Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

As Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger and dandy, declares with explosive charm part way through Inception: "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling." And for all its flaws, the greatest accomplishment of Christopher Nolan’s film, is a forceful call to action for filmmakers this summer season - dare to do better. Considering the miserable releases audiences have had to sit through, this fusion of ideas and action must come like a sumptuous banquet after a period of cine-starvation. However, for all its technical ingenuity and expression of Nolan’s core beliefs, it seems more interested in dazzling itself than it does the audience.

Nolan's career to date has been an exploration of identity in crisis, feeding the work of analytic psychologist Carl Jung through a film camera and into worlds of duality and doubles, where heroes and villains become mirrors of each other's souls. Whether it’s memory-impairment in Memento, sleep-deprivation inInsomnia or obsessive opposition in The Prestige, identity is deconstructed before our eyes.

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And so we come to Inception, a metaphysical heist movie, with shades of The Matrix, Bond, Blade Runner and Oceans 11. It’s driven by a commanding performance from DiCaprio as Cobb, a mind thief, employed by corporations to enter the dreams of their competitors and extract confidential secrets. After a multi-layered extraction from the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes wrong, we are introduced to the concept of inception.

Rather than remove an idea from someone's brain, the aim is to introduce one at the deepest level of a person’s psyche. Thanks to its viral nature, this will spread, changing the target irrevocably and, hopefully, manoeuvring them into a position beneficial to their rivals. Saito wants Cobb to perform this on Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir of a competing energy giant. In return, he’ll resolve the legal nightmare that forbids him from returning to the States, and his children. All that’s left is for Cobb and his point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to assemble a team.

On paper this is a mind-bending and exciting proposition. The most obvious, and best, comparison is with The Matrix, as Cobb seeks out Ariadne (Elliot Page) who has the potential to be a prodigiously talented Architect, or dream weaver. The scenes in Paris where Cobb educates her about the possibilities and dangers of constructing dreams are the most impressive in the film, as a tranquil café scene detonates and the city itself literally bends to Ariadne’s will.

There’s a lot of information to take in as the pair navigate the new Paris Ariadne is creating, avoiding human projections, playing with recursive mirrors, and being attacked by the representation of Cobb’s guilty subconscious: his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). But, as with the scenes between Morpheus and Neo, there is drama and visual dynamism to keep things interesting.

This control of narrative is seen throughout the film. The elliptical editing in the opening scenes dictates the rest of the film, conveying the streamlined nature of dreams visually. Similarly, the mythological allusions - Ariadne, her labyrinth, Mal as the Minotaur at its centre, the threads that tie the dreamer to the dream machinery - are subtle reinforcements of the film's ideas.

With all this structural intricacy, why then is Nolan so sloppy with large stretches of the film? As Cobb enlists Eames and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the remaining members of the team, it’s left to Ariadne and Arthur to fill in the apparent gaps in the audience’s knowledge. Gone is the drama of the Paris scenes, in its place, artless exposition, that at times shames the actors into little more than script mouth-pieces.

It’s a blessing that Nolan has assembled such an impressive cast; the strength of their performances making up for a lack of character development beyond the roles defined by each of their archetypes: Chemist, Forger, Architect and so on. Where the characters in The Matrix defined themselves by rebelling against an existence that was illusory, the cast of Inception flit about as ephemeral creations, perilously close to succumbing to the dreams they move through. An expression of how identity works in the world Nolan has invented, you might argue, but in terms of emotional connection, it’s lacking.

As the film goes on, your admiration of Nolan’s puzzling and his obvious love for the technical potential of film becomes a suspicion of smugness. It’s less a magician thrilling the people with his showmanship and story, more one with their back turned, too fascinated by their own ingenuity to finesse their narrative. Information is dumped on the audience - sometimes to the surprise even of the cast - as Cobb drops the bombshell that dying during Inception leaves you in Limbo, the deepest layer of dream, where escape is all but impossible.

This leads to an incongruous moment, taking place either side of a firefight, shedding light on Cobb’s relationship with his wife. The scene should be touching, further depth to Cobb as the sole, substantial character, but instead it feels like an interruption; an insight into a better, more emotional film, perhaps?

The action offers no solace. An ongoing problem for Nolan, his attempts at parallel action across the dream layers that the team navigate, are bewildering and, dare I say it, boring. For all Hardy’s debonair derring-do, a Bondian storming of a snow fortress is lost to geographical confusion. A zero gravity fight in a hotel corridor, while impressive for being done in-camera, feels like a less rhythmic version of the Agent Smith/Neo subway clash. A saving grace is Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack that subtly accentuates Nolan’s ideas throughout the film, but here adds much-needed punch to the events onscreen.

In the end, the film is just too uneven, rushing to wrap things up with a conclusion that, while admirable for its ambiguity, deals with the all too familiar Cartesian dilemma already discussed elsewhere in the film. You know Nolan has the answer, but he can’t help but indulge in the play of reinterpretation, for the puzzle box to be turned over and over again. Would it come as some surprise, then, that the simple image of Fischer cradling a toy in his hands is the most resonant in the film? Nolan might be a magician of great power, but he would be wise to perform his tricks in the future with a little more show, and a lot less tell.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2010
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DiCaprio's dream spy takes on the ultimate inside job.
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Read more Inception reviews:

Anton Bitel *****
Paul Griffiths ****1/2

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas

Year: 2010

Runtime: 148 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, UK


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