film review: Inception

Everyone is different. I don’t like mazes, puzzles, Rubik’s Cube, or most of Christopher Nolan’s films. He delights in creating cinematic puzzles but I always sense the wheels turning, instead of getting caught up in the action. Obviously he has the imagination to devise ingenious premises and the skill to bring them to life, but halfway through Inception, which runs close to two-and-a-half hours, my mind started to wander. Instead of being pulled into his world I felt myself drifting away from it.

The movie starts out promisingly enough. In a kind of companion piece to Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as a man who is haunted by things he has planted in his own fertile imagination. The subject of the movie is—

—experimental mind control, and as the story progresses we dive deeper and deeper into this world—from one level to another, with one person’s living dream hatching in another person’s mind. And so on and so forth.

Nolan starts the movie with a bang, grabbing us with an action sequence that also makes use of visual effects and mind games, and punctuates the story with more of the same. DiCaprio works alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and tries to resist the temptation of a job offered by businessman Ken Watanabe—but can’t, because he holds out a carrot Leo can’t walk away from.

The best sequence involves Leonardo’s recruitment of super-smart Ellen Page as he walks her into this world of imaginary architecture where your mind paints a three-dimensional picture. We can only marvel at what writer-director Nolan has thought up and executed so well.

But he doesn’t know when to stop. Every level leads to another level, and the expository dialogue becomes ludicrous as characters try to explain the ever-shifting ground rules to one another—and to us in the audience. The result is pure gobbledygook. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but a climactic outdoor action set piece seems completely and utterly contrived, an excuse to hype the movie with more stunt work and explosions. It has no organic connection to the story; it’s one more indulgence of a filmmaker who can’t, or won’t, edit himself.

The performances are good. DiCaprio is properly anguished, Marion Cotillard does well as his tormented wife, and Nolan’s good-luck charm Michael Caine brings his trademark charisma to a throwaway role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s always good, is permitted to contribute a few (very few) lighter moments to an otherwise deadly serious narrative. Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao complete DiCaprio’s “team,” adding life and color to the ensemble.

But the result, for me, is a muddle. Even at the early press screening I attended, I heard cries of “Brilliant!”, so I know my opinion won’t be shared by everyone. I admire Christopher Nolan’s ambition and intelligence, but I don’t think it’s necessary to jump through endless hoops to tell a good story, or to digest one. I’m of the “less is more” school, but Nolan and his followers apparently believe that more is better.

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July 2024