Taken at theatrical value, director/writer Christopher Nolan’s tale of purposeful memory-travel is a fun and exciting trip into the creative subconscious.
Who amongst us hasn’t believed our dreams until the cold reality of awakening? For the scary ones, we’re awash with relief; for the happy ones we’re just as immediately filled with regret that whatever good fortune came to us in the other world was only a mirage. In both cases, trying to recall all of the details is virtually impossible.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect for the mind-bending components yet still can’t find enough family passion to work around—much less overcome—a key plot deficiency) has the special gift of entering others’ dreams and stealing their deepest, darkest secrets. On an especially good day, he can plant an idea in the subject’s mind. When back into consciousness, the targets actually believe the “new” idea is their own and act accordingly. If only that technique could actually work: what further trouble would the likes of Moammar Gadhafi be?!
The main storyline revolves around Cobb assembling a team on behalf of Saito—a global energy titan who wants to literally divide and conquer his biggest rival. (Ken Watanabe has great fun with the role from conveniently buying an airline to stoically awaiting his death/life even as a talisman spinning top turns all who’ve touched it into and out of reality.)
Taking leaves from the scripts of Mission Impossible, the Oceans franchise and The Sting, Nolan drives his story forward with an engaging group of dream invaders. Ellen Page gets the nod to become Ariadne, the architect who creates the cerebral sets where the meeting of many minds will subliminally pursuade one of them to affect change. Keeping all of the necessary paraphernalia in top shape is longtime colleague Arthur (whether coordinating “kicks” back into consciousness or flying down hotel hallways dispatching “projections” intent on defending the primary dreamer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt convinces at every turn). Of course, a master forger is required (in this instance, not only documents but people—all the better to assure the mark that everything is on the up and up). Tom Hardy plays Eames with appropriate degrees of style and grit. He is perpetually blessed—when the “projections” hunker down, generating like rabbits ready to fight to the death for their sleeping commander—with lousy aim from the legions of frontal lobe soldiers who can’t ever shoot straight. Yusuf, the van driver/chemist-with-nine-lives is engagingly concocted by Dileep Rao.
With such a stellar group of subconscious experts, there’s little Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy readily portrays the heir to riches, yet—like DiCaprio—doesn’t really drill down into the difficult father-son relationship that is so crucial to his “inception”). Godfather, “Uncle” Peter (Tom Berenger) tries his level best to keep the family empire intact.
Playing 148 minutes, Nolan has ample time to weave in the subplot of Cobb’s relationship with wife, Mal (the film’s best acting is due to Marion Cottilard’s fine madness—having previously starred as Edith Piaf in La môme, it’s entirely appropriate that the famed chanteuse’s “Je ne Regrette Rien” becomes the leitmotif, cuing the invaders that it’s time to return to the real world; not coincidentally, her name in French means “evil”) and his two young children.
Best of show are the action sequences. Whether dashing though the streets of Mombasa, Kyoto or LA, the special effects army delights with every shot (visual or bullets). The final BIG sequence (captured in beautiful Alberta) pays a wonderful tribute to James Bond’s Thunderball—just exchange the underwater army for Alpine marksman. Magically, the “good guys” all survive; even wounded Saito is able to take a few “projections” out of the picture.
For those who enjoy to peering into the subtext of Nolan’s storied craft, the whole notion of the ravages of mental illness give the production a much bigger scope. Handled differently, this universal subject could have sent both the filmmaker and his creation to the faraway land of Oscar.
Key to everything is Cobb’s motivation. Having experimented on/with Mal to disastrous effect years ago, he has unwittingly lost both wife and kids. The only firsthand familial link remaining is his brilliant dad, who likely has some regrets of his own for teaching Cobb the dark art of dream infiltration. (Michael Caine tosses off the slight role with typical understatement.) Cobb’s abandonment of his children doesn’t mesh with his desperate desire to return to them. (There is a warrant for his arrest, making travel back to the U.S. impossible, unless a very, very powerful energy Czar gets some insider assistance in his quest for world domination ….)
If Cobb was truly that devoted a single dad, then he never would have deserted his loved ones. It’s one “leap of faith” that doesn’t pass muster. As he and Mal struggle with their shattered lives (whether actual memories or unstoppable projections of their own traumas) the notion of how troubled souls make disastrous decisions—spurred on by a needed disbelief in their miserable lives—the opportunity to effectively probe the human psyche was lost with every appearance of the innocent toddlers. Who could have walked out? But, alas, then there would have been no movie.
Early on we hear that “true inspiration is not possible to fake.” Unintentionally, Hans Zimmer’s score—and much of the film—fully supports that truth. The one-chord-short of the “Largo” from Antonin Dvořák’s New World Symphony that permeates the music (along with more than an essence of Dies Irae) is only overshadowed by copious amounts of minimalist accompaniments that have nothing new to say.
By journey’s end, Inception’s early promise is a distant memory. Or was it all a dream? JWR