OVERALL GRADE: A
First, a corporate industrialist Saito (played superbly by Ken Watanabe) wants to hire Cobb and his team not to extract an idea from a rival CEO, but instead to implant an idea. It's a risky venture that would require Cobb and his team to go several layers into the subconscious, risking their lives in the process. Cobb is at first not willing to take the risk, until the second twist comes in, Saito offers Cobb as his reward, the chance to return to the United States and see his children. Essentially offering Cobb the vaunted one last job to make things right. Cobb takes it and sees it as his chance to "come home". Why he's exiled from the US, and why he's estranged from his wife and children are answers the film will later unfold.
These two threads (the act of inception and the emotional journey home to his wife and children) really drive the action and emotion of the entire film. From here we get to see Cobb assemble his team, hatch their plan, and then, for the last half of the film, execute the inception itself. Enough about the plot and surface level stuff, how does it all come together and work as a film?
"We create the world of a dream. We bring a subject into that dream and they fill it with their secrets." Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains this key plot point early in the film to newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page). It's an important description of the dream heists that Inception is based upon, but it's also a good basis for understanding how the film as a whole works, how the director/writer Christopher Nolan put it together, and even on a deeper level, how an audience interacts with a film. While Inception is about as intelligent, entertaining, and imaginative as summer blockbuster's get, its lasting contribution isn't really what someone is going to get out of it, but what someone is willing to put into it. However I think I may be getting ahead of myself here, so let me begin on the surface level.
On the surface, Inception is a marvelously written heist film with a science fiction twist. Instead of stealing money, or artwork, the idea here is to extract corporate ideas within the vault of someone's subconscious. If that sounds terribly un-cinematic, it's not. This isn't a 2 hour art-house drama between an estranged and damaged widower and her psychiatrist taking place in just one shot. Nolan, his art director, and cinematographer transform and translate what could essentially be just conceptual ideas into a true visual feast. We are talking exploding realities, cities turning in on themselves, worlds crumbling, and gravity defying fights; is that visual enough for you? Two twists take this basic plotline and begin the real story that drives Inception.
If it seems I've focused a lot on the plot, it's because this film is packed with it. In fact, it feels at times that the film is probably a little too packed with it. The world, ideas, and storyline that Nolan has created is truly incredible, creative, and intriguing. I have no doubt that the ideas and concepts Nolan explores here will spark a slew of like-minded films within the next few years. However, the world that Nolan creates is so intricate and clever, the forward momentum of plot and action so unstoppable, that the performances and drama of the film struggle to become it's equal.
From the very get go, the film hits the ground and keeps moving from one moment, one place, one idea to the next. It's a torrid pace of storytelling that can leave some behind, but more than likely, serves to wrap one up into the film and its ultimate trajectory. This is a film that starts out running, and picks up momentum as it hurls forward and digs deeper. However, the deeper it goes intellectually, the more distant I felt emotionally.
For instance, while the audience is supposed to care deeply for Cobb's emotional 'Journey Home' and reconciliation with his children and wife, the movie never takes the time to bond us with this family. While the film revels in slowly revealing the hidden secrets behind his family, it never revels in revealing to us what was so special about 'home' to begin with. It unfortunately turns his family into one-dimensional pieces of a puzzle that slowly reveals itself and solves itself, as long as you just stick along for the ride.
It's not as if Nolan doesn't spend time focusing on these relationships, there is actually a decent amount of screen time devoted to it, it's that it just doesn't work in the way that everything else does in this movie. Incredible visuals? In spades. Seamless art direction? Check. Ominous and pounding score with accompanying sound design? Best of the summer. Clever and brutal action? Will be remembered for years. Powerful and three dimensional emotional archs? Sort of.
Perhaps though, this isn't a problem of Nolan's making. As I mentioned in the opening, our characters in the film create a dream world and then allow subjects into the dream that populate the dreams with their secrets. What's onscreen is the film and world that Nolan has created; the themes and emotion of the film reflect the vision and mind (secrets) of Nolan himself. However, in talking with a few people about the film, I found that they had a connection with Cobb's family that I didn't. As I expressed my disappointment in the emotional arch, they were surprised because they felt it worked perfectly. Perhaps, the story is a bit more complex than I've given it credit. Perhaps my disappointment and disconnection reflects less Nolan and more of me?
As I began to think along that line of thought, I find it incredibly rich that the central idea of the film (that of building a dream and allowing others to fill it) are essentially what happens when an audience interacts with a film. Each film has all the same elements of a dream world created and sustained by architects (writers), point men (directors), and forgers (actors). Like dreams, movies just begin suddenly and move from scene to scene, and when they bend reality in a way that's unreal we react accordingly. What makes this idea interesting is that the audience then becomes the subject, and we fill these films, stories, and worlds with our secrets and our projections.
** For an interesting read using this line of thought, read below the end of the review. Warning, it contains some spoilers
In this way, Nolan has left several things open to the viewer, and really allows the viewer to fill in accordingly. In this regard, the film is a smashing success and works not only as entertainment, but as a journey of adventure, interaction and catharsis. Without giving away the ending, I will say that it's most not an artistic cop out, but is seated firmly within the ideas and intentions I've mentioned above.
While it isn't a perfect film, Inception is a wonderfully crafted, and intricately plotted film that allows itself to be filled with the themes and idiosyncrasies of not only it's architect and writer, but us the viewer as well. In fact, should we not have expected as much from a film entitled "Inception"? For that reason, this film is able to rise above its few faults, rise above just being an entertaining film, and become a real piece of art. Like the best films, I think it allows each new viewer not just to enjoy it as it is, but to make it their own. Learning not just about Nolan's world and his secrets, but about our own in the process.
*Continued from above: SPOILERS
Continuing from the idea I've outlined above that this film functions in the same way that audiences interact with films. When can say this interpretation actually is manifested onscreen in the character of Saito (Ken Watanabe') as the 'Tourist'. Why does he tag along as part of the team? He say's it's to ensure that Cobb goes through with it. Essentially, I would argue that Saito is the stand-in for the audience here. The film is called "Inception". This is what we want to see Cobb and his team do, along with all the action and drama that comes with it. Saito (the audience) is the one that enrolls him in this action. In fact, isn't the idea of planting ideas into someone's mind, one of the reasons we go to the movies at all? To be inspired by ideas and to let them influence us?
Saito then comes along as 'The Tourist' as the stand-in, getting to not only watch the team in action, but also take part in the whole ordeal. In fact, our main character Cobb can't leave the film until he rescues us and brings as back into the world after the act of inception occurs. It's not until this happens that Cobb is allowed, by an act of Saito, to return and find his happy ever after. Cobb isn't allowed his happy ending, until he's accomplished what we want him to do, overcome his problems (which I would argue is the idea we want to have implanted in us), and get us out in the process.
Is it foolproof? No, but I think it's got a lot to say. Just a cursory reading of the IMDB boards shows there are several other interesting ideas and readings out there as well. This is just one that speaks quite a bit of insight to me.