[Here’s a link to Jack’s review of Inception for Filmonic.]
Christopher Nolan’s latest film has been hailed as the saving grace of a rather lackluster summer movie season. Inception is blowing minds across the country with its complicated plot, excellent performances, and – most importantly – inventive storytelling told through the lens of one of the best directors currently working in Hollywood.
After The Dark Knight came out, everyone was singing the praises of Christopher Nolan – and rightly so. But there was a bandwagon mentality to the praise that turned me off a bit. (You know how a comedy like The Hangover gets constantly quoted immediately after its release and you kind of roll your eyes at how people latch onto it? This was that, but with Nolan instead of Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis.) Even after The Prestige – his other “in-between-Batman” film that I loved – I was slow to proclaim Nolan as the heir apparent to the Hollywood throne for fear of being another bandwagon jumper. But after seeing Inception twice, I can now confidently say that I honestly don’t give a crap what people think: Nolan is one of the most original voices in cinema and I love everything about his style. He’s traditional (read: doesn’t like 3D), prefers the use of practical effects over computer generated imagery, and, teaming with cinematographer Wally Pfister, consistently creates some of the most visually arresting shots in recent memory.
Inception is an idea at least ten years in the making; I’ve heard reports claiming Nolan has been working on it in some form since he was sixteen years old. Inception is Nolan’s Avatar, but – and this may be sacrilege to some who loved James Cameron’s epic – if the two films were in a wrestling match, Inception would body slam Avatar through a table and the Na’vi would be down for the count. Inception dominates in nearly every conceivable category for me. Cameron’s special effects were great – don’t get me wrong, I dug Avatar – but they didn’t leave me wondering “how the hell did they pull that off?” The sequence in Inception that essentially takes place in zero gravity? How the…? I won’t turn this into an entire “Inception vs. Avatar” piece, but I wanted to establish a baseline for comparison.
I’m not going to go through the plot summary, since I’m assuming if you’re reading this you’ve already seen the film and are well aware of the story and the spoilers that are coming soon in this review. But since I can’t seem to find another spot to give this brief anecdote, I’ll just do it here and we’ll move on. In the beginning of the movie, the first “kick” that we see involves Cobb falling backward into a tub of water. The film enters slow motion as Cobb hits the water, and my eyes started to feel as if I were literally under water as well; Nolan’s filmmaking was so effective that it elicited a physical reaction out of me that I can’t ever remember experiencing in another movie. I thought it was a fluke the first time – perhaps my eyes weren’t used to the lighting in the theater yet, considering the scene comes relatively early in the film’s run time – but when the same physical response occurred upon my second viewing, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a fluke.
Also, since this seems to be the “no man’s land” part of the review where I bring up random topics, I really dug seeing Lukas Haas as the first architect in the film, forming a mini-Brick reunion with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Haas played The Pin in Rian Johnson’s spectacular debut). And finally, I know I wasn’t the only person to notice the similarities to Inception and LOST (I know – call me obsessed). I won’t detail them all here, but check out James Poniewozik’s piece at Time if you’re interested.
But let’s start with the basics. The acting was phenomenal all around, and I consider this one of the most effectively cast movies I’ve ever seen. Every actor and actress seemed perfectly selected for their roles and slid into the skin of their characters in such a convincing manner that even though they are A-list stars, I was never taken out of the movie due to their celebrity. Watching a Tom Cruise film, sometimes it’s easier when talking about the movie afterwards to refer to his characters as simply “Tom Cruise.”* This was not the case with Inception; I connected so well to the characters that when I’m talking about the film I almost always refer to the characters by their character name. It’s a small thing, I know, but an important distinction for me.
The ensemble nature of the cast allowed multiple actors to shine: this wasn’t simply another great DiCaprio (Cobb) accomplishment, but also a Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur) showcase, a coming out party for Tom Hardy (Eames), an Ellen Page (Ariadne) graduation ceremony to the big leagues, an enjoyable effort from Dileep Rao (Yusef), Marion Cotillard’s (Mal) most mainstream performance, a highlight for Cillian Murphy (Fischer), and a nice return to the spotlight for Tom Berenger (Browning). I honestly had only two complaints with the entire movie: Michael Caine wasn’t featured enough (that’s only because I like him, not because I actually think his character needed to appear more in the film), and Ken Watanabe’s English leaves a lot to be desired.
