2011 is here and what better way to start the year than with a review of one of the best films of 2010?
Toy Story 3 wasn’t the only thing I saw during the trip to Lancaster I mentioned in my review of that film. On the same night I arrived in the city I joined a number of friends in the Vue cinema there to watch this masterpiece directed by Christopher Nolan. I had to get up very early that Saturday to do a four hour shift at work before jumping on a train for another four hours so I was pretty tired by the time the film started. Considering the movie’s multifaceted complexity and my state of near-sleep I might very well have been unable to take any of it in. But I’m a fan of Ghost in the Shell so I’ve had plenty of practise at following complicated and confusing works of sci-fi brilliance.
A foreknowledge of works like Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix definitely helps with Inception as they are all high-concept takes on the nature of reality and identity and might well have been influences on writer/director Nolan. His film however is not concerned with cybernetic enhancement, and diving into the net or about false realities created by machines but about the depths and intricacies of dreams.
We’re set in an indistinct future, that or an alternate present in which technology allows us to share dreams. Furthermore it has become possible for those with the right skills to achieve ‘extraction’, the process of entering someone’s subconscious and taking a valuable piece of information they prefer to keep secret. This in turn has lead to corporate CEOs with much to lose training to defend themselves from extraction whilst dreaming and for this they enlist the help of Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Nolan doesn’t mess around, dropping us right into an attempted extraction, layering it with twists, action and some stunning visuals from the off. And layers are what Inception is all about. This is a film that needs to be rewatched several times, partly to get the full blast of the plot but mostly to understand the film’s many layers until it achieves a higher existence. One early scene explains the creation of dreams in terms of simultaneous inspiration and perception desrcibing how the mind does these things so well that creation becomes subconscious, automatic, uncontrollable. That’s exactly what happens to you when watching this film. Inception will enter your subconscious in a way that keeps you considering it. The film gains a life outside of itself. You project yourself and your reaction into it. It’s a film about, amongst other things, losing yourself and that’s exactly what you do.
So one extraction goes awry and Cobb and suavely-suited sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, everybody’s favourite) are commissioned by their target to attempt the opposite, Inception, planting an idea in someone’s head in such a way to make them think they came up with it themself. The rest of the film’s first half concerns Cobb’s preparations for the job which targets Cillian Murphy (full of stony humanity, excellent) son of another corporate CEO, played byPete Postlethwaite whose death, aged 64 was announced today, his character, in a sad mirror of today’s news is terminally ill. A team is gathered including Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao (thier client Ken Watanabe also somes along for the ride to ‘protect his investment’) and a complicated plot that deals with a lot of confidently handled in-universe lore ensues. Ellen Page as Ariadne fulfills the role of the exposition character who is as new to all this as we are allowing us to learn while she does, but she does more than that, acting as one of the chief sources of discord in the group, keeping things interesting. Cocksure Tom Hardy as Eames comes up with the lion’s share of the plan while Dileep Rao’s chemist Yusaf provides the drugs. It’s a well-drawn team.
The second half of the film takes us through the mission itself and what a ride it is incorporating many layers of dreams within dreams, things going awry and some totally orginal and awe-inspiring action, the best of which sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting in a zero-gravity hotel corridor, taking what was started by The Matrix and adding another layer of cool. There’s those layers again and the dream-within-a-dream chain created in the second half takes the layered approach and delivers it both overtly and subtly. Remember what it was like to watch Neo fighting Smith while Keanu Reeves sat asleep in the Nebuchadnezzar? That’s doubled here with more elaborate staging and bigger problems for the characters to deal with along the way. The action is framed in paralell lines that layer everything on top of each other. It’s extraordinary and there’s nothing else like it.
Then we have kicks, musical countdowns, totems, the effects of the sedative used, the nature of projections, the way the timeframe works, all sorts of psychology, and the threat of ‘limbo’ to deal with. I’ll leave you to discover it all for yourselves but what’s significant is that Nolan didn’t keep it simple, he made it rich and in most other director’s hands it might have been completely incomprehensible. No question it’s confusing and a lot of people will never understand it no matter how many times they watch the film and plenty will hate it as a result. I pity them because Nolan’s direction made me thirsty for knowledge of the mechanics of it all. It’s a thinking man’s Matrix, a biological Ghost in the Shell.
Finally there’s Cobb’s backstory which involves his wife’s constant interruptions in his subconscious and provides the most important layer. What we get with the slowly unfolding story of his past is something human and tortured to get our teeth into while we’re digesting the depths of the plan. Marion Cotillard remians a sisnister presence throughout and her everpresent threat keeps things up in the air right up to the final act. The key to this part of the film like the whole film itself, however, is DiCaprio whose subtle, deft handling of a role packed with originality keeps us rooted in a way that invests us emotionally. It’s not a grandstanding turn. He doesn’t shout but it’s a terriffic performance.
Bewing so complex the film is ripe for questioning and interpretation, open to plot-holes and inconsistencies, but that’s okay. The way it’s created must have made it an editor’s nightmare and its success lies in the fact that it’s so damn enjoyable. Me and my friends spent days picking it apart, discussing the myriad intricacies and it’s the kind of film I’ll discover new things in after watching it ten times. But what I’ll take away most from Inception is the sense that cinematic storytelling has reached a new level of sophistication. I don’t mean that as some kind of grandiose overdeclaration of approval. It’s more significant than that. The only other time I’ve ever had that feeling was when I first played The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time, it’s a state of being lead into discovery in a way that makes you feel like a witness to entertainment history. The only other movie that ever got near that for me was The Dark Knight. It’s possible that Christopher Nolan is the best director currently working in the world.
Deep, layered and utterly original. Inception is a big-budget, multi-faceted feast for the mind. Where many effects-laden, high-concept summer blockbusters represent a platform for giddy thrills and brainless showboating Christopher Nolan’s latest gifts us the perfect antidote, something cerebral that you want to watch forever.