Friday, July 16, 2010

"Inception" (2010)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Bear with me for a second.

Although Batman is without a doubt my favorite superhero, for a long time, and arguably to this day, Richard Donner's "Superman" was the superhero film to beat.  It's sense of wonder and fun is undeniably infectious, though its failings as a film are numerous.  Other superhero films came and went until Christopher Nolan directed "Batman Begins."

A few years later, Nolan unleashed "The Dark Knight" - the culmination of the growing sense of credibility for superhero movies. Christopher Nolan had delivered a superhero film, a Batman film, that was not just a great superhero movie... but an undeniably real, undeniably great film.

Nolan himself had been moving upward, since releasing the popular backwards mystery, "Memento."  But now Nolan himself has come to a culmination point, that point where he's merged entertainment and credible art.  He did it first with "The Dark Knight."

He perfects it with "Inception."

"Inception" is an amazing film.  Mind-blowing, if you can stomach the bad pun.  It is a film that spans multiple layers of consciousness, simultaneously, and yet the viewer is never lost in all this.  It is a film with a superb cast, working at the top of their game.  It is a film with assured direction from a highly qualified, might I say, fricken genius.

It's hard not to sit here worshiping at the altar of Nolan so fresh after coming out of such an incredibly satisfying cinema experience.  If I feel like "Inception" doesn't quite top "The Dark Knight," it's only because of my own longtime, personal connection with the Batman character that puts that film over the top.  But "Inception" is incredible, in every way.

Spoilers will follow.  I will be discussing the ending.  Beware.  

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at what he does... and what he does is go into your mind while you're sleeping and steal your secrets.  When he fails to steal a secret from the mind of an industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe), Saito is nonetheless impressed and offers Cobb a deal in order to escape the fury of his former employers: help Saito destroy the business empire of a rival, and Cobb's criminal record will be wiped clean, allowing him to go home and see his children once again.

How will Cobb do this?  A process called "inception," whereby an idea is planted in the mind of an individual, and that individual believes they came up with the idea themselves.  Cobb is uniquely qualified to do such a thing because he's the only person in the world who's ever done it before.  He gathers his team: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man, Eames (Tom Hardy, coming up quite far from playing Patrick Stewart's clone in "Star Trek: Nemesis") the forger, Ariadne (Ellen Page) the architect, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) the chemical specialist and Saito himself.  Their target is Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who will be traveling home for the funeral of his father.

In order to plant an idea in Fischer's head without him realizing the alien nature of it, Cobb and his team must concoct a deeply complex and dangerous plan to get into Fischer's trained mind.  While everything seems set to go, Ariadne discovers that the one hitch in the plan is Cobb himself: his guilt over the death of his wife can lead to dangerous imperfections in the dream world, ones that could put the team themselves in mortal danger of losing themselves in "dream limbo."

The "reality" of "Inception" posits a world where the technology not only exists, but is somewhat readily available, for going into and creating lucid dreams.  In one sequence we see a sort of opium den where people are jacked into their dreams, addicted - those dream worlds are the real worlds to them because they spend more time there than in actual "reality."  "Inception" does not spend time going into the technical science of this; it merely presents it to the viewer and says, "This is the way the world is."  And we accept it; it is completely and without question a part of that world.

The dream world is another thing altogether.  Different levels, dreams within dreams, lucid dreaming, and the rules of those world are fascinating and well-drawn in "Inception."  In the dream world, the other people inhabiting that world are projections of the dreamer's subconscious mind.  When they begin to suspect that something doesn't belong, things start to get wacky, fast.  Those projections begin to attack intruders, the subconscious defending itself, "like white blood cells," the movie tells us.  And when they do in the film, turning their heads in unison or staring coldly at an intruder, the effect is chilling.

The loopy imagery in the film is just astonishing.  That scene from the trailers where Paris folds up over itself, or where Arthur uses "paradoxical architecture," are just excellent.  A train barreling down an LA street, a spinning hotel corridor... all those bits you've seen in the trailers, but they simply can't sell how incredible it all is.  I literally sat forward with a childish grin on my face during the corridor fight sequence.  It's simply the sort of totally imaginative, technically astonishing scene that truly make me love movies.

It would all be for naught if there weren't some emotional core to all of this, either, and that rests entirely on DiCaprio's shoulders.  Much like his recent role in Scorsese's "Shutter Island," DiCaprio is a man struggling with the death of his wife, for which he blames himself.  The spectre of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) haunts him so deeply that he can't even escape her when he moves through the levels of other people's dreams.  She not only haunts him, she actively attempts to sabotage his missions, and this is the crux of the problem Cobb will ultimately face at the film's climax.  DiCaprio effortlessly puts on this character, proving himself to be one of the most talented performers out there today.

Tom Hardy gets a lot of the comic relief bits with his lively Eames character.  Hardy was sort of a nobody after "Star Trek," but recently gained some acclaim for "Bronson."  Ellen Page gets a bad rap for people just associating her with "Juno."  The truth is that Page is quite talented, running the gamut from over-intelligent teen ("Juno", "Whip It") to unsure superhero ("X-Men: The Last Stand") to revenge torturer ("Hard Candy"). 

Also of note is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Like DiCaprio, he came up from TV sitcom roots ("Third Rock From the Sun"), but unlike DiCaprio, isn't really hitting his A-list stride until now.  While DiCaprio has had a long career in the spotlight, Gordon-Levitt is just now getting big notice for roles like "(500) Days of Summer" and... well... "GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra".  But we can forgive that one.  Gordon-Levitt is an extremely likable presence, but here proves himself more than just a charismatic performer by ably taking on the complex and incredible action sequences, including that spinning hotel corridor fight, and a lot of zero-g work.

The film's climax is a marvel of moviemaking, and in my opinion, should earn Nolan that best director Oscar for 2010.  The fact that he's so seamlessly able to switch between multiple levels of consciousness, each with their own timeframes and color palettes, all going on simultaneously, without losing the viewer at all is just friggin' incredible.  Switching from the rain-soaked Los Angeles bridge to the warm hotel to the frigid mountain tops and "dream limbo" without missing a beat, this is a positively stunning, riveting sequence.  It's the sort of thing they should show in film school when talking about parallel action.  Forget that, "Inception" should be shown in film school, period.

If there's one problem I had with this entire film, it's that the ultimate resolution, or lack thereof, is slightly disappointing.  I feel like this film sort of needed a concrete resolution, but Nolan can't resist an almost cliched wink at the end with whether or not  Cobb's reunion with his family is real.  Personally, I think the film is more emotionally satisfying to me as a viewer if it is real.  If it's not, I wonder why in the hell I just sat through all of this - especially the climax where Cobb rejects the projection of Mal because she's not real.  He won't look at his dream-world children because he's desperate to see their real faces.  Why, then, would he be satisfied (or why should we as an audience) if, at the end of the film when he walks out into the sunlight to greet his children, finally, if it weren't real?  The film seems to imply that it is, but cuts out right before we get definitive proof.

My friend Jenny said that if it was real, why were the children wearing the same clothes and look the same age as his memories of them?  I can't answer that; what I know is that I feel it sabotages the character and his emotional journey to play that trick on the audience.  For me, I choose to believe that at the end, Cobb goes home to his children.  But then, that's something the characters are presented with in the film, isn't it?  In the scene with the "opium den," those people choose to live in the dream world because it's better for them.  I choose my own interpretation of the ending because that's better for me; your mileage may vary.

But I digress.  I loved this film, and I simply can't wait to see it again.  Great performances, astonishing action sequences and effects, "Inception" is that film that reminds me why I love movies so much.  Movies like "Inception" are why this blog exists.