Hans Zimmer has composed some brilliant scores in his lifetime, but I think Inception rises above the rest in a way that will resonate with me for years to come. Not since The Brothers Bloom have I heard a score that coincides so perfectly with the tone and feeling of a movie, and Zimmer’s talent is on full display here. The bombastic nature of the score, with its deep horns and driving tones, hurtles the film forward and nearly begs for the action on screen to keep up. Every chase was amazingly highlighted by pulsing beats and rapid drums, but my favorite part of the score comes during the van’s plummet toward the water. Even though those shots are all in super slow motion, the music builds insane amounts of suspense and succeeds in turning something that, out of context, should look boring into one of the most enjoyable sequences in the film for me.
I love heist films. Always have. Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, you name it. If you give me a film that features multiple team members with highly specific skills working together toward one robbery event, chances are pretty great that I’m going to like the movie. Generally speaking, I can’t stand cliches – characterizations that are little more than “the computer tech guy” or “the suave one” tend to bother me in a lot of genres. But for some reason, heist films lend themselves perfectly to those types of archetypes. Perhaps its the specificity (“Specificity, Eames.”) to their individual jobs, or perhaps its watching a series of individuals unite in for a common goal, but heist movies have always excited and entertained me. When I heard that Inception was “a heist film set within the architecture of the mind,” I had no idea what that actually meant. But now we have a look at a Chris Nolan heist movie, and holy crap – this thing delivers.
The writing in this movie is phenomenal. This is the first film since Following (his debut) in which Chris Nolan wrote the screenplay himself, and it shows that while his brother Jonathan (co-writer on The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight) is certainly an extremely talented writer, Chris can hold his own among the family with ease. I love the subtleties in the script, the little moments, and the big ones. Everything just works, and it’s rare to find a script these days that successfully accomplishes that goal.
Nolan recently said in an interview that he would love to direct a James Bond movie. The thing is, I think he kind of already has. Inception essentially is a cross between Bond and The Matrix, with well-dressed thieves trekking across the globe from dreamscape to cityscape with pacing just as good (if not better) than any Bond film out there. The snow fort sequence could easily be transplanted into a 007 movie, what with the combo of skiing and shooting (very The Spy Who Loved Me), avalanche dodging (The World Is Not Enough, anyone?) and multiple explosions (um, every Bond movie ever). Nolan has admitted that, purposefully or not, he’s been influenced by many different tropes of the action genre, so it’s clear that he’s paying homage to those types of films and not ripping them off. (And even if he WAS ripping them off, that sequence would still be incredibly well done.)
I could literally spend the rest of the night writing out scene by scene what happens in the movie and what I liked or didn’t like about it, but I’ll spare you and instead provide a tiny (incomplete) bullet point list of what I considered some of the highlights of the movie.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s spinning hallway fight scene. Incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.
- The entire chunk of the film starting with the train plowing through Dom’s car in the rain, moving to the van chase, encompassing the aforementioned hallway scene, the snow fort sequence, and Arthur floating through the hotel preparing everyone for the kick. Some of those sequences might, upon a bit further reflection, eventually become some of my favorite scenes in the history of movies.
- The opening Saito flashforward combined with the dream within a dream structure, just for the audacity to begin an already-complicated movie in a way that doesn’t explain everything up front.
- That Nolan named a character Ariadne.
- The scene in which Ariadne discovers she’s in a dream for the first time and the world starts to explode piece by piece.
- The last shot, for causing so much controversy and not spelling everything out for the audience.
