Archive for July 18, 2010


July 18, 2010

It’s never quite clear what’s real or unreal in Inception, and it becomes less clear as the end credits roll. This gargantuan and madly complex experiment — a $160 million art film — turns the viewer into a termite chewing through endless pages of text. Internet geeks will debate the meanings and symbols in Inception for months, perhaps years. Full of both eye-boggling action and mind-boggling dream logic, it bids fair to be the largest, heftiest cult film ever made. At times it’s like Synecdoche, New York with gunmen on skis. The puppetmaster here, writer-director Christopher Nolan, has realized his trippy vision on a scale, and on a technical level, heretofore unimaginable.

If the emotions were there, Inception would be the grand slam many people are receiving it as. Instead it’s a solid home run; we take pleasure in the crack of the bat and the triumph of the batter, Nolan, rounding the bases, but the hit doesn’t bring anyone else home. It’s a one-man parade, confetti thrown wildly in honor of Nolan’s ingenuity, Nolan’s cleverness. Ultimately, despite some deep-dish exposition about psychological depths (and the insights are very Psych 101), the movie isn’t really about anything but cleverness. It’s a gigantic chess game — a pivotal character is even named Robert Fischer — and we watch the pieces in play, often thrillingly, but seldom movingly. And since the whole plot turns on the desire of the hero, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), to get over the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard) and reunite with his children, the muted emotional engagement is a serious snag.

As pure filmmaking, though, Inception is masterful, in a league — no, a sport — all its own. Dom is hired by a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) to enter the brain of a dying competitor’s son (Cillian Murphy) and plant the idea that his dad’s company should be broken up. As in any good heist film — this is a heist flick in reverse — Dom assembles his team, each with a specialty; there’s the research guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the standout performance), the designer of the dream worlds (Ellen Page), and so on. These dream invaders talk on and on about the rules of dreams, and what you can and can’t accomplish in dreams, and all of it is fascinating on a sci-fi level. Eventually we get dreams within dreams within dreams, a spiral draining down to a kind of stuck madness in which you can be unaware you’re in a dream and spend decades there.

All of this is crisply visualized; the images have an epic grandeur, and in the sequence destined to be included in “Best Movie Fights” highlight reels, Joseph Gordon-Levitt bobs and weaves in mid-air in a hallway while fighting “projections” — unreal attackers — and trying to figure out a way to make an elevator simulate falling in a dreamspace with no gravity. The set pieces in Inception are gorgeously worked out; even the somewhat conventional-feeling ski-combat scenes play like a wink and a nod to James Bond (and by the way, this is a better 007 flick than any actual 007 flick we’ve gotten since the ‘70s).

Cinematically, this is a keeper, a fireworks grand finale that goes on flashing and booming for two hours and twenty-eight minutes. But, oh, for some genuine heart, instead of a dead wife and two little kids we hardly know thrown in for obligatory motivation. I wasn’t feeling it, and I suspect Nolan wasn’t, either. If Dom merely took the final job as a self-challenge, to prove he could pull off the inception of an idea (as opposed to his much easier normal task of raiding people’s subconscious for secrets), this might’ve been a higher-mind Kubrickian masterpiece. Instead, it’s only brilliant at the money scenes. Which in itself makes it one of the few events worth your ticket money this summer. Nolan just needs to put more trust in his cold brain and keen eye; when he tries to get sappy, it doesn’t wash.