Tuesday, July 20, 2010

 

A blockbuster with an arthouse sensibility


By J.D.
Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) is the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career to date. It mixes the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). His new film takes the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with science fiction as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering their dreams — think Dreamscape (1985) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve — and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Heat, etc.) — there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues his fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real.


Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, Cobb is visited by deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has never been done before. In exchange, he’ll make it so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.

Inception delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. This is arguably the most cerebral parts of the film as Nolan explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on — pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are impressive staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with Cobb and his desire to return home to children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.

Dom Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tried to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focus on a costumed vigilante that wages war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that DiCaprio does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.

Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity — think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight — and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger well-deserved mainstream exposure, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.

Regardless whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan has wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film to date. With Inception, he has created a world on a scale that he’s never attempted before and been able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan has created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.


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Comments:
For as long as it is, it captivated me from beginning to end. I was surprise how similar I found DiCaprio's character's situation to that of his character in Shutter Island. The strange thing is that about a day after Inception was over, I'd pretty much forgotten it, which is a first with me and most of Nolan's non-Batman films.
 
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