***originally written 16 July 2010***
Christopher Nolan is largely without compare in the modern cinema landscape, in that he dares to sculpt intelligent, densely-plotted stories on the canvas of the multi-million dollar summer blockbuster. After The Dark Knight, when Inception was first announced, it would have been forgivable to expect a much smaller-scale movie as the Batman audience waited for another installment. A more personal pet-project to busy himself with in the meantime. After all, he could hardly trump The Dark Knight for scale could he? Could he?
Inception makes The Dark Knight feel, well, kind of small. It’s not surprisingly really as it deals with the endless possibilities of human imagination and the subconscious. The film is – at it’s most basic level – a story about a group of people who have developed a technique to conduct espionage inside people’s sleeping minds. So they can steal private knowledge, corporate secrets etc. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the central figure in all this. One of the best at it – maybe the best, no competitors are alluded to in particular – but carrying emotional baggage from the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cottilard). He deals in ‘extractions’, the removal of information. But when an extraction goes awry, Cobb is approached to perform an ‘inception’, the thought-impossible planting of information. In return he will be able to return to his estranged children.
So we meet his crew (who include Jospeh Godron-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao), and are taken step-by-step through the mechanics of the process with the introduction of new team member Ariadne (Ellen Page). The task is to convince the heir to an energy giant (Cillian Murphy) to split up his company, and so the inceptors plan a complex dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream stategy of convincing him to do so. The first half of the movie is about telling us how this can be done. The second half is all-show.
Nolan deals in rollercoaster rides these days. His last character-driven film was Insomnia back in 2002. And what a rollercoaster he has for us this time. Spectacle upon spectacle upon spectacle. From folding-up-cities, to rotating hotel rooms, through zero-gravity fights to big buildings exploding. All within a multi-tiered narrative. It’s intricately put together, expertly edited and pristinely presented. Lots of ‘wow’ factor. All very impressive. Nolan is an advocate of genuine visual effects. And though there are plenty of computer-generated visual effects here (all faultless), the film feels organic. You can tell these are largely physical effects. They have that incomparable look of genuine spectacles. Indeed my favourite moment was the simplest; a man struggling to escape his pursuers down an alleyway that grows increasingly narrow. Again it’s all very, very impressive.
The acting is all fair. But one actress outshines every other performer. Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of Cobb’s dead wife Mal – kept alive in dreams and memories – is extraordinary. She has such clout that from one scene to the next she can appear agonised, crazy, deeply vulnerable and, when needed, genuinely scary. We’re talking serious chills here. Oscar season is a long, long way away, but she should have a Supporting Actress nomination in the bag for this.
So all-in-all it’s pretty great, huh? In theory, yes. But Inception just feels a little too clinical. Nolan knows the movie needs an emotional backbone, and he provides a suitable enough one. Indeed the aforementioned Cotillard is the hub of this. But as intricate and clever as it all is, Inception is just too cold. Too mechanical. It’s all gears and levers. All angles and architecture. The scenes belt by. We’re given time to get to know Cobb, and to an extent Ariadne. But with so much exposition, set-up and follow-through to get through, a lot of characters and story beats are left with a tiny bit less room to breathe than they maybe deserve. I can accept though that nobody at a production level probably wanted this movie to be much longer than it’s 2 and a half hour runtime.
I didn’t feel fully invested in the central caper because of this, but perhaps it’s all really just the packaging for Cobb’s tormented history, his complex emotions regarding his wife. When the film hits these notes, it becomes a symphony. The rest of the time however, it is merely – that word again – impressive. Like an Escher painting. Complex. Admirable. But is there anything to take away from it?
I’m going to tread carefully through my final point, in the hopes of not spoiling anything. So you may want to just skip to the score at the bottom now. The film intends to end on an ambiguous note. Is the real world real? Has it all been a dream? All focused on one final image. However an image that precedes this gives the game away. It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but if I’m not it’s a shame that Nolan tipped his hand in this way. It’s a minor quibble. I did enjoy the film from start to finish. There’s just not quite enough heart.