My uncle has a saying that he uses whenever he sees a movie that impresses him to the core: “Man, that was a movie and a half .” What he means when he utters this phrase is whatever movie he saw, was so effective at what it does that it becomes almost more than just a movie. It carries much more weight than other films it is stacked up against. It’s not just a movie, its a movie and a half.
Inception is one of those movies.
Inception is, from top to bottom, a well written, well acted, well shot and well executed film. It has a very clear goal and it achieves it a near flawless manner. Which should be of no surprise as Nolan has spent the past 6 or so years pumping out some of the most tightly packed, large budget brain ticklers of the past decade. I won’t bore you with the details, since I’m sure since you are reading this you have probably already seen the movie and read at least one other review, so I’ll just focus on my impressions rather than synopsizing the film.
The real genius of this movie is it’s tendency to not go out of its way to explain how everything works. This movie is very macro. It paints very broad strokes for the characters and events to play around in, which allows lots of room for the audience to come to their own conclusions about what is really going on. The reason why a lot of science fiction falls flat, or becomes unbelievable, is that many sci-fi or just techy stories dive way too deep into the mechanics of the technology that drives the action, trying to give it some kind of real world validation. The problem with this is that the “realer” the technology gets, the harder the audience has to try to suspend their disbelief to digest it. This is why movies with “hackers”or “cyborgs” or “Time machines” in them usually always turn goofy, because they use mostly real world, heavily explained technology to do incredible things like blow people’s houses up through the internet. Inception deals with none of this. The technology is presented and explained it the vaguest of terms. How can people hack into other peoples dreams? With a machine. What does the machine look like? Its a box with a button. How does the machine work? You push the button. Done. Explanation over. Belief? Suspended. That is exactly every ounce of information you NEED to know about the “Dream Machines” in order to believe that they work. They work because they do. That’s how pretty much everything in the the world that Inception creates works. How can people dream within a dream? Because they can. How does the fake dream machine work inside of someones dream? It just does. Nothing is given enough time to be debated upon. Things just work because they are supposed to. Keep up. Also, a lot of major ideas are conveyed simply through already established metaphor (important memories being locked in metaphysical safes, the use of totems, the mind being a labrynth), which people have complained as being kind of trite or a cop-out, but I see them as the necessary concessions that had to be made to push the plot along as quickly as possible.
Not to say that this movie is devoid of detail. Quite the opposite. The broad strokes only apply to the foundation of the story, between those strokes are tons of complementary details and rules that enhance it greatly. There are tons of great rules that bind the worlds together. Like the fact that things effecting the dreamer’s body can have a direct effect on their dream, like how Yusuf had to pee before he went to sleep so in his dream it was raining, or how being dunked in water caused Cobb’s dream in the very beginning of the movie to be engulfed by an enormous tidal wave. Or how Yusuf’s sedative wouldn’t effect the inner ear of who ever was under its influence, meaning any kind of abrupt movement would effect the dream in an almost directly correlative manner. That of course leads up to probably the best scene in the movie involving Yusufs van flipping over, causing Arthur, who was asleep in the van, to flip with it which causes the hallway in his dream to literally start rotating while he has to fight off some random goon. There’s also the element of time in the movie, basically the deeper you are in a dream the slower time passes. Meaning the the majority of the films events take place in the amount of time it took for Yusuf’s van to drop off of a bridge into the water below. The movie is filled with minor details like this that quickly snowball into much larger plot devices. A few of my other favorite little (big) details:
Whenever Cobb was in a dream, he was wearing a wedding band.
Cobb’s Wife’s name, Mal, is latin for “evil”
Ariadne is named after the woman who helps Theseus escape the Minotaur's labyrinth in greek mythology.
When Ariadne tosses Robert Fisher off of Cobb’s apartment, the bolts of lightning striking the air around him directly correlate with the defibrillator hits he is receiving from Eames in the dream one layer above.
Major musical cues in the score are actually bits of the “Countdown” song, “ Non, je ne regrette rien” by Edith Piaf, played at varying speeds to signify how deep in the dreams each character is. If you stayed for the credits you would have heard the two songs transitioning into each other.
Another thing I noticed about the movie, design wise, is that everything is the movie is carefully crafted as to have a pretty much timeless appearance. You never see anyone using a computer. Everybody’s clothes are pretty much limited to very nice clean suits and dresses, mostly designs that people have been wearing for several decades now. Even the more casual wear (Cobb and Adriane’s everyday wear especially) is fairly muted. Stylish enough that they look good but understated enough that in 20 years nobody will be making fun of what they are wearing. This also goes for the architecture of the film as well. The whole movie takes place in either well established near vintage architecture or in the type of standard contemporary design that dominates most architecture now and will for the next few decades. This is a movie that has gone through a fairly thorough incubation, and it really shows in these design choices.
As far as performances go, everyone in this movie did a pretty excellent job. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a solid unhinged man with a family role he’s gotten really good at playing in the past 4 or so years, Tom Hardy is a very slick and funny dude throughout, Ellen Page does her usual tiny cute girl with a giant brain thing she is oh so good at, Ken Wantanabe plays a ruthless Japanese business man pretty well, and Cillian Murphy pulls off a pretty strong performance as a young man with his entire family’s legacy on his shoulders. However, the show is completely stolen from underneath all of them by Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon Levitt. Marion Cotillard’s performance as Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife still haunting him in his dreams, is as beautiful and tragic as it is completely horrifying. Whenever she shows up on screen, nothing but terrible terrible things are going to happen to whomever is unfortunate enough to be within range of her paralyzing gaze. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur, The Point Man, is just a great character all around and he plays it with such bustling charisma (which is kind of ironic since Arthur is kind of a very non charismatic guy with an almost non existent sense of humor) that pretty much every scene involving him ends up being one of he better parts of the movie. His fight scene in the rotating hallway and endless staircase should be enough to solidify him as a viable up and coming action star for the next couple of years.
Overall I think Inception is a pretty wonderful piece of smart, imaginitive, blockbuster film making and that it solidifies Chris Nolan as one of the best working directors of this current generation.