Inception is a movie that will be talked about for years. There will be a lot of comparisons thrown around the second it hits theaters. People will strain to define it. Here are some of the movies that will come up (or have already been name-checked, in the advance reviews): Blade Runner. The Matrix. Avatar. Dark City. Dreamscape. Brazil. Heat. Fight Club. Minority Report. Ocean’s Eleven. Shutter Island. Synecdoche, New York.
Well, check back with me in a year or two, but if you can find me then, I bet I’ll still be standing by my assertion that Inception stands right alongside most of those movies, and is probably even better than a couple of them. There have also been plenty of references to Kubrick, Hitchcock, and James Bond along the way, but I’ll get to all that in a minute.
First though, this promise: I promise you that this review will be spoiler-free. I’m only going to talk about just enough of the movie to get you entirely stoked to go see it. All summer I’ve been looking forward to Inception like crazy, and my high hopes were only surpassed. Even if you haven’t been anticipating it that highly, or if this is somehow the first you’re hearing about it, I recommend the following: Get excited. Read no reviews (besides this one, hopefully). Otherwise: Scroll down to the bottom of this page and click on the embedded link to listen to the music from the Inception trailer, and let’s get going…
Turns out Inception isn’t as hard to explain as we’d heard. It’s basically a heist movie, but the bank is the human mind and the way in is dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, who is a dapper but obsessed man who is trying to clear his name and get back to the United States (his crime is the first of many things I won’t ruin about the movie.) His ticket back, as he sees it, is this unique technique he’s pioneered, of entering the mind of a sleeping target with a hand-picked crew of specialists, in order to steal their deepest secrets. These secrets can be many things, but usually they’re a vault combination or some such. The movie really gets going when a distinguished businessman of dubious motives, played by Batman Begins’ Ken Watanabe, approaches Cobb with a new twist on the method – “inception” – which is planting a new idea, rather than taking an old one.
If that set-up sounds super-intellectual, well, maybe it is a little. Is that so terrible? Into this sweltering movie climate of sequels and remakes of diminishing originality, here comes a movie literally bursting at the seams with ideas. Inception overloads your brain with a near-uninterrupted stream of exposition – even during the many breath-taking action scenes. These characters are super-smart and constantly talking, but they’re also constantly explaining. That means that unlike many other brain-strainers, Inception has all its answers for you, if you stick with it. It won’t leave you frustrated. On the contrary, in fact: As the puzzle snaps into place, it’s applause-worthy.
Part of what makes Inception work is its terrific roster of actors. The international nature of the cast makes the movie feel even more epic than it already is. DiCaprio, not for nothing in this movie the spitting image of his director, is excellent as the determined and tormented leader of the crew. Is DiCaprio basically only in good movies now? Sure seems that way. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from (500) Days Of Summer and that ridiculous G.I. Joe movie, is miles away from those roles as Cobb’s right-hand man and a thoroughly convincing action lead. Seriously, he gets a fight scene that is no doubt one of the most innovative and thrilling I’ve ever seen. If nothing else, that scene (you’ll know it when you see it) is something I’ve never seen before, and like I said, people will be talking about for years to come. People are already comparing Inception’s action scenes to James Bond and The Matrix, but from where I’m sitting, Inception raises the bar. You’ve never seen action scenes like this before, for one thing. You just plain care about these characters more, for another.
In that spirit, the rest of Cobb’s crew is just as memorable as the primary pair. Ellen Page from Juno plays the somewhat obviously-named Ariadne, the designer of the dreams. She’s totally believable both as a brilliant architect and the human conscience of the movie, and she’s never looked so grown-up pretty before now. Tom Hardy, still bulked-up from his calling-card role in the worth-seeing British crime flick Bronson, plays the crew’s “forger,” the guy who impersonates loved ones and acquaintances in the dreams to help convince the dreamer to give up his secrets. Hardy is the scene-stealer in the movie, he’s the one who gets that great line that ends the trailer, and he’s a likable and sarcastic presence in a movie that generally maintains a straight face. How glad am I that Tom Hardy is taking over from that nasty old guy in the upcoming Mad Max movie from George Miller? As happy as you will be after seeing Inception.
