Movie Review: Inception - Eye Candy, Or Mind Candy?

Spoiling Inception is near impossible without writing out a manual to explain what those spoilers mean, but regardless, this review includes vague references to plot points that could be deemed spoilers by those who probably shouldn't be reading reviews anyway if they really wanted to avoid finding out anything about the movie. You've been warned.

When word of Inception first came out, I thought writer/director Christopher Nolan had achieved the unthinkable. The Dark Knight was only a week away from crossing the billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office, and Warner Bros. was desperate to get a third Batman film off the ground. The studio was at Nolan's mercy. At this point, they would've done anything to keep him happy, and that included handing him $200 million to produce whatever movie he felt like making, no matter the commercial appeal.

Plot details of his latest cryptic endeavor were scarce. All that was known about the film was that it was a contemporary sci-fi actioner "set within the architecture of the mind".

"Oh shit!" I thought. "I don't even know what that means! This is going to be awesome!"

With Inception, it seemed that Nolan had taken the Hollywood system and made it his bitch, crafting a challenging, cerebral experience on the grandest scale that a blockbuster budget would allow.

But then I saw the film, and was 'kicked' back to reality. Warner Bros. didn't greenlight this film because they wanted to keep their golden boy happy; they did it because the movie is a genuine crowd-pleasing romp, and they knew it had potential for mainstream appeal. I was so busy trying to decipher the abstract, ambiguous logline of the film—"set within the architecture of the mind"—that I didn't take note of the more pressing term used to describe it: "Actioner".

As it turns out, the film's premise is neither abstract nor ambiguous. It's literal. In Inception, characters hook up to a machine, and enter people's minds. Once inside those minds, there is architecture, and the characters are set within it. So that's what the "architecture of the mind" business is referring to... Buildings. Bridges. Stuff like that. It's a lot like reality, really, except that it's... you know... in your mind!

None of this is to say I didn't like the movie, because that's not at all the case. I loved it. I absolutely, unabashedly, incontrovertibly loved it. I just didn't love it in the way that I thought I was going to love it. In the context of the rest of Christopher Nolan's filmography, it's a bit of an intellectual disappointment. And I don't blame the film for that. With my nebulous understanding of what Inception was and what it was trying to achieve, I set a reference point based on Nolan's past work for the type of film that I thought Inception should be, and assumed that's what it would be.

Allow me to delineate.

Inception is not, as far as I can tell, a mind-shattering puzzler that transcends the film medium, so intricately woven in narrative and structure that several viewings are a requirement if you ever have a hope of understanding it. Only the most impossibly high of expectations would have necessitated such a film, but that's the sort of silly prospect I was anticipating when I grinningly sat down to watch it. (Give me a break; it's been a lousy year for film. That optimism was all that kept me going.)

What the film is, however, is one of the finest action-thriller blockbusters since The Matrix, and a spellbinding, fully engrossing twist on the heist film genre. In a year this drab, it's a revelation. But it isn't flawless.

Narratively speaking, Inception isn't a terribly complex tale. If at times it feels like it, that's because it's so heavy on exposition and rules that you'll barely be able to keep track of all the information being thrown at you. Just when you think you have a solid grasp on what the possibilities and limitations of the world are, you don't, because there are still more rules to learn, and these rules change those last rules in ways that are vital to understanding other rules that haven't even been introduced yet.

Sound confusing?

Don't worry, the dialogue makes it so that you have to do as little work as possible. Everything is explained. Even when the explanations are being shown, or have already been shown, or in some cases, are only minutes away from being shown, there are always characters ready to spell out the specifics of how this world works. Save for a wonderfully chaotic opening, Nolan takes a very pragmatic approach to introducing his dream landscape. Most "heist" films would take this time to establish what the heist is and how they plan to accomplish it. Inception doesn't have time for all that. It has dozens of rules that need to be introduced, and by God, it's going to spend every available minute of that first hour explaining them to you.

It might be annoying, were learning about the world not so darn fun.

Not many movies could get away with setting up this many rules, but Christopher Nolan isn't your typical filmmaker. Here, the rules are actually interesting, and correlate to the nature of dreams in fascinating ways. And lest Nolan film a scene that didn't molest your eyeballs with its elegance and beauty, there is always some stunning imagery to go along with it.

Besides, as front-loaded with information as the movie may be, once it gets going, it's 90 minutes of pure cinematic ingenuity. Consider the first hour merely prep work for the actual movie, immersing you in the lingo and story machinations enough so that, when the time comes, it can take off and never stop. It was in this that I realized the genius of the dream-within-a-dream conceit Nolan had concocted—not because of how it serves the narrative, but because of the brilliantly inventive way in which it enhances the action.

Without giving anything away, there is a portion of this film that is among the most captivating, spectacular sequences—or sets of sequences, rather—ever conceived, playing with time, location and physics to astounding results. During this, Inception attains filmic nirvana. My eyes lit up; my hands clamped down; my pants swelled. I wanted it to never end.

My one major caveat with regards to the "dream sequences": Don't go in expecting them to be Kubrickian, or Lynchian, or anything of the sort.

