Directed by: Christopher Nolan || Produced by: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan || Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Wally Pfister || Edited by: Lee Smith || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 148 minutes
Inception was the first and remains so far the only Christopher Nolan film I have ever “Phantom Menaced,” much to the chagrin of Nolan fans who maintain it is one of his most visionary, personal, and groundbreaking auteur features. While it flaunts most of the fabled writer-producer-director’s strengths as a filmmaker, including effective editing, an intriguing premise, memorable practical stunts and special FX, and commendable acting direction, it also sports many of Nolan’s greatest weakness, from bland, forgettable supporting characters to bloodless PG-13 violence to nonsensical story logic to an overindulgent, bloated running-time. Would I recommend it to others, now, with the benefit of hindsight? I have difficulty imagining myself doing so…
Conceived in the months following the release of his career magnum opus, The Dark Knight (2008), Inception ostensibly developed from one of the earliest big-budget, high-concept blockbusters Nolan wanted to make near the start of his career with Warner Bros. The man was granted the technical and financial powers necessary to achieve his dream (pun intended) after he made it big with the first 2/3 of his Batman trilogy complete, and rewrote it as a sort of heist thriller with a science-fiction backdrop. In the film’s world, a black market of quasi-cyber spies infiltrate enemies’ subconsciousness to steal ideas, secrets, and various types of sensitive information, one team of which is led by our protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio.
The problem with this otherwise novel, interesting premise is that in practice, in execution, Inception is a less interesting version of The Matrix (1999) with unclear rules and internal logic. Aside from Nolan’s now characteristic toothless violence, where even minor blood squibs are nonexistent, his portrayal of intricate, fantastical dream worlds is the equivalent of a wet blanket. A few shots here and there depict semi-interesting geometric paradoxes, the ground of an urban landscape transforming into a tesseract during a brief expository sequence, and a train barreling through a crowded street are all we get as far as “mind-bending fantasy” or surrealism goes. For God’s sake, Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2017) was more imaginative than this. The crime drama-esque violence itself is bland and by the numbers, with only a couple chase sequences — also a Christopher Nolan staple — possessing anything in the way of tension.
Combine all this with the film’s inexplicable technical jargon and plentiful, tedious exposition, and Inception gets bogged down in its contradictory narrative development and thematic mumbo jumbo. Certain characters (e.g. Tom Hardy) can shapeshift for no reason at all, while others (e.g. Joseph Gordon-Levitt) exist solely to provide expository dialogue so the audience can (sometimes) understand what the hell’s happening. The offensive capabilities of our principle cast and the consequences of dying within dreamworlds are unclear, and change seemingly at random or for contrived reasons. By the time we reach the end of the film’s almost 2.5 hour run-time — truly excessive even for Nolan’s filmography, until one considers The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Interstellar (2014) — it is unknown how many of the film’s own rules the narrative still follows.
Much of what sustains the narrative’s tension is Nolan and longtime collaborator Lee Smith’s editing. Though Nolan’s filmography is as bloated and excessive as any modern Hollywood director in terms of overall running-time, his intra-scene editing and scene-transitions are as smooth as the greatest auteurs. Parallel editing in particular is crucial to the storytelling of Inception, given how many disparate characters in separate locations must accomplish individual tasks to achieve their shared heist goal. Nolan’s use of slow-motion is also commendable, which adds to the clarity of this multi-layered cross-cutting.
Outside of the memorable editing patterns and a refreshing underuse of digital FX, however, most of what carries the movie is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and performance. I find the man uninspired and generic in most of his starring roles following Titanic (1997), including those by acclaimed writer-director Martin Scorsese (e.g. Gangs of New York , The Departed ), but here DiCaprio conveys genuine sympathy. His character doesn’t have a terribly original backstory or motivation (another dead wife or girlfriend, Marion Cotillard), but his juggling of various personal and professional responsibilities amidst the legality of international espionage is entertaining. His dour frustration and longing are empathetic. I’m not sure whether to credit this achievement more to DiCaprio’s performance or to Nolan’s writing and acting direction, so I’ll commend both of them.
In the end, what’s memorable about Christopher Nolan’s Inception is not the obnoxious soundtrack nor even its derivative surrealist imagery, but rather the clusterfuck of its significant weaknesses and strengths. The film’s editing, particularly its cross-cutting, are reference level for amateur and even professional editors learning how to generate narrative tension, and it sports one of the best lead roles of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. Juxtapose those attributes with one of the sloppiest premises in a modern Hollywood blockbuster, toothless and blood-free action sequences, a flat-lined supporting cast, and Nolan’s trademark wet blanket-imagination, and one may understand how Inception became one of the most parodied films of 2010s cinema. It’s such an otherwise promising yet haphazardly executed auteur project that I advocate the film makes a great counterargument to the prevailing cinephile philosophy that auteur visions are to be trusted over major studio committees and executive groupthink. While I’m happy for those captivated by Inception’s supposed allegory for film production writ large, the film’s deeper thematic meanings are both too simplistic and too muddled by questionable cinematographic style. Is there considerable cinematic craft to be found here? Undoubtedly so, but would I recommend Inception as a cohesive, effective feature film whose cinematic merit equals or exceeds the sum of its parts? Not even in your dreams.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bloated, confusing, and ultimately far too safe, Inception is less than the sum of its parts due to a supporting cast that functions more as a series of plot devices than as memorable characters, and forgettable action sequences whose violence makes The Matrix look like the greatest exploitation flick of all time.
— However… Leonardo DiCaprio shines as the ostensible movie-star we’ve been sold his entire career, while Lee Smith’s intricate editing and Nolan’s careful slow-motion sequences enhance narrative tension in ways the unimaginative dream-heist plot never can.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? Raw, infinite subconscious… nothing is down there! Except for whatever may have been left behind by anyone sharing the dream who’s been trapped there before!