Sunday, May 19, 2024

“INCEPTION”

THE STORY – Dom Cobb is a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. His skill has made him a hot commodity in the world of corporate espionage but has also cost him everything he loves. Cobb gets a chance at redemption when he is offered a seemingly impossible task: Plant an idea in someone’s mind. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates Cobb’s every move.

THE CAST – Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger & Michael Caine

THE TEAM – Christopher Nolan (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 148 Minutes


Christopher Nolan spent the first decade of the 21st century brandishing his credentials as an adapter. He’d gotten his foot in the door with the wholly original, wholly excellent “Memento” (2000), but the majority of his 2000s output is derived from pre-existing material, whether it be the well-received remake of “Insomnia” (2002) or his transformative reboot of the Batman franchise with “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008). The latter of these two superhero films was such a massive critical and commercial success that Nolan was given a blank check to make whatever he wanted next. His choice? An original story he’d been kicking around since 2001 and had been retooling to suit his growing technical expertise: “Inception” (2010).

“Inception” is, in my estimation, a watershed moment for Nolan. It was the release that elevated him from “Dark Knight” director to bona fide visionary and established him as a brand akin to the auteurs he grew idolizing (Steven Spielberg, the man who handed him the 2024 Best Director Oscar for “Oppenheimer,” is the most obvious example). The concept of blurring the lines between reality and dreams captivated audiences, and “Inception” quickly burrowed its way into the pop culture conversation (where it has stayed, thanks to memes and jokes involving spinning tops). But these aspects would not carry as much weight were it not for the fact that the film remains an absolute triumph a decade and a half later.

Let’s start with the premise. “Inception” is a classic example of Nolan’s preferred storytelling method, which is to say, characterization through exposition. We learn who his characters are and what makes them tick by listening to them explain their specific profession. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are “extractors” who perform espionage by putting their targets to sleep and teasing out vital information through the target’s subconscious. A businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants the duo to incept an idea in the mind of a competitor. This is widely believed to be impossible in the extraction business, but Cobb is desperate to return to his children in the United States and agrees to attempt.

If that all sounds like a lot, don’t worry. Cobb and Arthur spend the bulk of the film’s runtime explaining the rules of the game and the deadly risks they’re taking at every turn. It’s generally considered a no-no to rely on exposition to the extent that Nolan does throughout “Inception,” especially in what is ostensibly a spy thriller, but the world he builds is so rich that it works. It’s fascinating to peel back the mechanics of extraction and learn alongside newcomer Ariadne (Elliot Page). The scene in which Cobb tutors Ariadne on maneuvering dreams is an especially crucial showcase, establishing the mind-bending visuals of the dream world and the occasionally tricky ways Nolan uses film language to his advantage. A scene in which the two characters are at a university transitions to them chatting outside of a cafe, only to have Cobb pull back the curtain and reveal that they slipped into the dream world in the time between. It’s a clever move and one that forces us to become active rather than passive viewers.

A film in which a character has something explained to them in every scene could have easily tipped over into tediousness, as is the case with Nolan’s “Inception”-esque blockbuster, “Tenet” (2020). Here, however, the writer/director manages to calibrate his expository tendencies with set pieces that rank among the finest of his entire career. The failed extraction that opens the film is proof that Nolan could knock out a killer James Bond flick if he wanted (or rather, if he was allowed), and the versatility displayed in the Mombasa chase versus the climactic snow ambush keeps the film light on its feet despite its two and a half hour runtime. Then, of course, there’s the hallway scene, in which Arthur fights two henchmen in a hotel with wavering gravity. It’s a perfectly executed piece of sci-fi action and a prime example of what Nolan can achieve when his technical and conceptual instincts align.

Nolan’s emphasis on story over character can often lead to his concepts overshadowing his performers, and “Inception” is rarely praised on the merits of its cast. That’s a shame. I’d go as far as to say that “Inception” boasts one of Nolan’s finest ensembles to date, and it’s largely because everyone understands their role within the larger framework of the story. The heist team analogy is obvious, given that that is precisely what most of the cast are playing here, but it’s accurate in the sense that each of them has a specialty and is given time to shine during specific, crucial moments in the film. Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe are likably sturdy, while Page and Tom Hardy provide empathy and levity, respectively. DiCaprio does what he does best, which is to play seemingly controlled men coming apart at the seams. While the dead wife trope has become something of a running joke in the Nolan oeuvre, it’s tough to deny the emotional punch that DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard deliver in their scenes as Cobb and Mal.

Time is perhaps the only trope Nolan uses more often than deceased spouses, but once again, “Inception” finds utterly compelling ways to chop up its narrative. The concept of time slowing down the further one burrows into the mind of a target is an ingenuous one, ramping up the dramatic stakes for the characters and allowing for idiosyncratic displays of time manipulation like the aforementioned hallway fight. The spinning top, a symbol of man’s indecision, is a visual motif that gets repeated in different realities until it culminates in the film’s last shot. Nolan loves to leave viewers on an ambiguous note, and the simplicity of the top, coupled with the timing of the cut, has inspired endless debate. The fact that Cobb’s decision to leave the top behind leaves its resolution as a moot point, but it’s what makes it the director’s most impactful ending.

It’s at this point where the adoration is usually stifled, and the issues with a film are singled out. One could delve into the lack of extraction information and how it came to be a business within the world of the film or criticize Nolan’s refusal to indulge the more abstract, dreamlike possibilities of the dream worlds he creates, but doing so would be to criticize what the film isn’t, rather than what it is. One could also note how indebted it is to earlier films like “Orpheus” (1950), “The Thirteenth Floor” (1999), and “Paprika” (2006), but once again, it’s broadening parameters to find a fault. However, the film does suffer from stop-and-recap syndrome. The consistent doling out of exposition does not pose an issue, but the handful of times “Inception” pauses to allow the viewer to catch up slows the momentum during the final act. It sticks out with repeat viewings, though it is ultimately forgivable.

Overall, “Inception” is a triumph, a perfectly oiled dream machine that can blow minds on first viewing and satisfy cinephiles on repeat viewings. Nolan has tinkered with his style in the years since, alternating between action-heavy (“Dunkirk“) and exposition-heavy vehicles (“Oppenheimer“). Still, there’s something to be said about the exceptional balance of “Inception.” It’s Nolan’s purest and most rewarding blockbuster to date.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Nolan's gift for juggling exposition and action set pieces is solidified here, and he extracts every bit of excitement possible from his inventive premise. Did I mention the Hans Zimmer score?

THE BAD - The final act loses a bit of steam, largely due to Nolan's tendency to recap the plot. It proves unnecessary, especially on repeat viewings.

THE OSCARS - Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing & Best Visual Effects (Won), Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design & Best Original Score (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Nolan's gift for juggling exposition and action set pieces is solidified here, and he extracts every bit of excitement possible from his inventive premise. Did I mention the Hans Zimmer score?<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The final act loses a bit of steam, largely due to Nolan's tendency to recap the plot. It proves unnecessary, especially on repeat viewings.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-cinematography/">Best Cinematography</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound Editing</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound Mixing</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-visual-effects/">Best Visual Effects</a> (Won), <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-production-design/">Best Production Design</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-score/">Best Original Score</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"INCEPTION"