July 19, 2010 – The Dark Knight was the first film that really brought Christopher Nolan’s name to my notice, but he had already directed a film I enjoyed back in 2000 with the brain bending film Memento. Inception really feels like Nolan took the philosophical sensibilities of Memento, the polish of The Dark Knight and mixed in a little Ocean’s Eleven for good measure. What he ends up with is very likely his best film yet.
It’s hard to know where to begin. How Nolan managed not only to fit all the pieces together in the story and for it to make sense, but also doing it while simultaneously dropping the audience into the middle of the action, hardly taking a breath to explain things, is still mostly a mystery to me. But he managed it beautifully, and in the end the audience knows what happened and why it happened even when the ending throws everything up in the air again.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, a professional Extractor, or dream-theif, who steals corporate secrets hidden in the dreams of these companies’ CEOs for the profit of his employer. When an extraction goes south, he is captured and offered a chance to clear his record and go home to his estranged children for the price of doing a job. An Inception, or planting an idea in a dreamers head, something far more difficult than extraction. Desperate to see his children again, he accepts and assembles a team to help him break into the mind of the son of a dying CEO.
What follows is a heist film, a trip through dream space, an action adventure and an emotional drama all wrapped into one seamless narrative that weaves back and forth through the pieces magically. The best parts of the film are when characters are being hit emotionally and philosophically even as their ability to react to the real dangers around them are being tested.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the perfect leading man for the film, able to carry the physicality, emotion and smarts all at once without seeming fake in any capacity. He became Cobb, and that’s what a great actor does. The other actors do marvelously as well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Cobb’s partner, Arthur, with panache, wit and humor. Comedy is hard to pull off in a film in which you have to so carefully lure the audience into believing, but Levitt pulls it off. Ken Watanabe’s Saito, the man who offers Cobb the Inception job, is played well, as is Tom Hardy’s Eames, Ellen Page’s Ariadne and Cillian Murphy’s wonderful turn as Robert Fischer, the fragile heir to his dying father’s company. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s dead wife Mal who haunts Cobb’s dreams, and she pours menace and love into the role turning her into the perfect melding of the girl next door and a James Bond femme fatale.
But really all of the characters, however well acted, play second fiddle to DiCaprio’s Cobb, and it shows in the story telling. Exactly what Cobb’s crew will get out of the deal with Saito is unclear, though large sums of money are eluded to. What little vignettes of these characters we do get are delightful and insightful, with Fischer’s journey of reconciliation with his father (real or otherwise) is fascinating, emotional and believable to watch. But really going into depth with these other characters is not necessary. Cobb’s emotional burdens, his devastating memories and complex history involving his dead wife, are ultimately what carry the film to its bitter-sweet conclusion (which should keep conversations churning over water coolers around the nation for at least a couple weeks.)
The writing is the real star of the show, though. As I mentioned before, Nolan manages to drop the audience in medias res, introduce the concept of dream thievery understandably, pile dream layer upon dream layer and still make us care about the characters. The dialogue flows smoothly and realistically. Even the pieces of exposition (and they exist) are well hidden and make sense in their context. If this isn’t nominated for a writing Oscar it will be a bigger crime by far than The Dark Knight’s Oscar snub in 2008.
Beyond the writing is a wonderful piece of editing and cinematography which manages to capture the crazy gravity bending action, the intensity of the chases and the desperation of the dramatic moments without breaking down to clichéd imagery or too frantic camera movements. The editing is wonderfully paced keeping the audience abreast of events on multiple layers of dreams without coming at the expense of the storytelling (it heightens it, actually.) The sound design is great, the soundtrack is fantastic and underscores the scenes skillfully, and all of it is memorable and will remain iconic for some time to come.
Ultimately what a lot of people will really want to know is not “is this a great film?” That is unquestionable, in my mind. Instead, what most people are going to be asking is, “is it better than The Dark Knight.” Technically, Inception is the better film. Nolan managed to bring a masterfully dense narrative to life with as much polish as his Batman film and even better and smoother story telling. The Dark Knight, however, for all its grimness, was more fun and appealed to me just a little bit more than his latest masterpiece. Though it all comes down to personal preference, Nolan has proven one thing above all. He is a master director, who is not a fluke and easily the best thing happening in Hollywood.
This film is a certifiable success, bridging Nolan’s independent film-making sensibilities with action packed blockbuster style and scope to a perfect blend that will be remembered as one of the best films of the year and almost certainly the decade. I won’t hazard a guess as to where it will land in the great scheme of film history, but I hope it is remembered with the greats. You shouldn’t need my recommendation to know you should see this movie, but I’m giving it anyway. Go see this film.
STAR RATING: (5)