Friday, July 16, 2010

INCEPTION review

"Inception", the latest thriller from writer/director Christopher Nolan ("Memento", "The Dark Knight"), is as multi-layered and dense as the dream world its characters transverse. Exploring dreams has been a central concept in visual storytelling since the beginning. From the dawn of cinema, we've seen just about every approach to dreams on screen, from the earliest work of Georges Méliès to recognizably unsettling imagery in works of Bergman, Antonioni, and Polanski, to the "you die in your dream, you die for real" central conceit of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series. With "Inception", Nolan brings, I believe, a rare fresh concept aboard the rickety dream-boat. The story chronicles the adventures of a freelance team of experts specially trained to invade the sleeping minds of others (when valuable secrets are most vulnerable), and steal valuable ideas and/or information. Corporate espionage at its stealthiest.


The concept is a cool one, and worthy of the many months preceding the movie of virtually every detail having been kept under wraps. Nolan has everything he needs for a state of the art, novel dream heist caper: A well realized (if overly rule-laden in the exposition) concept, a very talented cast and crew (including many of his "Batman" alums), and a very, very large budget. And by not merely settling for the said novel dream heist caper, instead choosing to probe deeper and get perhaps dangerously personal, Nolan comes darn close to making the absolute most of it.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, the ace dream invader who, as it turns out, has more issues than National Geographic. Cobb leads the team of semi-altruistic dream thieves (including Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ellen Page) as they set out to not steal an idea this time, but rather implant one. For Cobb, this change-of-pace mission could mean the end of his underground criminal life as well as the end of a long period of estrangement from his family. The character spends most of the movie breaking his own stated rules for traversing the multi-layered dream realities in desperate pursuit of his young kids, whose faces he cannot recall. What Cobb's quest to reconnect with his children after abandoning in pursuit of dreams says about the writer/director of "Inception" I can only guess - and I'm not sure I want to know.

DiCaprio carries the extra burden of having to deliver the brunt of the exposition, explaining the story's concepts and their rules. The latter task may be one too many for the otherwise suitable actor, as the movie's first hour carries a definite, plot-heavy weight - but DiCaprio's casting is by no means a deal-breaker here. If anything, it adds a perhaps unintentional level of intrigue to an already intriguing film when one stops to consider his recent work in context with this. In addition to several other similarities to DiCaprio's most recent starrer, Scorsese's "Shutter Island", here we find yet another in a trail of his psychologically fractured on-screen wives. (Add last year's "Revolutionary Road" to that list, as well.) One might be tempted to point out that this trend is starting to look a wee bit intentional, Leo!

One of the most interesting and triumphant aspects about "Inception" is its brilliant (if only occasional) utilization of visual film language to explain and communicate the logic and essence of dreams. The most utterly ingenious moment occurs relatively early in the film, as Cobb is recruiting Ellen Page's character, Ariadne. The scene opens with the two of them chatting at an outdoor café. Just as the true nature of this little meeting is becoming evident to her, he hits her, and us, with this bombshell: "How did you get to this café? Do you remember?" Of course, she has as much a clue of how she got to the café as we do - but it never occurred to anyone to question it, because just as it's all really a dream for her, (and dreams have no beginnings, just middles and ends,) it was just another unquestioned trim-the-fat/cut-to-the-chase moment of film viewing for us - the type of scene intro that we've been conditioned not to question, thanks to over a century of evolving cinema language that has become so commonplace, it's second nature.

This raises the notion of the base relationship between movies and dreams, perhaps ever so slightly shedding some light on the how and why of certain movies that entrance us, become entangled in our subconscious, and haunt us in ways that art of other media cannot. Here, Nolan is striking at the raw nerve of movie magic itself, finding a through-line between base human psychology and the art of filmmaking. The argument could be made that he continues this exploration throughout the entire film in various ways, (all the while in service of the character-driven plot,) including the use of Hans Zimmer's amazing, pulsating and often-minimalist original score.

Despite being a seemingly cold and sometimes sluggish or oppressive experience, "Inception" is, at its core, a work of great heart. At the end of two and a half hours of intricate pursuits and exposition overload, we somehow come away emotionally overwhelmed. This should be no surprise, as Nolan has chosen to explore some of cinema's most enduring male-centric themes: A man's identity within his own family, and the father/son relationship (played out in Cillian Murphy's character's subplot). This film, with its debatable meanings and ever-peppered nuances, is almost the very definition of a movie that demands multiple viewings. Of course, myself, like most film reviewers, have only had one shot at it thus far. I for one am still processing this one even as I race to the release deadline. Like "Shutter Island" is it a difficult film to review, due to its expert blend of Kubrick-ian aloofness and deeply lurking humanity. But I suspect that once we wake up from the initial pass at this film, it may very well stand the test of time as one of the great works of dream cinema, and a defining work of Christopher Nolan, who already resides the shortlist of today's vital cinema artists.

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