Christopher Nolan is riding the crest of a wave. Revered in indie circles for Memento and adored by the masses for The Dark Knight, he’s quickly becoming a superstar director. Needless to say, people were literally wetting themselves at the prospect of his latest film, Inception. Complete with flying actors, trains rolling down streets and a booming soundtrack, the trailer was a sight to behold. Had I been a little less jaded and wankerish, I might have wet myself too.
Sadly these stunning visuals are the best thing about the film. The story is bogged down with mind-numbing exposition and the emotional arc is melodramatic to say the least.
Loosely resembling both a James Bond film and The Matrix, Inception concerns a group of thieves who travel into people’s dreams in order to extract valuable information. But an important Japanese businessman called Saito (Ken Watanabe) asks them to do much more than this. He doesn’t just want Leonardo DiCaprio’s merry gang to steal information; he wants them to go into someone’s mind and plant an idea – an operation called inception.
The target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). He’s the heir to a lucrative energy monopoly and Saito wants DiCaprio’s gang to plant the idea that Fischer, upon his father’s death, should break it up. The rationale is that the energy monopoly is bad for everyone but the reality is that Saito doesn’t want to go out of business and would like the opportunity to take over.
Reading the basic premise, the film sounds interesting, but the reality doesn’t necessarily synch with the concept. Most of the problem with the film is that Nolan is incapable of setting up the world in an interesting way. It’s kind of the antithesis of The Matrix where everything was done with ease (too bad they fucked up royally with the sequels). All the talk of dreams within dreams and kicks and totems and projections feel remarkably laboured and clunky. The film can honestly be split into two halves – it’s awesome when people aren’t speaking but it’s a drag when they are.
One of the main offending scenes is when DiCaprio is showing Ellen Page’s character the dream world. Again I feel compelled to draw comparisons with the Wachowskis’ film. When Morpheus is showing Neo around the matrix, everything is presented simply and clearly – you get the idea instantly. With Inception, though, it feels awkward and ill-conceived. A good film doesn’t have to waste lots of time on endless exposition. Everything should unfold simply and clearly. This never happens with Nolan’s film.
I get particularly annoyed when films seem to be making things up as they go along. It’s a cheap way of getting around problems with the narrative and it’s a way of papering over cracks. This feeling of things being made up as they go along is particularly apparent in Inception. First of all you have the idea that individuals can go into other people’s dreams – fair enough, this is a cool idea. Then you find out that you can have dreams within dreams and then equally out of nowhere we find out that if you go really deep into someone’s dreams you can go to limbo. All of these concepts are fine but the construction of the story is lacklustre; you never feel that the filmmakers have a firm grasp of the rules of this world. You feel like they’ll bend and change them to serve themselves rather than the story.
Another lacklustre aspect of Inception is the emotional arc. DiCaprio and his wife fool around with this dream world and end up in limbo. DiCaprio eventually ends up discovering that he’s living a dream but his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) won’t accept it. In order to get them to return to reality, DiCaprio performs inception and plants the idea in Mal’s head that she’s not living in the real world: by killing themselves while in limbo, they’ll return to reality. The only problem is that DiCaprio’s idea has stuck and the awoken Mal refuses to believe the reality of her existence. Again, writing this down, it sounds like an interesting idea, but once again the execution is lacking.
One key problem is the lack of chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard. They never feel like a convincing couple. But more damning than this is the ludicrous melodrama that forms the basis of many of their scenes. I was particularly amused by Mal’s idea for her and her husband to commit suicide together. She goes to all the effort of booking hotel rooms that face one another. This way she and her hubby can jump out of the window at the same time in glorious synchronised suicide. But it just seems like such a convoluted way of doing it. You have to find a hotel that has facing rooms and which both look down into a vertiginous drop. Why not just buy a gun or sit in a bathtub and drop a toaster into the water? I guess those options just aren’t romantic enough…
I also had to laugh when DiCaprio visited his dream world and we got to see what he has locked in the basement. Again it’s the hotel room where his wife killed herself and sure enough Mal is down there. But while the beginning of the scene is very well done (it has a creepy Shining vibe), it’s spoiled by melodrama. Mal goes crazy and then DiCaprio escapes into an elevator and keeps his wife locked down below. Yes I understand the symbolism but the execution of the scene is lacking and had me giggling like a girl. Yeah, keep your wo-man locked in the basement where she belongs!
Another laugh came when Leonardo DiCaprio gets stuck in the gap between buildings while trying to escape some bad guys. Yes this is the kind of thing that often happens in dreams (although the sequence is meant to take place in reality) but I couldn’t help but feel it was a jab at DiCaprio’s puffy physique. Got wedged between some buildings, you fat bastard!
Okay, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time bitching about the film but it certainly does have lots of things going for it. The action is often amazing and the visuals are stunning too. One of my favourite visuals is that of a train rampaging through some city streets. It’s an unusual juxtaposition but it’s filmed in such a matter of fact way that it’s only after a few seconds that you realise that a huge train should not be in this environment.
I also love some of the imagery in the opening sequence – especially the water bursting through the walls. And it’s also quite amazing how much the opening few minutes feel like a James Bond movie. For some reason I couldn’t help but think it felt like a modern You Only Live Twice. And speaking of James Bond, the snow sequence near the end of the movie has a huge Bond vibe. However, this sequence is less effective – by this point I was getting serious action fatigue.
The best scene, though, is the zero gravity fight. It wipes the floor with anything that The Matrix could come up with and I was constantly asking myself how they filmed it. It’s an amazing sequence.
Something else that I liked was how immoral the story is. Cillian Murphy’s character is being conned into breaking up his company, so therefore the heroes are behaving like massive pricks. Saito might pretend that this mission is to help everyone and break up a monopoly but its aim is to really set up another one.
But in the end, these pluses aren’t anywhere near enough to convince me that the film is some kind of modern masterpiece. The film is flawed as fuck. Hell, I think I might even prefer Insomnia...