Thursday, July 22, 2010
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight marked Christopher Nolan's renovation of the comic book movie. With Inception, he does the same thing to the heist movie. The film does have a few conventions, but they are entirely forgivable because the world Nolan surrounds them with is completely foreign. Conventions do not feel monotonous when they are seen in a new context, and this is one of the newest contexts in recent years.
As a result, Nolan has made a film for which comparisons are meaningless. Sure, you can pinpoint a few spots and say they are reminiscent of The Matrix or James Bond, but doing so will give you no legitimate idea of what the experience of Inception is like. Granted, the picture will leave many viewers baffled and confused, but that is only because of its sheer originality. It is not a film which is meant to be completely digested in one sitting.
Nolan's first alteration of the heist film is with his antihero, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). We have seen bank robbers, jewel thieves, even casino bandits. But a man who makes his illicit living by stealing information during people's dreams? I think not, and that is one of the simplest ways to describe Cobb's rare skill. It is worth noting that his employers are some of the world's most powerful corporations. The art of "extraction" is apparently a black market activity, but it also seems to be something everybody knows about to some extent.
As we learn from Cobb's loyal partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), dream sharing has even been used by the military as a clean form of torture. While killing a subject in a dream merely wakes them up, pain can still be felt. Add to that the fact that time functions differently in dreams - five minutes in the real world is an hour-long dream, for example - and our current perception of dreams as a "safe haven" of sorts dissolves immediately.
The film begins with Cobb and Arthur are trying to extract information from the powerful businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe). Nolan admirably throws us into his world immediately, forcing us to put the pieces together along the way. We learn that Cobb is no longer able to trust his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), as she often sabotages his missions during the dream state. This opening job is no different.
But Saito is impressed enough with Cobb's deception (his reputation as the "most skilled extractor" doesn't hurt either) that he offers him an even more difficult job. Saito's main corporate rival, Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), is in bad health, and the company is set to be inherited by Maurice's son Robert (Cillian Murphy). And instead of the usual task of extraction, Saito needs Cobb to perform inception on Robert - the planting of an idea in his mind that will convince him to break up his corporate empire.
In addition, Saito is offering more than just money. He is willing to grant Cobb, an international fugitive, the right to return home to America and live with his children. In the film's main heist convention, Cobb accepts this "one last job," and sets out to put together his team. As always, Arthur is on board, with the new additions being the skilled impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy), the chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and the architect prodigy Ariadne (Ellen Page), whom Cobb is able to meet through his father-in-law Miles (Michael Caine).
Aside from creating an astoundingly original premise, Nolan's story also carries an emotional power to it that heist movies almost never have. The subplot of Cobb's relationship with Mal develops in unforeseeable ways, with each one of their encounters raising the stakes. As Ariadne bluntly tells Cobb, "As we go deeper into Fischer, we're also going deeper into you."
Inception is the writer-director's most ambitious project to date, not just because of the massive scale, but because it fits so many concepts and ideas into its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. The film combines the action and thematic power of Nolan's Batman films with the intellectual and cerebral stimulations of his earlier films, such as Following and Memento.
Nolan also continues his great work with big-time ensembles. In his second great performance of 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island) spearheads a remarkable cast that fires on all cylinders. The emotional notes that Marion Cotillard represents will remind more than a few of her turn in Public Enemies; Ellen Page continues to channel a level of maturity well beyond her years; Tom Hardy, who was out-of-this-world in Bronson, provides some much-needed comic bits; and Cillian Murphy proves that the man being conned can carry their own poignancy.
Like he did with The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has made a blockbuster-scale film that rewards an endless amount of viewings. Possibly more than any other film this year, Inception will provide mass audiences with something to talk about. And it's important to note that this isn't plot-level conversation either. The ideas of this film are so penetrating that after hours of discussion and consideration, it will be difficult to get the experience of Inception - particularly the beautiful series of closing shots - out of your system.