Film review by: Witney Seibold


Oh what a delight. What a relief. What a well-written, well-acted, well-thought-out, well-made film.

Here is a film that is about imagination, dreaming, hidden guilt, the dangers of losing one’s self to fantasy, and is yet, somehow, the action blockbuster of the summer. It’s so rare that a film so intelligent, and so thoughtful, and given such a loving attention from its makers, is given such a budget, and is allowed to be a big-time studio blockbuster like “Inception.” Christopher Nolan, the man behind the staggeringly popular recent Batman movies has finally been given carte-blanche to make the film he always wanted to, and has come up with one of the more thoughtful thrillers in many years.

A shadowy private organization has a cadre of agents trained in what they call “extraction:” their agents, using a sci-fi widget, can enter the dreams of others, and steal any secrets they have locked away, if they can only interpret the symbols correctly. If the agents stir the waters too much, their mark’s subconscious will send antibody-like forces to destroy the interlopers, so extraction is a dodgy business. It’s also not legal.

Nolan could have made this a tipsy, symbol-laden freakout (à la any of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels), but grounds his worlds, real and dreamed, in a very heavy, muted, real-life physics that allows us to feel like these machines would work, and that they world’s concrete rules are unbreakable. This is vital for any quality genre film.

We are introduced to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hard-working extraction agent who has himself a few skeletons in his closet. His team is a relaxed group of careful professionals who talk shop, and sigh heavily at hard work. They are all dressed in the dapperest of suits. There is the sharp-as-a-whip Eames (Tom Hardy), the bickering Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the anesthesiologist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and the newly-recruited grad student Ariadne (Ellen Page), who is hired to design physical dream mazes, and who is presumably named after the Greek character who helped Theseus in his own labyrinth.


Most of the film takes place in dreams, and we get a peek into Cobb’s own subconscious a few times, where he is haunted by a monstrous version of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). One scene, where Mal charges through a crowd of faceless stangers weilding a knife actually resembles some nightmares I’ve had.

The dream spaces! Oh my! Nolan has combined some slick digital effects with some great-looking practical effects to create some of the most fascinating environments seen. There is scene were a thug and a hero must face off in a hallway where gravity is constantly shifting, and they spill onto the walls and ceiling. Ariadne, when she learns she can manipulate the world around her, folds the entire city upon itself. Most digital cityscapes look false, animated, busy, dull. Nolan has a knack for making cityscapes that feel like real places. I am reminded of his Gotham City in the Batman films.

The story begins when a high-powered industrialist (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and his team to infiltrate the dreams of a rival (Cillian Murphy), not on a mission of extraction, but on a mission of inception; he wants Cobb to implant an idea in his charge’s head. This is a dangerous task, but Cobb and his team take the job, all for various reasons. The job ultimately involves implanting dreams within dreams, so that there are several dreams occurring simultaneously. The film’s extended climax is brilliant in the way it manages to have four levels of reality operating all at once, all playing with different chronologies (time moves slower in dreams), different rules of physics, and different scenarios. Like his “Memento,” Nolan manages to take a strange narrative conceit, and have it climax in a satisfying way.

If there is one criticism I can level at Nolan, it’s that his films tend to be somewhat cold. More clinical than emotional. More impressive than moving. When I saw that Ellen Page was to be in this film, I was looking forward to seeing her genial and passionate acting style lend some relatable heft to the proceedings. Sadly, while she does bring her wonderful wit and class to the film, the scenes where she has subtle, intense conversations with Cobb feel a little mismatched.

This is a single quibble in an otherwise impeccably creative film.

It has been said that cinema is the art form that most closely resembles dreams, and seeing a film in a theater is the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing the dreams of another, and sharing your dreams with a crowd. Nolan’s dreamscapes may not necessarily resemble real dreams, as they’re perhaps a bit too cogent (which is necessary for a narrative structure), but they do come close enough to let us know that we’re in this heightened state of reality; it may not be Buñuel, but it’s still just surreal enough.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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