Christopher Nolan’s Inception implies that somewhere within the vast crevasses of the mind lay pockets of boundless imagination, capable of forging entire universes out of thin air. This very film seems to prove the rule. Inception features worlds within worlds within worlds (or rather, dreamscapes within dreamscapes within dreamscapes). At times Inception is confusing, but it is never incomprehensible. No doubt Nolan had various plot-points tattooed to his person, just to act as a constant reminder of where all the pieces of his puzzle fit. It’s a fastidiously scripted, impeccably acted and expertly directed action-thriller. However, as a whole, it doesn’t quite compare with Nolan’s meaty thematic think-pieces The Dark Knight and Memento. The difference between those films and Inception? Nolan is so concerned here with tangling up your mind, he forgets to grab a hold of your heart.
The plot of Inception is an elaborate construction (perhaps even a giant misdirection), but if you gave me some graph paper, a pencil, an eraser, and a couple of hours, I’m sure I’d be able to draw its trajectory…probably. But diagrams I don’t have, and describing the film without visual aids may prove to be a fruitless exercise. However, to fully explain why this film is so wonderful, as well as to discuss the ways in which it falls short of its grandiose intentions, you’re going to need some idea of what this damn this is about. Sigh. And I was just getting used to saying “it’s a reboot of The A-Team” or “It’s just the next Iron Man movie” and having that suffice as a synopsis in my reviews. How dare Hollywood unveil an original property?!
Imagine if you will a reality in which people can infiltrate the dreams of others. Now, if this were the case, no doubt there would be specialists available to break into someone’s mind and steal from them secrets, ideas, memories and the like. In Inception, this is exactly the case. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best extractor in the business; the man who enters the subconscious of a mark and takes what has been requested. After a failed attempt to steal from the mind of mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe), Dom and his point-man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) find themselves on the run from their angry employers. Saito offers them sanctuary with a catch. They must work for him, and perform the incredibly difficult task of ‘inception’ – that is, the planting of an idea within someone’s mind.
Their new target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to Saito’s primary business competitor Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite). Dom is tasked with inspiring Robert to divide up his dying father’s empire and pave the way for Saito’s dominance. Not an easy task, but not impossible. It requires the invasion of multiple dreams, and thus, Dom seeks out some talented dream invaders (inceptors?) for assistance. So begins the traditional recruitment of the ragtag team of accomplices. There is Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao), Eames the forger (Tom Hardy) and, most importantly, Ariadne the architect (Ellen Page). Although I won’t describe them here, their colourful job descriptions are explained during the film. Sadly, the reason for Nolan’s selection of the name Ariadne is never provided.
There is a lot of exposition to get through, and to the film’s credit, it never rushes to bombard the audience with information. Unfortunately, the supremely talented Page is saddled with a character whose primary role is to conveniently ask what’s going on, and occasionally, whose dream we are currently in. It might indeed be a role necessary for the film’s clarity; I merely wish the wonderful Page had been given a bit more to chew on. The same goes for Gordon-Levitt. Actually, the same kind-of goes for everyone bar DiCaprio. In traditional heist-film fashion, the characters (although wonderfully performed across the board) are merely archetypes. Did Nolan think that more complex characters would hurl the already-intricate film into complete chaos? Hey, perhaps it would have! But that just means it’s hard to care about anyone other than DiCaprio’s Cobb, who is given a wonderful arc involving the dream-haunting ghost of his wife (Marion Cotillard).
The more I think about this film, and the way in which its intricate screenplay unfolds, the more I respect it. The action set pieces are deliriously spectacular; one involving a gravity-impaired Gordon-Levitt in an ever-rotating hallway is wondrous to behold. The entire final act is pretty much a feat of near-genius, at least in terms of narrative composition and editing. However, what truly keeps Inception from the level of masterpiece is the emptiness of the characters. Again, if we read the film as a traditional action/heist film, I can forgive the reliance on characters that are merely a collection of tics. But Nolan wants us to delve deep into his character’s psyches, only for us to discover … there’s nothing really there.
As a result of Nolan’s meticulous screenplay, the film doesn’t embrace the anarchy of imagination as one would hope. Compare it to that truly great film about subconscious invasion – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – and gape in awe at its calm amongst chaos; its insightfulness amongst the sci-fi. Inception isn’t a profound examination about the nature of reality. However, it is one of the most impressive pieces of action cinema made in the past decade, and it’s a delightfully twisted journey that I greatly enjoyed unravelling. Watching Inception is like being chased around an Escher staircase; at the time it is exhilarating and confusing and intense. It is only afterwards, once you’ve escaped from its paradoxical construction, that you realise there wasn’t really that much to it.