Nolan is a highly literal-minded filmmaker, and his depiction of dreams reflects that. He makes no attempt to capture a dreamlike atmosphere or aesthetic, and if he does, that is undoubtedly the film's greatest failure. His approach to dreams is to literalize them as a hard reality, and the end result is one that feels less like a dream and more like a computer program or a level of a video game. Think the level creator in Little Big Planet, except everybody wears classy suits and nobody's smiling.

For the most part, reality in Inception is altered more by how the sleeping bodies of those dreaming are being affected than by anything conjured up in the dream world. While I admire Nolan for steering away from the fantastical and playing Inception as straight sci-fi, others may find the dreams to be awfully bland and wish he had been a bit more capricious. It's arguable that this exposes a flaw in Nolan's filmmaking style, which had previously only benefited him—his technique is workmanlike and analytical, always detail-oriented and generally reliant on a staid setting. Even when he's afforded limitless opportunities to break from reality, he only rarely indulges those whims. (This could also be deemed a positive though, as someone like myself would not have been able to resist the urge to introduce velociraptors into the mix.)

Nolan is less concerned with embracing the ridiculous than he is embracing the spectacle. The film is, unsurprisingly, a technical marvel. The cinematography and special effects are appropriately epic; the editing flawlessly maintains the impetuous pace of the film's latter half; and the score joins The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes as another rousing, pulsating work of excellence from Hans Zimmer.

And then, of course, there's the phenomenal cast.

Inception may present a witty twist on the heist film formula, but it doesn't deviate enough to obscure a tried-and-true staple of the genre: the assembling of a team of specialists, all of whom serve a distinct function. Like with all heist films, these characters are largely defined by their talents. Tom Hardy (Bronson) is "The Forger", with the ability to imitate the physical appearance of others and have a British accent. Dileep Rao (Avatar, Drag Me to Hell) is "The Chemist", with the ability to create powerful sedatives and provide ethnic diversity. Ellen Page is "The Architect", with the ability to build the environments within a dream and be on the receiving end of the film's endless exposition. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is "The Point Man", our protagonist's go-to guy. His ability? To look really fucking cool while floating around in zero-gravity.

Most of the actors get a couple of charming character moments, but none of them are given the chance to truly explore their roles—least of all Page, who is nothing more than a cipher for the audience, and is frequently called on to outright state what more important characters are feeling. It's disappointing to see such a perfect convergence of acting talent get essentially wasted with throwaway parts, but even so, the casting is a huge asset to the film, and those smaller moments with the characters are a testament to that.

The bigger moments are left to Leonardo DiCaprio, who, as Dom, is the emotional backbone of the story. Since the movie never offers a reason to care about the unexplained company conflict that initiates the heist, the stakes of the film are heaped on DiCaprio's shoulders. He performs admirably, though I was left a little cold by the struggle with his traumatic past. (Comparatively, his very similar role in Shutter Island nearly reduced me to tears.) Still, it's ingenious how Nolan uses the dream world setting to bring tangibility to the character's emotional trauma, with Dom's lover Mal (played by Marion Cotillard) intriguingly serving the function of both love interest and antagonist.

Other threats, meanwhile, are anonymous bad guys in suits—"projections of the subconscious", as they're called—making it hard to care when the bullets start flying. Those projections also apply to any common folk in the background, as they make up the general populace of the dreams. It's a neat concept, but the film fails to do anything with it. Also squandered is the capability for the environment being altered on the spot, an idea highlighted early on and never taken advantage of again. Then there's the repeatedly referenced "mazes" that Page's character designs; after a change of plans, any chance of incorporating them is cast aside. Um, what?

But more curious than any of those omissions is the strangely unquestioned morality of our team of super-cool operatives. They enter people's minds, steal their secrets, and use those secrets for their own personal gain. When tasked with inserting an idea in the mind of Cillian Murphy's character that would alter the very essence of who he is and the choices he makes, their hesitation is due entirely to the mission's feasibility. And we're supposed to root for these people?

I would've liked to see the film delve deeper into these ethical quandaries, and perhaps concentrate more on the philosophical concerns and ramifications of its premise. Instead, it puts the majority of the focus on its awesome, elaborately constructed set pieces. Hmm. Call me a philistine if you'd like, but I don't mind the trade-off.

A lingering question remains: Is it possible that I missed something? Did I get lost in the exposition shuffle, and miss out on the film's thoughtful, reflective underpinnings? Are there subtle intended meanings here that I simply haven't been able to deduce? Could one such intended meaning be that the last scene in the film is the result of its own act of 'inception', having implanted an idea early in our minds and allowing us to believe we thought of it ourselves, only to eventually have that idea infect our minds and eat away at it as we try to determine what's reality and what isn't?

There are elements built into Inception's narrative that seem like they could translate to a potential metaphor for the nature of the storytelling within the film itself—see also the expositional construct that is Page's character, who builds worlds within the film while also figuratively building the world for the viewer—and yet, an initial viewing leaves me feeling like I'm only hoping there's a greater intellectual value to the picture because of the filmmaker behind it.

Perhaps a second viewing will strike me differently.

In any case, it doesn't matter if Inception isn't the high-minded masterpiece I had unfairly hoped it would be. It succeeds as what it is: a smart, clever, exciting, and best of all, original action-thriller, and further proof from Nolan that there's still some awe left to be had in our summer blockbusters.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10