Inception won’t end up being my favorite movie of the year, but it is without a doubt the “best” movie of the year so far, to a degree that I don’t see it facing much of a challenge from any other in the coming months. This is the combined work of a group of master craftsmen at the absolute pinnacle of their game. Christopher Nolan marries the pace of Batman Begins to the intimate, dreamlike nature of Memento and the epic scope of The Dark Knight, and somehow it all flows as smooth as a river. Wally Pfister is cementing himself a place in the list of all-time great DP’s, with some haunting photography reminiscent of John Alcott. Hans Zimmer, who was the bane of my existence during Scott Fest with his ridiculous and derivative work, has really stepped up his game tenfold with this, The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes.
Let’s get this out of the way, because it has to be mentioned; The Matrix. Clearly, Chris Nolan is a fan. In addition to casting Carrie-Anne Moss and Joey Pants in Memento, we have several moments in Inception that, while not exactly being direct lifts from the Matrix movies, echo select moments and concepts. An explosive attached to an elevator; Two men jumping towards, and colliding with each other, in mid-air; an Architect. . . etc. You have a bunch of dudes in suits running around and shooting guns in a world built from a collective consciousness, you’re going to be inviting comparisons. But the thing is, Nolan does The Matrix one better. While The Matrix series ended up being a seemingly endless CGI fest of boring robots fighting boring, robotic people (And this is coming from someone who’s a fan!), Inception is all about practical fx, and the core of the entire story is the characters. Granted, Inception certainly has CG in it. But compare the Zero-G hallway fight in Inception to the Burly Brawl scene in Matrix Reloaded; One involves a couple of dudes on wires, and the other looks like a video game.
So, yeah; Nolan is clearly winking at The Matrix. And not just that; The list of films that this movie evokes could go on for pages: James Bond, Indiana Jones, The Shining, Total Recall, What Dreams May Come, The Italian Job. I kept waiting for Leonardo to shoot his wife in the head, and, with a thick Austrian accent, quip “Consider this a divorce”. The casting seems equally “aware”: Leonardo as a double agent on the edge of madness reminds me of The Departed; And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Marion Cotillard is here, and the song used to wake the agents up is La Vie En Rose.
But strangely, though Meta-textual “references”, like those found in Tarantino movies, usually draw me out of the film, here they actually help to draw me in. This is a film about the unconscious, which really is just a mangled world of everything that we’ve ever experienced. So of course a secret would be kept in a base straight out of Call Of Duty. And the references aren’t nudging you in the ribs, but simply there for you to either appreciate, or not, at your leisure.
Another miracle is how Nolan can make a film that’s almost entirely expository dialogue for two and a half hours, and still make it entertaining as all hell for every minute of it’s running time. I have a fetish for world building, so that’s what got me through it. The exposition might hurt the film for me in repeated viewings, but for the first watch it didn’t feel bulky at all. Plus, it helps that the extended climax is pulling you in so many directions at once, which is simultaneously ingenious and easy to follow. It ends up feeling like three films for the price of one. You don’t even want a sequel, because this film has properly overloaded you will all of the awesome potential inherent in it’s concept.
I don’t think it was designed this way, but the movie also feels like a big “Fuck You” to both Avatar and the 3-D movement. This is a flat, beautifully drawn image, that is as perfectly immersive as it feels natural. It doesn’t dumb itself down for you, it doesn’t drown your eyeballs in computer graphics, and in the end you’re left with a sense of extreme ambiguity. As much as it pains me to agree with the zeitgeist. . . Bully to you, Mr. Nolan.