Speaking of the last shot, let’s go ahead and cover that ground now. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’re wondering if I thought the totem would tip over or whether it keeps spinning, whether Dom Cobb lives happily ever after in the real world with his kids or whether he’s caught in another dream. After seeing the film for a second time, I think I’ve settled into a theory I’m comfortable with. (Note: This theory is obviously subject to change upon further viewings and intelligent conversations about the movie.) I think that the totem keeps spinning. [insert groans and rowdy mob noises here] I know, I know – but I’ll tell you why. The optimist in me would like to believe that Cobb ends up reunited with his children, and for a while I thought that was the clear cut way to read the ending of the film. There have been a few theories claiming that Cobb was dreaming for the entire duration of the movie, that every frame we see is a dream and none of it is real. I don’t subscribe to this theory for one reason: if everything is a dream, what is going on outside of the dream? There’s a whole different story going on that we never get a glimpse into. Since we never see the dreamer or the construct or any depiction of actual reality, I have a hard time buying into that theory.
So, while I don’t think Cobb was dreaming the entire time, I do think he was dreaming during the last segment of the film. I think everything from the point where Cobb wakes up on the plane, to the “this is your life” walkthrough of the airport, to Michael Caine picking him up and taking him home, to seeing his kids’ faces is all a dream. The main reasoning I use to support this theory is that the kids are in the exact same position that Cobb has been remembering them all along, and they’re also wearing the same clothes as they were in his flashbacks. How else can this be explained? I’ll also stretch this a bit and utilize the marketing campaign to further support my theory; the tagline for the film reads “The Dream is Real,” which, granted, could mean just about anything. But I choose to read that as a Matrix-esque “perception IS reality” philosophical statement that applies directly to Cobb’s situation. Cobb made his peace with Mal, finally confronted her about his guilt for inadvertently causing her death, and moved on. Now that he doesn’t have to spend all of his time in the dream world occupied with Mal, he can spend it reunited with his children and making up for lost time. After all, as the old guy in Yusef’s basement says, “the dream has become [his] reality. Who are [we] to say otherwise?”**
[UPDATE: It’s come to my attention that the kids who appear in the final scene are not, in fact, the same children that appear in the flashback sequences. The kids in the final scene are a couple of years older. This, I think, gives credit to the theory that Dom is in reality at the end of the film. Also adding credence to that theory is the wobbling totem in the last shot. When the totem was shown earlier in the film and the characters were dreaming, the rotations were absolutely perfect with no hint of it ever falling down. The wobble at the end definitely implies that Dom is in reality, and that combined with the kids being different than the ones shown throughout the rest of the film allows me to settle on that viewpoint…for now. Additionally, I read today that if you keep an eye on Dom’s hand throughout the film, you’ll see a ring on his finger in the dream sequences and no ring during reality; the same article points out that there is no ring in the final scene, again suggesting that Dom is in reality.]
Aside from Memento, I believe this is Nolan’s most complex film in terms of plot. I also think it’s his best film to date. Like many of my favorite films, Inception works on multiple levels. Not only is it a sci-fi action thriller romance, but Inception is a film about making movies. Note the physical similarities between DiCaprio and Nolan. DiCaprio has gone on record saying that he based his character on Nolan himself. The director, ever-fascinated with pulling back the curtain on the machinations of the mind, has crafted a story that represents the creation of film. The very concept of dream sharing, integral in the plot of Inception, is basically what the audience does every time we enter a theater together. We share someone’s dream, buy into their world, and experience variations of emotion for two hours.
I think the question “what is real?” doesn’t matter as much to Nolan as it does to us; we crave simplicity and explanation, and Nolan wisely doesn’t spell everything out and allows room for interpretation. He knew exactly what kind of reaction he would get with that final cut to black, and I don’t think it’s a gimmicky move in the slightest. In fact, it’s quite the contrary – what was the last film that you’ve heard this much discussion about among your friends and family? I can’t remember the last one that generated this kind of response across the board. Nolan knows what he’s doing, and if we were to ask him about what the last shot represents, I don’t think he’d tell us. And you know what? I’m OK with that. Until next time…
*Let it be known, if I haven’t reiterated this point enough on this website, that I’m actually a Tom Cruise fan.
**Even as I type this I’m not sure I fully believe it. But it’s the only option that makes any sense right now – why else would those kids be wearing the same clothes?