Inception (2010): United States – directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language, and violence
In twenty, thirty, maybe fifty years only the filmographies of a few contemporary directors will be regarded as classics. I would venture to say that Christopher Nolan’s output between 2000 and 2010 will be counted among those. Rarely has a filmmaker been so consistent throughout six of his first seven films; rarely has one been able to examine similar themes through so many different lenses. Starting with Memento [review here], dipping to the relative low point of Insomnia, itself a remake, and then continuing with the two best Batman movies and a stellar drama about magicians, The Prestige [review here] (and this doesn’t even count the capable Following, made in the late 1990’s). Inception is the culmination of those themes, told in a story Christopher and his brother Jonathan have been brooding over for many years.
Rarely is a film that is so inextricably intertwined with a particular director’s themes and visions simultaneously engaging on so many levels. Inception is a heist movie, first and foremost, and is thrilling and stimulating on a visceral level. It soon becomes clear that the movie will engage the audience’s mind, and on a level almost no recent and mainstream film has managed. Yet Inception also retains a human and moral center, in the character of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Cobb is an expert extractor, adept at infiltrating a subject’s mind to access his most secret and valuable ideas. Military technology has advanced to a point where people can share other people’s dreams. This places multiple sleeping people into the same dream space. The landscape and buildings are created by an architect and populated with projections of the subject’s subconscious. Cobb is the one who commits corporate espionage, extracting ideas from one businessman in order to give another corporation an economic advantage.
He is approached by a very powerful man named Saito (Ken Watanabe), who asks him to plant an idea in the mind of the heir of an enormous power conglomerate, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). But inception is different than extraction, and planting an idea in a subject’s mind is a dangerous and risky undertaking. Cobb takes the job as a last resort, his last opportunity to be able to go home to his children.
After the initial setup, Inception goes through a standard “gathering the crew” act. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been Cobb’s associate for years, and the two of them recruit a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), a chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy), who is a bit of a rogue. After the gathering there is the planning stage of the crime, and then the final hour or hour and a half is a constant and incredible climax.
The care with which Christopher and Jonathan crafted the screenplay is evident. The story is tight, detailed, and complex, with only a few sections necessarily glossed over (the film is a deserved two and a half hours). They also took great pains with Cobb, a tormented soul who has experienced more tragedy than one might reasonably be able to imagine. The skeleton in his closet (Marion Cotillard) just might come back to haunt Cobb and his team on their final incursion. He provides the moral backbone to the story, willing to engage in elicit activity for a chance to once again see his two small children. With Nolan’s deft directorial touch these scenes are subtle, natural, and enormously moving.
The two screenwriters also managed, once again, to weave intricate themes into the fabric of their story. Their touch is again light and agile; the characters don’t pose existential questions about the nature of reality and one’s existence. Instead, these ideas flow naturally from the story, from the heist and its many layers of depth and deception.
The special effects, too, are seamless and necessarily integrated into the story. Never does it feel forced or ostentatious, and there aren’t any moments that exist to merely show off the craft of the special effects creators. The effects are amazing, and a couple of times almost breathtaking. The movie as a whole is gorgeous, detailed and perfectly colored. The lushness of The Prestige has returned, contrasting some of the less saturated moments of The Dark Knight and Memento.
Inception is not quite perfect, but is remarkably close. It is thoroughly entertaining as a heist film, thought-provoking as a science fiction movie, and surprisingly moving as a portrait of a tortured human soul. The Nolan brothers once again raise fascinating questions about the nature of humanity and reality, and depend on their storytelling to state their case and force the audience to work out possible answers on their own. Inception is the best film of the year so far, and I am optimistic at its chances of retaining the top spot through December.