Thursday, December 23, 2010

Inception [Movie Review]

Cobb: What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? 

Arthur: Ah, what Mr Cobb is trying to...

Cobb: An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks, right in there somewhere. [points to his head] 

Saito: For someone like you to steel?

Arthur: Yes in dream state your conscious defenses are lowered and it makes your thoughts vulnerable to theft. It's called extraction.

Inception is the dizzyingly complex, fiendishly simple story of a dream within a dream. Within a dream. (Within a dream?) Inception is a two and a half hour movie mostly built up of simple scenes, with clearly defined goals and almost comically overblown action. When scenes are taken with their predecessors, they become almost incomprehensible, characters popping in and out of comprehension. When taken as a whole, the movie makes perfect sense, a tapestry smashed out of order but easy to repair. Even if there are a half dozen readily apparent orders to put the pieces in.

In classic Science Fiction fashion, we begin with an idea: our dreams are vulnerable, and our deepest secrets can be stolen from us while we slept. The idea then comes to define the world, every other element falling into place in its wake. The genius of Inception is how self referential it is. Much like how the characters’ dreams are layered, the movie manages to create a layered suspension of disbelief, using our understanding of its opening concepts to get across its twists and gambits.

As Cobb says, the key aspect of dreams is that we feel confident but understand nothing:

Well dreams, they feel real while we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange. Let me ask you a question, never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on.

Inception operates in the same way. Each scene is a hook, forestalling our questions with easily latched onto action. As things spiral increasingly out of control, we get increasingly obvious set ups. We open (after a brief and initially incomprehensible prologue) with spies trying to convince a businessman. Like many scenes in the movie, it could have been taken from Goldfinger or From Russia with Love with ease. There are hints of uncertainties, of course, both minor and major. They are speaking of extraction and dreams, something slightly outside of our adopted thriller framework. Much more importantly, we don’t know where they come from or who they are. But, like a dream, we allow them to carry on, allow ourselves to be swept up in the moment and, for a time, to not question.

When the scene ends with yet more uncertainty, and when the transition savages all thoughts of conventionality with a savage blow to the head, the next proper scene gets an even more obvious hook: a timer. Outside the window, a mob is approaching, smashing cars to pieces and hollering for blood. We don’t understand what the characters are after, what test Satio is speaking of, what the inaccuracies of the carpet mean – but we don’t need to. There is tension, still, regardless of our understanding, and it’s through the use of this small scale drama that Christopher Nolan drags us into the bigger picture without needing to show his hand until we’re far too involved to back away.

An obvious consequence of learning the rules in such a distended fashion is that the viewer is, right up until the very end, unsure of what’s going on. There are times when it seems that we have a complete understanding before then, of course. When Cobb explains the mechanics of the world to Ariadne, for instance, it would be easy to assume that we have the complete picture. And yet Cobb is playing the viewer along with the rest of the team, manipulating us in the same way that they manipulate their quarry.

Such manipulation could, of course, often feel like simple contrivance. When Cobb changes an easily escaped and easily won game to one that cannot be fled and is fraught with danger, all through a few beforehand undisclosed quirks of dreaming, it’s easy to feel cheated. Why would they enter if they’d known this? Clearly, the only reason the plot got to this stage is that the creators had no choice but to hold the knowledge back from both audience and characters until it was too late to make use of it.

Nolan, however, is far too good a storyteller to allow himself to be caught stacking the deck so obviously. Because the standard gut reaction to the scene is correct; it would have been suicide for the characters to enter the dream under those conditions – which is why they, like the audience, were not informed of them. By putting the cast in the same position as the viewer, Nolan channels our feelings of betrayal into empathy, letting our annoyance bolster, not detract from, our connection to his world.

Much more than the revelation of the rules is artificial in Inception. The cast is skillfully drawn and well played, but the movie is centered around DiCaprio’s Cobb, and Cobb is as manipulative as they come. He has shaped his world for so long that he cannot stop. Dreaming has shaped and dominated his world, and it has separated him from his children. In his quest to get back to them, he will do anything. His earnestness is a façade, his cold ruthlessness often terrifying as he pursues his humane goals.

Character arcs are built on change, and Inception is the story of Cobb – and yet its character arc is split into two parts. Cobb himself does no grow. He has created a prison for his past, a world that he is endlessly trying to superimpose upon reality in which he and his family are, again, one. His problems are worsening, not bettering. Does he grow at the end? That’s a question that will have to be left open for debate, his rationalization and realization so intertwined that to draw one conclusion is all but impossible.

