed them.

Inception is basically a cross between The Matrix (1999) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), with a touch of Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001) thrown in. Like The Matrix, it presents us with imaginary worlds that allow the protagonists to perform heroic deeds, kill bad guys with no consequences (as they’re not real) and manipulate the world around them on a practically quantum level - such elements as gravity and architecture being vulnerable to manipulation. A Nightmare on Elm Street lends the idea of a nemesis from beyond the grave, who can trap our heroes in the dream world, leading to their (brain) death in the real one. Ocean’s Eleven and the briefly resurrected heist movies of the last decade lend the idea of a group with different attributes who team up to perform a scam/break-in for financial reward. In fact, this is pretty much a magpie’s nest of a film, including imagery from MC Escher prints and James Bond movies, with echoes of other films that have similar plots from Total Recall (1990) to Dark City (1998).

However, director Christopher Nolan just about pulls it off. The various characters in the movie are well cast and not so two-dimensional that you don’t enjoy their company, even if only really the lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has anything to lose (and that’s somewhat debatable too). This is cinema as spectacle, and having honed their art on the 21st-century Batman films, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister are exemplary creators of films that feature great locations, intriguing set pieces and plenty of things blowing up. The film is constantly exciting, entertaining and impressively mounted. The cast, featuring a trio of veterans from the director’s first Batman film (Watanabe, Caine, Murphy) alongside relative newcomers to the action genre (Page, Gordon-Levitt and Hardy) are all extremely engaging, to the extent that the attraction of the ensemble alone makes the idea of a sequel welcome, albeit one that would focus more on character development.

The slickness of the first third of the film, cut to a relentless Hans Zimmer score as if it was a trailer, is initially off-putting, suggesting another Michael Bay-style experience. It’s a film that never lets you think about the ideas it’s presenting while it cuts from one beautifully constructed scene to another. As we enter the dream worlds within worlds within worlds, the initial complexity of the various narratives running concurrently makes you occasional want Christopher Lloyd to come along with a blackboard and explain what’s going on. However, while the narrative seems overly complex at times, in the style of the more baffling entries in the Mission: Impossible franchise (which this film also evokes, both in terms of a team of spies and the impersonation of one character by another), the plot is actually quite simple. In fact, this is storytelling on the level of computer games, with different scenarios - city-based car chase, Bond-esque Alpine battle, terrorists in a lush hotel - starring the same characters taking place at the same time rather than in sequence as in most other movies. This is entertainment for people with attention-deficit disorder, and it makes Hollywood appear one step behind computer games, which already provide changes of genre or location twice a minute in products such as Pix’n Rush or WarioWare.

In the late 1980s, I saw a terrific animated short called Rarg about a dream world where the inhabitants become aware of the nature of their existence and their impending doom when the dreamer wakes up. They travel into our world and do everything they can to stop this happening - they turn off his alarm clock, fluff his pillows, put earplugs in his ears - but haven’t taken account of the consequences of what might happen if he just started dreaming about something else. In the 23 minutes of that film, the writer-director came up with a tighter and more memorable scenario about dream worlds than Nolan does in two and half hours of Inception, which makes you wish the latter had allowed more collaborators in at the scripting level.

Inception isn’t nearly as dumbed down as many of its peers and is the first ‘virtual worlds’ blockbuster that’s been attempted that is, in many ways, as good as the original Matrix. This being a film about dream worlds means Nolan can create any scenario he wants for the characters to visit, but that’s a double-edged sword. An early scene has a dream ‘architect’ played by Ellen Page bend the landscape she and DiCaprio are walking in through 180 degrees so that the land also becomes the sky (a scene that has been recreated, albeit differently, for the film’s poster). Later on, as all the oneironauts are trapped under gunfire for the first time, one character says to another (who is using a machine gun), ‘You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger’, and blasts away at the bad guys with a grenade launcher. However, unlike the protagonists of The Matrix, these heroes don’t choose to fly (except when the entire building is in free fall) or shoot impossible weapons, and so the film, having teased us with the idea of impossible worlds, rarely presents them again, except for one further use of Escher’s endless staircase.

Perhaps this is both the film’s blessing and its curse: Nolan’s cinematic success has allowed him to make a multi-million-dollar movie where he can basically put anything he or his characters can dream of on screen, but he and they come up against the limits of their own imagination. If other movies hadn’t already tackled this subject - Dark City, perhaps, most provocatively so - then this film would be a ground-breaking masterpiece. However, as a compilation of the best bits of the last 30 years of action cinema strung together, it’s merely a good, entertaining film.

Alex Fitch

10 thoughts on “Inception”

  1. It is stated early in the film that the more you change the more dangerous the enviroment will become. Also the person who is the subject might realize he/she is dreaming. And the dream would collapse. So the team would end up in limbo in the process. That’s why they choose to dream of only more grounded possibilities (like guns etc). That’s how I see it.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Karol. I was about to say that as well. Perhaps it would have been cool to see more dream-bending, but it certainly was explained early on why they might not do that.

