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Inception – three layers in, not actually that deep

Undoubtedly the colossal box-office intake from “Inception” this past summer—$291.8 million—demonstrates that, from a basic entertainment value standpoint, the film succeeds. This, along with the success of “The Dark Knight,” shows director Christopher Nolan to be unusually gifted at drawing his audience in. With both films, Nolan primarily flaunts his penchant for structural originality. His stories don’t unfold the way standard potboilers do. In “The Dark Knight,” Nolan deemphasizes Batman’s internal conflicts in order to examine, with fairly intricate detail, the moral struggle of Gotham City. In “Inception,” even though Leonardo DiCaprio serves as our brooding protagonist, the film’s narrative tensions are inextricably linked to the unconscious dreamscape of a supporting character’s deeply troubled psyche.

Nolan here spins an undeniably unique yarn. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who specializes in extraction, a high-tech process allowing him to enter and manipulate someone else’s dreams. Cobb lives a lonely life abroad, separated from his children in America, where there is a warrant for his arrest. One assumes that he misses his children, although he only seems to have one rather enigmatic memory of them, repeated in flashbacks ad nauseum. Cobb gets an offer from some shady cabal of businessmen, powerful enough to get him pardoned back in the US. They want him to invade the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr., the son of a powerful, dying tycoon played by the inimitable Cillian Murphy, and perform an inception. That is, plant an idea in Fischer’s mind, one powerful enough to convince Fischer to break up and sell off his father’s conglomerate.

Cobb thus assembles a crew of dream-invaders—including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page—in order to figure out how best to manipulate Fischer’s mind. This is an adventure that Nolan both has fun with and has spent serious time thinking about. Our protagonists prepare a dense invasion scheme, one that involves dreams within dreams. In an instance of particular shrewdness, Nolan sets it up so that each dreamscape is more unstable than the one containing it. Moreover, the deeper we burrow into the unconscious, the faster time moves. Whole decades of unconscious time can pass in a minute of our conscious lives. Nolan uses these temporal differences to intercut various action sequences, happening simultaneously while unfolding at markedly different speeds. There is a kind of geeky exultance Nolan achieves in tying these strands together.

So what we have is a wholly unique way of structuring an action movie. What keeps “Inception” from achieving greatness is that its only substantive asset is its narrative ingenuity. Despite his gifts as a storyteller, Nolan remains a pretty mediocre filmmaker. He has no visual sense—for all the dream exploration, there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t evoke hundreds of action retreads, let alone one that lasts longer than three seconds. He also has no interest in human beings. He even seems to lack any interest in drama, besides the drama of What Will Happen Next. As drama, “Inception” is on the level of a circus balancing act, with Nolan on the tightrope. He makes us wonder if he can pull off such a singular and complex narrative feat and it’s a marvel to see that does it, and to see how he does it. But ultimately “Inception” has a poor shelf life. Once you wrap your head around its labyrinthine narrative, the film curdles in its own bombastic emotions.

The film’s emotional pitch is problematic even on the first viewing. Because Nolan is so fixated on making us care about the narrative’s grand thrust, he pares every scene to the bare minimum, scrapping anything that threatens to slow the film’s relentless propulsion. Hans Zimmer’s score is boomingly loud and seemingly never stops. It makes every scene feel climactically huge. And so the scenes that actually are important, the moments of epiphany that come toward the end fail to distinguish themselves from the general hustle-bustle of all that preceded them. As with “The Dark Knight,” Nolan here makes clear to us that he cares only about keeping our adrenaline high. While he is remarkably good at doing this, it’s not a particularly cinematic skill. Nolan seems to me to be a gifted television director who is lucky enough to be making movies. If you go to the movies for bigger, louder versions of the same jolts you get on TV, you might be precisely the kind of viewer Nolan is targeting.

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    dannyNov 22, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    “Inception” is an excellent and breathtaking movie that may be one of the only films released so far during the Summer of 2010 that lives up to its hype. It is a nearly perfect and highly original film that holds your attention until the credits roll. The less you know about this movie going in, the more you will be entranced by seeing it.