Inception (2010) – AMK Hub. If Inception is what director Christopher Nolan can come up with during his spare time in between his second and third Batman films, one wonders just what he’d be able to come up with if he had more time. My colleagues caught the film earlier last week, and what they saw onscreen carried over into office banter the following days. Inception‘s movie trailer was simply mind-blowing. It’s hard to imagine how movie lovers upon seeing a scene of a busy street bending skywards would not immediately be intrigued by the film’s premise.
But 2.5 hours later on a packed Saturday late morning screen at the Hub, I left the theater with mixed feelings. At the risk of offending a lot of the film’s fans – the film has scored an astonishing 9.3 rating on IMDB already – I thought Inception was visually stunning, served by great performances and creative enough to feel like a huge gush of fresh air… but also ultimately plagued by story and thematic problems that stop my giving it an unreserved recommendation.
A quick introduction to the film’s creative premise: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobbs, a professional dream ‘extractor’ whose specialization is in infiltrating other persons’ dreams and stealing what would normally be inaccessible information. A new job comes through Saito (Ken Watanabe), a powerful businessman who wants Cobbs not to steal information but to plant into his business rival Fischer (Cilian Murphy) an idea that would help Saito maintain his own business’ competitive edge. In order to effect this, Cobbs assembles a team of other specialists, including his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the dream level designer Ariadne (Ellen Page), and a master disguiser Earmes (Tom Hardy).
There is one very strong thing going for Inception, and it’s the solid actor performances all round. DiCaprio has gone from strength to strength over the last 15 years since his first major role in The Quick and the Dead, though the good actor possesses a sort of distinguishable look that it’s hard to see a film of his without immediately recognizing the actor. Interestingly, several of Nolan’s Batman alumnus shows up for this film too: and they include Watanabe, Murphy, Michael Caine in a small role as Cobbs’ mentor father, and Hans Zimmer who returns to write another big, noisy and bombastic but ultimately non-descript soundtrack for Inception. Ellen Page, whom I last saw in the delightful Juno, is in the film too and plays a role that is more representative of the actress’ actual age.
The actor though that I thought gave the best performance of this crew is Gordon-Levitt. The young actor is certainly showing quite the range: as a psychotic villain in Killshot to a luckless boyfriend in 500 Days of Summer, and now that of a loyal companion and point-man to Cobbs. While Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) expresses misgivings of taking on Saito’s job, he discharges his role with a deft hand once the mission gets going. There’s a long amazing zero-gravity-like action sequence with him in it, and while the actor’s somewhat slender frame doesn’t naturally put him in a physical form one associates with action films, it’ll be interesting to see whether his action-heavy role in Inception will continue into other similar roles in the future.
So, what didn’t work for me in the film? Many aspects, several of which are drawn off the same problem. Inception has been favorably compared online to The Matrix. Thematically, the two films draw upon semi-related material: essentially, the existence of alternative realities that blur the difference between what is real and what is a dream. However, for a film that is entirely based upon persons trawling dream worlds, the dream scenes themselves don’t especially feel very dream-like. Apart from the single standout zero-gravity fight scene that takes place in a hotel corridor, you never get a persistent sense that the heist team and their target are operating in dream worlds.
Let me explain what I mean: just think for a moment the dreams you’ve had. They never make sense. Your environments change constantly, and you’re often doing things that are reminiscent of activities you do in the real world, or you are doing really fantastic things. For instance, one thing that keeps recurring in my dreams is super-human flight. Those are the sort of things we’ve come to expect in dreams, but there’s little of this in Inception. The dream levels are reliant too much on the real world and with the exception of the zero-gravity scene are compliant to real-world physics and artifacts.
The film does try to insert story elements that remind you of its setting. For example, that the subject’s ‘human’ projections might know what you are up to and attempt to fight back. And there’s also the idea that time gets multiplied exponentially between levels, and the aforementioned mind-blowing scene of the street bending upwards. But the latter was the game ‘tutorial’ Cobbs shows to Ariadne to prove his point, and the highlight of the film’s trailer. You never actually see much of that kind of fantastic and constantly changing environments in the film’s long mission, and its absence significantly destroyed much of any sense of immersion I might have had otherwise. The Matrix did a much better job at representing an alternative reality where your powers are limited only by what your willpower and extent of imagination.
The second issue I had was that the story felt unnecessarily complex. One of the key story points is the existence of different dream levels, and that you might be dreaming within a dream. But the story delivery resulted in a terrifically convoluted mess that made it very hard to follow the fine details of what was going on, especially the mentor deception that Cobb’s team was trying to pull on Fischer. Moreover, while I like the idea of time getting slowed between levels, I thought the film’s climatic juxtaposition of scenes from each of the dream levels where the team tries to get kicked back to reality was stretched well past a reasonable limit to keep the audience in suspense.
Thirdly; as imaginative as the film’s theme is, I never quite got the sense that Inception is epic. There are obligatory fight scenes of course, but they don’t feel as though they are an integral part of the story. The faceless and numerous ‘enemies’ in dream world are the apparent human projections in Fischer’s mind, but the story glosses over this as though it wants you to just accept the fact and not to ask any more questions as to why if Fischer was supposedly trained to react defensively in dream world attacks that he didn’t just simply imagine up thousands of enemy agents and overwhelm Cobb’s team. You know, sort of like what Agent Smith did in The Matrix: Reloaded.
Lastly is the absence of any real antagonist, even thinly drawn ones. It’s not a big good-vs-evil battle. It’s not even a localized battle. It’s merely a story about a bunch of dream invaders infiltrating someone else’s mind to implant an idea with some barely-related action scenes thrown in to qualify the film as a science fiction-action movie. The story essentially ends when they all wake up, and when it does, it’s all a bit underwhelming because everything that’s happened isn’t really real in the physical sense. So, all those bad guys who shoot you, or when your team members start getting shot – not to worry. All they need do is wake up in the right way, and all will be fine. No one can really die (though you might end up in ‘limbo’ – watch the film to understand what I mean), which pretty much kills the film’s stakes.
And the much-discussed last scene that will have you asking your movie partner if the entire film was really itself a dream. Ling certainly doesn’t think so, and it’s because she noticed something about to happen when the film cuts to the end-credits. Which begs the question then: why bother with a hanging question if the answer is already semi-obvious on the screen if you pay close attention to the last seconds?
Mixed feelings again. I think there’s a lot going for Nolan’s Inception, and the film is going to make megabucks at the box office. Even a week after the film’s release in Singapore, the theater on Saturday late morning was 70% packed – a pretty uncommon sight nowadays. Watch this film if you’d like a thought-provoking story and great actor performances. Just be prepared to be asking lots of questions at the end of it when you try to unravel the almost convoluted mess. So, don’t flame me, but I really thought it was a…