  3. In your review, you often brought up how it was similar to other movies (i.e., where its plot and/or concepts overlap with those of past movies) as if that were a pitfall. Do you do this in all your reviews? If so, I think you must find it incredibly difficult to write a complimentary review, as the idea of writing is by no means new to humanity. It’s a basic understanding of writing that what you’re writing has probably been written before, but often not the exact the same. Moviemaking offers even more differentiation, conceptually similarity notwithstanding, in that visual appearance will almost always differ drastically. You hold it against the movie, in your closing paragraph, that it was not a “ground-breaking masterpiece”. It seems ridiculous to demand that all movies must be “ground-breaking” to earn a even near-decent review. I can almost guarantee you that “Dark City”, despite my not having seen it, was not the first concept ever written concerning dreams and reality in contrast. It seems the only real problem with this movie, in your opinion, was that it was similar to other movies.

  4. Wow. This review is the result of an intellectually arrogant person spending way too much time breaking down a film, not based on what the film offered, but on what he insists were meanings within the film. Using the grandiose approach of naming other films to imply that he must know what he’s talking about since he can rattle off all these other movies. None of the movies mentioned had anything to do with “Inception” except on a visual level. “Oceans Eleven”? Seriously? Why because of group of people wanted to steal something from someone else? You really liked the movie so much after you saw it that you wanted to see it again. But…after letting your ego take hold – and your need to write a review – you decided to break it down for us less ed-ja-macated types, eh? Comparing it to “The Matrix” because people seemed to have god like powers in their dreams? Uh. Hello? It’s a dream. Dreams have no boundaries, because their cerebral constructs not constrained by the physical world. You would be more convincing if you could write a screenplay that sells, then simply taking someone else’s hard work and dissecting it with your less than compelling views.

  5. The film contradicted itself, making this reviewer’s point valid.

    It says that changing the dream world too much, making it too mind-bending, will make the dreamer realize that they’re dreaming, which is bad. It also says that you only realize something was strange *after* you wake up. So which is it? If the former, then they were justified in grounding the visuals in reality. If the latter, they’ve creatively locked themselves in a box.

  6. Your subconcious notices the change which would escape regular awareness. Thus changing the dream is possible but doing so puts at risk everything you’re doing in the dream. Very clearly explained in the movie.

    Regardless the movie seems to be written in such a way that it really is only as complex as the viewer wants it. I actually thought it was really cool that these big ideas the movie alluded to were left open. But leo’s character arc dealt with the idea of true reality pretty objectively. Fantastic mix of popcorn flick and cerebral cinema.

  7. Oh, for the love of god. Has no one ever heard of Cartesian Doubt? It’s not like the intellectual world hasn’t been debating this for centuries; how do we know what is or isn’t real, and how can we separate dreams from reality? There’s even been an entire field of study devoted to this question: metaphysics.

    For those unfamiliar with Cartesian Doubt, read Descartes “Meditations”. Though perhaps I should simply state the foundational premise of the film: cogito ergo sum. (That too is Descartes fundamental premise).

  8. Given the internet’s response to Inception, I’m not surprised people are zipping on here to bash your review, but I thought your analysis spot-on. I really enjoyed Inception, but it was an entertaining blockbuster and nothing more. It took a huge number of potentially interesting intellectual and philosophical questions (what is an idea? where do ideas come from? what does it mean to create? what is ‘reality?’) and shoved them into a thriller/heist model, taking deep philosophical questions and–rather than grappling with them or offering anyu new insights–using them to make an action sequence with four timers counting down instead of just one.

    Please, can everyone stop confusing “having a twist” with “being intellectually interesting?”

  9. “The film contradicted itself, making this reviewer’s point valid.

    It says that changing the dream world too much, making it too mind-bending, will make the dreamer realize that they’re dreaming, which is bad. It also says that you only realize something was strange *after* you wake up. So which is it? If the former, then they were justified in grounding the visuals in reality. If the latter, they’ve creatively locked themselves in a box.”

    It wasn’t a contradiction – the idea was that changing too much in the dream world will help the subconscious reality that there is a foreign entity in the dream. The architect – the person who is building the dream and has the power to change it – isn’t the dreamer, so the dreamer’s subconscious will turn on the architect if they get too crazy.

  10. Alex,

    The movie pretty clearly states what an idea is and is not meant to delve deeper into it. But the movie does deal with the concept of reality but it’s not about “what is reality?” as you said. It’s about whether it matters if we’re in a reality or not. For Cobb, once he sees the faces of his children he knows that he will succumb to the dream and forget reality. And by the time it gets to the end of the movie, when he’s let go of the woman he loves, we are left wondering if Cobb is still dreaming. But does that really matter since it is still real to him? Is there more than one reality? If I believe it’s real does that make it so? That’s really where the movie is going on a philosophical level. There are other ideas in the movie but I think those were more a product of dealing with reality and not something Nolan was focused on.

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