Dileep Rao, the man with the greatest movie resume in modern times, rounds out the crew as the “chemist.” He’s the one that makes sure the mark stays asleep long enough for the team to get around inside the dreams and find what they’re looking for. He’s also the getaway driver in some of the movie’s most fun scenes. As the titan of industry who recruits them all, Ken Watanabe is great, trustworthy yet dubious, dignified yet badass. Cillian Murphy (from 28 Days Later and Batman Begins) is equally great as the target, the young man who is the heir to a massive fortune and the one whose dreams the team must invade. Murphy provides an interesting moral territory for the film; in a way it’s tragic the way that Cobb and his people manipulate his emotions in order to pull off their heist, but in another way they’re bringing him some peace. Murphy plays this dichotomy with a memorable flair – he’s cold on the surface and affecting just beneath it. Michael Caine brings the movie’s heart, in two short scenes, as Cobb’s estranged pops. Even Tom Berenger is affecting in a small role. Christopher Nolan is the uncommon director who seems nearly as interested in the peripheral characters as the leads. (That’s one key similarity to Hitchcock, by the way.)
As for the production value, Inception is impeccable. Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister is the MVP here, making the movie an adventure for your eyes even when it’s moving too quickly for your mind. I’m the kind of movie fan who loves pretty pictures, and this movie had that in spades, which was great for those moments where I was too dumb to follow the story. Other things that helped me relax and enjoy the ride were the astounding visual effects work, and the tremendous score by Hans Zimmer. There’s a guy who’s been doing scores for movies of this scale for years and years, but his work here is a career highlight. Inception doesn’t look or sound like any other movie out there.
Christopher Nolan has managed something incredible here; he has accumulated decades of cinematic references and come up with something that feels resolutely new. As a storyteller, he is an inveterate puzzle-maker; he loves nothing more than assembling a story and making an audience marvel at its construction. With Inception, he layers in fascinating character psychology that installs people at the heart of the puzzle. I’ve purposely left out any mention of the movie’s most pivotal character because I want you all to experience that joy of discovery for yourselves; the only necessary mention of it at this point is as proof to refute Nolan’s critics, who call him a cold and detached craftsman (a criticism that also dogged Kubrick and Hitchcock, with varying degrees of truth) – Inception is a broad spectacle, a brisk two hours, and an innovative monolith of a sci-fi action flick, but it doesn’t work for a second without its human element. And Inception works well.
Are there flaws? Maybe. Who the hell am I to answer that question? I can tell you that I have some reservations about a public who loves crud like America’s Got Talent being willing to swarm to a movie this challenging. Then again, those are the same people who were smart enough to make The Dark Knight a massive hit. Then again, The Dark Knight had Batman and The Joker.
Also, as I keep hinting around, it’s a lot to take in: Inception throws a ton of information at you, and expects you to keep up, or at least to keep up a steady jog a couple steps behind. It brings a lot of the art film to the big-budget blockbuster. It cross-cuts between layers of narrative that no action movie before it has ever even considered to attempt. It puts a lot of exposition in the mouth of Ken Watanabe, who, no offense, doesn’t have the crystal diction of a Cillian Murphy. Ken Watanabe is fantastic in the film; I’m only reacting from the perspective of American ears. You really want to make sure you catch every word. But really, more than anything it’s the barrage of relevant exposition that could be foreign to American ears. We’re just not used to being prompted to think and to focus this much for this long. It pays off, believe me, but it truly challenges short attention spans like mine. My advice? Don’t come late, don’t leave early, don’t look away, don’t sleep, don’t pee. Your full attention is required. If you’re willing to give it, then Inception will thrill you.
Inception is the totality of everything that writer & director Christopher Nolan has managed to accomplish so far – it merges the operatic sweep and explosive scale of his biggest hit to date, The Dark Knight, with the melancholy character minutiae and general mind-fuckery of his breakthrough film, Memento. It’s a movie that makes you work a little to experience its full awesomeness, but if you keep your eyes and ears open, you may not have a better time at the movies all year. And it may stay with you for some time afterwards: This is the real honest truth, but when I stepped out onto the sidewalk after the movie, it took me five to ten minutes to readjust to the real world. I kept expecting movie characters to leap out of passing cabs, I had the score blaring between my ears, and I didn’t trust buildings. Inception is a true skull-buster, and I give it my highest possible movie compliment: Seeing it the first time was such a complete experience that I don’t feel like I ever need to see it again. But I guarantee I will anyway – many times. Join me. See it on the biggest screen you can.
Bring a helmet.