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Sunday, July 25, 2010


Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a relatively low-tech heist film with a decidedly philosophical bent. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a haggard freelance “extractor,” who makes his wayward living stealing information by entering people’s dreams. How this is possible is never completely explained (which is fortunate, given that the film is well over two hours long) but it is clear that in the reality of the film, extraction of memories and knowledge is the new frontier of espionage. Nolan establishes early in the film that, like other noir characters such as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Cobb is a man with a dark and troubled past.

The MacGuffin of the film is simple: Cobb wants to get back to the United States to see his children. Powerful entrepreneur Saito (Ken Watanabe) enlists him and his assistant Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to plant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to Saito’s main competition. Of course, he offers a free pass back to the U.S. as payment. Cobb hires Ariadne (Ellen Page) to be his “architect”—the designer of the dreamscape in which the information heist will take place. He also recruits Eames (Tom Hardy), a "forger" who shapeshifts into different chraracters within dreams, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a drug expert who concocts the sedatives required for the process. Their goal is to create several “dreams within dreams,” enabling them to lower the unconscious defenses of their mark and then plant a concept inside his head—one that will lead him to dissolve his father’s corporation, thus giving complete market power to Saito.

If this sounds a bit complicated, it’s because it is; rarely have I seen such a complex idea successfully translated for the screen. However, Inception is plagued with a number of problems, problems that prevent me from jumping on the "greatest film of the 21st century” bandwagon that appears to have attracted every critic on the planet.

My main problem with the film is the first forty minutes. For that length of time, Inception feels strangely hollow. The storytelling in the first third is weak. The dialogue is stilted and predictable, the delivery labored. In that stretch, the scenery and special effects are dazzling, but when I listened to the story that was being told, I felt as though I had been plunged into an awkward mix of The Cell and The Matrix except with heavy exposition and clunky dialogue. I was watching an amazing film, but I was bored; the concept of manipulating the subconscious dreamscape is a great one, but what does it mean if I don’t care about the people involved, or their motivations?

Then, miraculously, the team begins its mission, and once they are inside the mind of their mark, the action is fast-paced, the dialogue clever, and the effects still mesmerizing. There is a fight scene in a hotel that takes place tumbling through the three-dimensional space of a human mind; there is a James-Bond-Style ski battle on the way to an icy, Supermanesque fortress; there is even excessive use of slow motion camera work, and it’s good. There are a few standout performances, too, mostly from Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Though many have praised DiCaprio’s work in this film (and I have stated in other reviews that he is a very talented actor), I thought his performance as Cobb was a bit one-note. If anything, Marion Cotillard’s performance as the psychic projection of Cobb’s deceased wife milks more dramatic heft out of her part than DiCaprio’s flesh-and-blood antihero.

Foreshadowing can be a dangerous thing for a storyteller. If you lay it on too thick, the audience catches on and arrives the conclusion before the film does; if you’re too sparse with it, the audience forgets about it. The foreshadowing in Inception is carefully thought out, but the film is so long that the breadcrumbs dropped irregularly throughout create a loss of momentum. By the end, I knew exactly what had happened, but I had to wrack my brain to remember why it was important. And that’s a problem.