No movie this year comes freighted with greater expectations than Inception, Chris Nolan’s follow-up to the global blockbuster The Dark Knight. Happily, the movie delivers and then some–thanks to clever original screenwriting and exhilarating mise-en-scene–in 2D.
When it opens July 16, this eye-popping film will wow moviegoers all over the world–its complexities will only encourage debate and repeat viewings–and should also score well with critics and year-end awards groups. Oscar nominations in technical categories are a certainty, but Inception is also a strong contender for multiple nominations, including Best Picture.
The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, focused intently on what’s happening. Otherwise, it would be easy to get lost. Structured like an intricate maze, Inception takes the viewer through interlocking sets of dream realities. (Ellen Page’s character, The Architect, who designs mazes for dream worlds, is named after Greek mythology’s Ariadne.) At the beginning, the movie messes with you, throws you off balance until all the rules are laid bare. They are soon made clear. (Nolan’s recent citation of Last Year at Marienbad is misleading; the cuts from space to space are linear, in their own way.)
Pay attention, and you can keep track of the complex machinations of Nolan’s Dream Team, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, The Extractor, with able support from Marion Cotillard as his wife Mal, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as The Point Man and Tom Hardy as The Forger, as well as Nolan regulars Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Ken Watanabe.
Cobb creates dreamscapes that can be shared–with the help of psychotropic drugs and sedatives–by groups of subjects who fill in their own experiences, images, and secrets. Cobb is an expert at extracting those secrets, usually in pursuit of industrial espionage. His problem, soon sussed out by brilliant newcomer Ariadne, is that he has buried things deep in his subconscious–mainly his wife Mal– that keep intruding on his ability to pull off this last job, which requires not extraction but inception: planting the seed of an idea. Not only his own safety but those of his team are at stake. Those arresting images of scenes flying apart involve a dream that is collapsing. Yes, getting killed in a dream wakes you up, but get lost in one of the deep-level dream slumbers and your mind may never emerge intact.
As intricate as the script is–Nolan worked on it for a decade–the movie is not just a feat of cinematic wizardry, even though it comes close to the level of technological derring-do carried off by the likes of Stanley Kubrick. (Indeed Nolan works in repeated homages to the late great auteur beyond the obvious use of moving sets on gimbles to allow athletic Gordon-Levitt to bounce weightless and walk on walls and ceilings.) The movie also has heart. So that even if you do get confused (as I did in the James Bond snow section, filmed in the Canadian Rockies), the emotional through-line pulls you along. It’s as simple as The Wizard of Oz: The Extractor wants to go home.
This emotional motivation for Cobb–who much like his conflicted family man in Shutter Island, is haunted by images of his beloved Mal and two toddlers–helps to render him more sympathetic. Beyond a taut suspense thriller, Inception is also a moving love story. Composer Hans Zimmer effectively colors the score with varying emotional mood swings (although I question the Edith Piaf reference to Cotillard’s Oscar-winning performance in La Vie En Rose).
Nolan and his production team traveled to exotic locations around the world, from Tokyo, where Watanabe’s corporate executive is based, and Paris, to Tangiers and giant sound stages in England and Los Angeles. The scene when Cobb teaches protege Ariadne to bend reality is stunning, as are the reveals of each successive dreamscape, where anything can happen. Inception not only references the “levels” of complex video gameplay, but also functions as a metaphor for the creative process of moviemaking itself: as The Forger tells The Point Man, as he summons up a huge blaster, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
That’s the lesson that I pray Hollywood takes from this movie.
Here’s the trailer: