I almost don't want to review Inception. It's not that I don't think it's a great movie, because it is. It's just that a review, no matter how spoiler-free it tries to come across, will undoubtedly ruin some of the pleasures of the film. And so, I'd like to make a request. Please read this review after you see the film, as I'm hoping you'll be able to walk into the film as I did - knowing very little about the actual plot details. I will do my best to be vague, but I will no doubt have to go into some detail.
By this point, you've either seen the movie and continued reading, or you decided not to listen to me, and are reading before you see it. Whatever the case, it should be noted that Inception is an intricate film. It is complex, it is thought-provoking, and it forces you to pay attention in almost every frame. This is not a mindless summer blockbuster. Writer-director Christopher Nolan supposedly spent years working this script out, and it shows. He has thought out every plot detail, every visual, and every character and revelation in a way that few films do. That alone is worth noting. But there is something even more noteworthy, in my opinion. Not once is the movie ever confusing. Yes, Nolan hides details from us early on, but they are revealed in good time. Anyone who is actually paying attention (and resists the urge to use the bathroom or get a refill on their soda or popcorn) will have no problem figuring out the complex tale that the movie tells. Yes, there are small details I'm still not quite clear on. These will most likely be solved by repeat viewings. On the whole, Inception is not a movie that guides you by the hand, but a wonderful puzzle to figure out.
The film is set in an unspecified time and place, but seems to take place in the near future. Technology has evolved to the point that people can not only enter each others dreams, but also control them, and unlock deep secrets from a person's subconscious and extract them. One person who utilizes such abilities on a regular basis is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a "dream thief" of sorts who offers his services for hire. Early on, he's approached by a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) with an interesting and possibly dangerous request - He does not want Cobb to merely extract something from someone's subconscious, but to insert an idea in someone's head that could benefit Saito's corporation. This difficult process is known as an Inception, and it's believed to be impossible. Cobb knows it can be done. He's done it once before, with tragic results. That's why he's initially not taken in by the offer, until Saito offers him something he cannot ignore.
He offers Cobb the opportunity to wipe his criminal record clean. It's something that has forced Cobb to be on the run for the past few years. He dreams of returning home to the U.S., and seeing his children again. He talks to them briefly on the phone, but can never tell them why he can't come home. But Saito is offering a chance at a new start, and an opportunity to see his family again. What is the crime Cobb is guilty of? The movie knows the right time to tell us, and it's not right away. Regardless, with the reward at stake, a deal is made between the two men. The target for the mission is Robert Fischer, Jr (Cillian Murphy), a young tycoon who just inherited a major corporation from his father (Pete Posthelthwaite). Cobb must enter Robert's subconscious, and perform the Inception. Along for the mission are Cobb's partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the young "architect" named Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose job is to design the dream worlds where the work will be done. The group travels deeper and deeper into the subconscious, and what they find, I will leave you to discover.
Watching Inception, I was reminded of the first time I saw the groundbreaking "bullet time" sequences in the original Matrix film, especially during a lengthy sequence where gravity is thrown to the wind, and the characters must both fight and go about their work as the room they're in tumbles constantly. In terms of visuals, these are easily the strongest I've seen this summer. City streets bend, twist, and even defy gravity. Stairways repeat in an endless loop. The real world and the dream world collide frequently. The structure of entire cities alter and change shape to a person's will. Not only is it all wonderful to look at, but all the special effects utilized benefit the story itself, and are not just for show. The story and characters never become lost amongst the special effects, while the effects themselves never seem like they're wasted budget.
I also loved how Nolan was able to give us an intriguing and thought-provoking story, while also giving us plenty of action to keep us enthralled. In fact, the entire second and third act are kind of one giant chase sequence that never becomes monotonous or boring, because the movie keeps on raising the stakes and changing the game on us. It does so in a fair way. It's not the screenplay cheating us or manipulating the audience. Each new threat and revelation feels natural. There's a flow to the entire screenplay that few movies have. Amongst all the action, the movie feeds us a little bit more of the story. We learn more about Cobb and his past, and why he's been unable to return home after all these years. We learn the truth about what happened the last time he tried an Inception, and whom he performed it on. This is the rare movie that rewards the patient viewer. It does not spell everything out right away, rather it leaves tiny bits of the plot to piece together. When explanations come, they genuinely shed light. We actually find ourselves more involved.
That's because the characters at the core of Inception are flawed and very human. It would be easy for any filmmaker to build a movie around the wondrous visuals this movie provides, then plop some uninteresting cardboard cutouts in the middle of it all, but the people on display grab our attention. Each revelation about Cobb makes us like and sympathize with him more. When Ariadne becomes conflicted about how she feels about Cobb and the job itself, we feel it right along with her. The story isn't the only thing that's been well thought out, the characters have been too. And the cast that's been assembled is all too willing to make the characters easy for us to follow. It must be noted that a lot of the actors here (like Watanabe, Murphy, and Michael Caine in a brief cameo) have worked with Nolan before, but why ruin a good thing? He knows how to use these actors, and he knows how to get the best out of them.
It's very rare that you see a movie quite this good during the summer months, or any month of the year, now that I think about it. Inception is not only intelligent and challenging, but it's also emotionally rewarding, thrilling, and exciting as hell. Watching it, you get the sense that Nolan is not only challenging his audience, but also himself. Here is someone fresh off the biggest film of his career (2008's The Dark Knight). He could have easily taken the money and run, or slapped together a quick follow up. Instead, he has decided to tackle a very difficult film, and pulled it off absolutely beautifully. Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker in every sense of the word.
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