Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 9 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!
Christopher Nolan is one of the more visionary film directors working in the industry today as evidenced by the audacity and realism of his Dark Knight trilogy and the scope of Interstellar. Inception is no exception, and it proves to be perhaps his most personal film to date – he wrote and fine-tuned the script over a period of nearly a decade before having the chance to actually make it, and his hard work definitely paid off.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the world’s best dream extractor; he enters people’s dreams to steal secrets from their subconscious. He’s good at what he does, but he lives an unfulfilling life, separated from his children due to charges against him for a crime he didn’t commit. To clear the charges and see his kids again, Cobb makes a deal with Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), who promises to use his influence to clear Cobb’s name in exchange for inception – the placing of an idea into someone’s head via their dreams. Assembling a team to assist him, Cobb puts everything at risk in order to see his kids again, with failure meaning that he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life.
Nolan’s creativity is incredible here, with him taking things that are familiar to us, like a “kick” – the falling feeling you get while in bed that instantly wakes you up – being used in new ways, in this case as a means of waking up from a dream before the time runs out on their special dream-sharing machine. He also introduces the idea of “projections”, which are physical (within the dream itself) manifestations of our subconscious that can be spoken to in order to gain information or to learn more about the person creating the projections. I find the “mechanics” of Nolan’s dream world endlessly fascinating as I learn more about these as well as things like how Nolan envisions the effects of outside stimuli such as slaps or needing to use the restroom within the dream.
The story itself is in the style of a heist film, but the setting doesn’t allow it to be anything even remotely close to generic. For starters, Cobb and team aren’t stealing anything but are instead putting something there – an idea. There are elements of science fiction and blockbuster action, but at the same time the narrative carries a surprisingly emotion weight with it as we witness Cobb struggling with the loss of his wife and his guilt at having caused it, as well as the strained father/son relationship between Robert and Maurice Fischer (Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite, respectively). There are multiple scenes that can leave you in tears, but there are also moments of comedy (Tom Hardy’s Eames has a few notable one-liners) and incredible action sequences, with my favorite being Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fight in a rotating hallway.
Each member of the cast shines, so I won’t talk about them all, but I do feel the need to highlight a couple of them. Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb brings another all-star performance to the screen here, alternately treating us with scenes of anger, anguish, personal torment, guilt, and compassion. Marion Cotillard appears as his wife Mal, and we see her in various states of maliciousness and sadness. As the story between these two characters unfolds, we learn of the true tragedy that ended their marriage, made even more heartbreaking by the beautiful performances of both DiCaprio and Cotillard. Tom Hardy’s Eames shows off not only his comedic chops, but also his ability to be both intellectual and ready for action…watching his performance in this movie, you could make a pretty convincing argument for Hardy as the next (or eventual) James Bond. And the last character I’ll talk about here is Ellen Page as Ariadne, the young architect who joins to team in order to design the dream levels that the group will be diving in to. She acts as the sort of communication liaison for the audience; as someone new to the group, she’s a vehicle for exposition allowing characters to tell her (and therefore the audience) about the dream sharing process as well as a way for us to get a glimpse into Cobb’s difficulty with restraining his dangerous projection of Mal that jeopardizes their mission. Page is calm and intelligent and is therefore a comforting presence amidst all of the chaos they face on their mission. Additional shoutouts to great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur (and his amazing rotating hallway/anti-gravity action scenes) and Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer.
I also won’t talk about Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score here, mostly because I’ve already written a review on it. However, I will say that this score marked a turning point in my opinion of Zimmer’s work. For most of the first decade of the millenium, I thought that he copied himself too often, but his music here innovated and showed him at his experimental best, and the majority of his work since then has been taken in a similar direction. Nolan/Zimmer is as inspired a pairing as Spielberg/Williams or Zemeckis/Silvestri because the two of them understand each other and have similar visions of scope and artistic expression.
This review was surprisingly difficult to write because there’s so much good to be said that I couldn’t narrow down very well. The bottom line is this: Inception is Christopher Nolan at his absolute best. The story and dream world are incredibly engaging and fun, and the performances from each of the actors as well as from Hans Zimmer are top notch throughout. I have nothing but praise for what has become one of my all-time favorite movies.
MPAA: PG-13 – for sequences of violence and action throughout