If I were to personify originality’s place in Hollywood over the last decade, it would be that of a famished drifter crawling on all fours through the desert, holding onto life with the faintest grip. Originality’s canteen ran dry not long after the stellar year of 1999 – notable for The Matrix, Arlington Road, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense – when Hollywood vultures producers realised they could lazily repackage novels, comics and old films at a fraction of the cost. This continued into the New Year where the scunge lining the creativity-depleted wells of Robin Hood, Shrek and Sex and the City was scraped off and served up to audiences for what felt like the bajillionth time. Tragically, the search and rescue for Originality in Hollywood appeared to have been called off.
But then cameth British writer/director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento), who saweth that mainstream cinema was formless and empty. And he said, “let there be originality”, and there was originality. He called it Inception; a stunning sci-fi thriller that dares to challenge moviegoers like it was 1999. And audiences and critics alike saw that it was good.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island, Revolutionary Road) stars as Dom Cobb, a slick con-man who specialises in a revolutionary form of corporate espionage called Extraction: the process of stealing ideas from a person’s subconscious while they’re dreaming. Apart from being illegal, Extraction is also very dangerous as the more often you enter into a dream, the more likely you are to confuse the dream world for reality. What’s far more dangerous, however, is the very opposite of Extraction; Inception. Instead of stealing ideas, Inception is the process of planting an idea in someone’s mind, a near impossible task given that the brain is likely to reject any idea that it believes is foreign. In order to pull off this risky job, Cobb assembles a team of trusted specialists: his lead researcher Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt; 500 Days of Summer), dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page; Whip It), professional identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy; RocknRolla) and anesthetist Yusuf (Dileep Rao; Drag Me To Hell). Their reward is a hefty pay check, but for Cobb, his motivations are far more personal.
What transpires is a ferociously engaging heist film set within the dark depths of one’s subconscious; a cross, of sorts, between Ocean’s 11 and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After reinvigorating the Batman franchise with The Dark Knight, Inception marks a return of the Christopher Nolan who bought us the mind-bending Memento, the noir masterpiece about a man hell-bent on revenge while suffering from short term memory loss. In that film, Nolan threw linear storytelling out the window by ordering events in reverse chronology, an ingenious ploy that places the audience in the shoes of the forgetful protagonist as it forces us to reconstruct events via our own memory. With Inception, Nolan places us in the same position as the characters by making us question where the dream ends and reality begins. As a result, this film is sure to spark more stimulating discussions amongst your friends than any blockbuster has in years.
The best part? You don’t need to be a braniac or film-nut to ‘get it’. Well, the basics of it, anyway.
Despite the rich complexity of the story, Inception isn’t frustratingly difficult to follow. Nolan is a remarkably gifted storyteller, going out of his way to formulate a story that is both intelligent, yet accessible to the masses. Indeed, for this to work the film relies heavily on exposition; most of the ideas explored are conveyed in big chunks of dialogue laid out in plain speak. This would be a major drawback if it wasn’t all so damn interesting and important. Even at a lengthy 148 minutes, this is a dream you won’t want to end.
Even if you strip away all of the film’s intellect, you’re left with an action/thriller that trumps all of the other big budget blockbusters released this year. In a dream, anything is possible and Inception‘s gravity-defying action reflects this with dazzling results. Impressively, none of the action happens without due reason; it’s all integral to the plot, which makes the repeated use of stylistic techniques not just about showing off big-budget effects, but about crafting a story in the most exciting way possible. If any detractions must be made, it’s that during the climax, the film cuts between so many different car chases, gunfights and dreams within dreams, the build-up of tension gets lost in the mix. To have us truly on the edge of our seats, the action need time to breathe. Unfortunately, not all sequences in Inception are given this opportunity.
This goes to prove that Nolan does, at times, overextend his reach with Inception. Exploring such grand ideas does come at a compromise on an emotional level. While a intriguing love story is explored between Cobb and his wife Mal (an exemplary Marion Cotillard; Public Enemies), it’s not as fully formed as one would hope, hurriedly unfolding in what little down-time the characters have. Aside from DiCaprio’s commanding performance as Cobb, most of the supporting cast members go without a back-story, serving primarily as plot devices. Likable, well-performed plot devices, sure. But plot devices none the less.
Ultimately though, to get caught up in what Inception gets wrong is really an insult to the sheer amount it gets right. Intellectual and original storytelling of this scale and accessibility is so incredibly hard to come by nowadays, it must be celebrated when it does. While I cannot deny that I miss the intimacy of Nolan’s early films such as us Following, Memento and The Prestige, his transition into the blockbuster has been a great success. He is the Radiohead of the commercial film industry; despite the wealth and fame, he has not compromised his ability to make richly fulfilling films that remain true to his art. And if Inception can inspire a new wave of big-budget films that tailor to people’s brains and not solely their pockets, then the Cineplex will be a much better place.