Growth can only be found with Robert Fischer. In a bizarre, almost sociopathic travesty of warmth and reconciliation, Fischer is made to reexamine his relationship with his father, propelled into love by lies and gunfire. In the end, the simple chemistry of the cast, the warmth of their interaction, is a calculated thing. The movie’s emotional core is a lie. The ultimate moral realization a fabrication, as Cobb and his team play god with another’s emotions:

Dom Cobb: We need to shift his animosity from his father to his godfather. 

Ariadne: We're going to destroy his one positive relationship?

Eames: No, it repairs his relationship with his father, thus, exposing his godfather's true nature. We should charge Fischer a lot more than science for this job.

That is not to say that there is no true feeling in the movie, but rather that what genuine camaraderie there is is passed aside and gradually pushed towards irrelevancy. The friendship between Cobb and Arthur is never reflected upon but is unmistakable. Arthur is aware of Cobb’s eccentricities, whether the quirk in question is a dislike of trains or an obsession with a dead wife. As the movie progresses, however, Cobb sorely abuses their bond. He lies to and misleads his friends, putting them in grave danger. When his team falls short of his impossible expectations (expectations that he, too, is unable to live up to), his reaction is not sympathy but rage. Cobb’s callousness leaves our sympathy to him tinted with anger, hoping that his flaws won’t lead to the undeserved deaths of those around him, those that trusted him.

DiCaprio is far from the only effective actor. To me, every character came off as vibrant and alive. Cotillard’s tender insanity is brilliantly portrayed, and she’s magnetic in every scene that she’s in. The minor characters are just as strong. Rao’s Yusuf, Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, Hardy’s Eames, and Watanabe’s Saito are all captivating. Murphy’s role as Fischer is, in many ways, the emotional core of the film, and he manages to appear vulnerable enough to gather the audience’s goodwill, turning him from gullible dupe to proper player.

Finally, I’ve heard some people complaining about Ellen Page’s performance as Ariadne. From what I can gather, the complaints basically amount to: “but she was in Juno!” If there’s some basis within the actual film for the criticism, I can’t see it; Ariadne’s sympathy and desire to help is powerful and only made more so by the many situations in which she’s rendered ineffective.

I mentioned before that the individual scenes of Inception function as hooks, but to leave off there would be superficial. Every aspect of Inception is over the top – and excellently so, at least for the most part. It would have been easy for Nolan to try and keep the action realistic, but to do so would have left his fantastic landscapes feeling almost pedestrian, their potential untapped. As Eames remarks when he conjures a grenade launcher with which to destroy a half dozen attackers, You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

Of course, every scene is not equal in its excess, and the action scenes that fall into the uncomfortable dead zone between stylization and realism often come across as simply silly. Still, for every unconvincing gunfight, there are two moments of delightful imagination. The film’s highlight is the gravity and mindbending scene where Arthur and a succession of projections battle in a hotel where the rules shift all around them:

The actors and the writing are matched by the special effects. Of course, to say that a modern movie has good special effects isn’t to say much at all. 2012, after all, looked great, but I doubt that anyone would hold it up as exemplary in any way shape or form. Inception, however, is the rare movie that understands how to use bombastic effects in order to augment script and character, rather than using writing as a means to simply set up larger explosions. Here, explosions and distortions are expressions of the bizarre’s intrusion into our sleeping world, and slow motion is the ramming home of time dilation as plotlines are dragged increasingly apart.

I’m tempted to go on for another thousand words and discuss implications. It’s hard to not offer my own theories, to refrain from circling spinning tops and mazelike city streets, faceless organizations and actors’ ages, cryptic phrases and circular story structures. But to do so would, I think, to be to overstep my bounds. Inception is a movie that simply has to be seen. There are a myriad of different realities contained in these scenes, and each of them demands to be seen, understood, and either embraced or rejected as you barrel through. So go out and buy Inception. Watch it, maybe watch it twice. Then perhaps I’ll get to work telling you why your theories are all wrong. 


  1. A thorough and illuminating explanation & critique of the film. Now I do have to see it again! Boaz.

  2. Your review is well written, with the eye of a psychologist and the prose of a novelist. There are so many levels of deception, which I guess the idea of this movie is that reality is a commodity which can be taken, given or created. I don’t subscribe to this philosophy and frankly is one which makes me uneasy to contemplate. The movie was reeling and suspenseful though. I watched Inception again in 1080p HD on my DISH Network employee receiver and I noticed a lot of details but I’ll have to watch again. I never watch anything other than HD any more since I have 200 HD channels to get all the variety I want.