Monday, July 26, 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Guns, dreams, and a lot of shared needles.

Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page.  Warner Bros. (2010).  Runtime 148 minutes.  Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence throughout.  Catholic News Service Rating is AIII--Adults.

I saw this mostly because I heard the hype.  It lives up to the hype.  It's not exactly a smart movie in the sense of having anything important on its mind, but it is certainly a clever movie, well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining.  It's also much better written than the usual action film.

The premise is that high-tech thieves have acquired devices, first developed by the military, that allow people to share dreams.  Teams of criminals use these gadgets to build elaborate dreamworlds and infiltrate the minds of corporate executives to steal their secrets.  Working to stop them are "subconscious projections," unreal people populating the dreamworld, who become violent and attack the criminals in the dream when they realize the dreamer's mind has been invaded.

A Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants not to steal, but to implant an idea into the mind of a rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to convince him to break up his monolithic corporation after the death of his father.  Planting an idea in someone's mind is apparently more difficult than extraction, so Saito hires the master dream-thief Cobb (Leonadro DiCaprio), who proceeds to put together a team to pull the caper by creating a dream within a dream within a dream.  In each successive level of dream, times slows down, and each dream level is affected by the one above it.  At each level, they mess with Fischer's mind in clever ways as they are constantly hunted by Fischer's subconscious projections, who, because Fischer has been trained to ward off dream-thieves, take the form of armed soldiers.  All the while, Cobb is also hunted by his own subconscious in the form of his dead wife, whose untimely and violent appearances jeopardize the mission.

Inception has some impressive writing.  The viewer is dropped into the middle of the story, and details are fleshed out at a steady pace, with occasional plausible-sounding psychobabble thrown in to help make the premise easier to swallow.  Although many of the goings-on in the dreamworld are wacky, information comes at a perfect rate to keep things from getting confusing.  The different levels of dream are also easy to distinguish, but they affect each other in clever ways, so while in the first level of dream the characters are sleeping in a van during a high-speed chase, gravity in the next level keeps shifting as the van goes around tight corners or free-falls through the air.  This results in, among other things, a gravity-free fistfight in a hotel hallway, probably the movie's highlight.  Other creative visuals include Escheresque architecture and, my favorite, a city that bends over backwards so half of it is in the sky.

Through it all, in addition to imaginative scenery and frequent action sequences, we get a steady development of the characters' backgrounds.  The details of Cobb's tragic past form the most important backstory, but perhaps more moving, if less detailed, is the development of the relationship between Fischer and his father.  Far from being the sniveling, spoiled son of a powerful magnate, Fischer is a good man who wants desperately to have a happy relationship with the father who never loved him.  It's a bit cliche, but it pulls all the right strings and pushes the right buttons.

But it also makes me feel more for Fischer than for any of the crooks manipulating his mind.  Crime capers usually leave a bad taste in my mouth:  They are stories about people who we are apparently supposed to sympathize with, but who have not even the slightest twinges of conscience when they steal massive amounts of money or, in this case, screw with a guy's head.  And the way they screw with his head, although it leads to the film's most moving scenes, is particularly nasty.  Cobb's backstory and his motivations make him a sympathetic character, but that doesn't change what he and his teammates are doing.  The film misses out on those elements that enable the audience to root for criminals:  They aren't stealing from the rich to give to the poor, nor are they trying to bring down an evil overlord.  Their mission is to help a businessman scam another businessman, so even the appearance of some sympathetic backstory doesn't make them look particularly good.

The nastiness of what they're doing isn't lost on the writer, however.  Shared dreaming is compared to a drug; it's highly addictive, and those who do it too much lose their ability to dream normally.  This his highlighted both in the character of Cobb, who can't dream on his own, and in the fresh-faced and always lovely Ellen Page, who plays Ariadne, a talented architect brought onto the team to design the dreamworlds.  She's addicted to shared dreaming after trying it only once, and so quickly tumbles into Cobb's world of high-tech corporate espionage.

But having made my little objection to caper movies, I have to admit it's one of the finest sf films I've seen in recent days, one that latches onto an interesting sf idea and sees how far it can take it.  In that, it most reminds me of Minority Report, though The Matrix is also its obvious ancestor.

Content Advisor:  Contains frequent but mostly mild action violence and occasional coarse language.
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