WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: ‘Extractor’ Dom Cobb makes a living getting information from other people’s dreams, but he has one simple dream of his own: to go back to America to see his children. The one man who can make this possible challenges Dom to go one step further by planting an idea into a business rival’s subconscious; but as Dom knows all too well, the process is fraught with danger for himself and the rest of his hastily-assembled team.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) carries out industrial espionage for a living, but his methods are a little more cerebral than hacking or breaking into offices. He’s the best at ‘extracting’, a process which involves invading the dreams of specific targets, sharing them with others and manipulating them to gain specific information hidden in the subconscious mind. A demonstration put on by Cobb and his colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) impresses influential businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) and he makes Cobb a proposal: if Cobb can surreptitiously change the mind of energy heir Richard Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy) and make him break up his sick father’s business, Saito will sort it so that Cobb can go home to his children from whom he has been separated by the threat of criminal proceedings. However, there are a few problems: following the death of his old one, Cobb needs a new dream ‘architect’, forcing him to seek out young Ariadne (Ellen Page); secondly, Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) has a disturbing habit of popping up in whoever’s subconscious the dream thief happens to be in; and thirdly, the technique Cobb thinks of using – making Fischer part of the theft from his own brain in a dream within a dream within a dream – is thought to be impossible. Nonetheless, with the help of the team plus canny impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), he embarks on the wild, dangerous and surreal mission, despite the fact that Ariadne has cottoned on to his overwhelming sense of guilt that risks turning them all into vegetables.
With a strong, intriguing idea at its core, there’s a lot of really good stuff happening in Inception. Writer/director Nolan manages at least five planes of ‘reality’ and he keeps all his balls (and most of the cast, in one dream) up in the air with great skill, as Cobb and his team delve ever more deeply into Fischer’s psyche and face the dangers of the dreams’ suspicious ‘projections‘. Nolan draws all his story threads together to a simultaneous and logical climax, and while he makes this look easy, it’s actually a considerable feat. The cast, too, do a good job, DiCaprio and Page balancing action and emotion to good effect and Tom Hardy particularly impressive as Eames, laid-back and flippant. The pace of the film, bolstered by a pulsating score, also balances action and reflection well and delivers a number of jaw-dropping set-pieces, not least Arthur’s fights and rescue efforts in fluctuating gravity or Ariadne’s show-offish folding of a Paris street on top of itself (M.C. Escher inspires much of the always-striking design).
On top of all that, the end of the film suggests a pleasantly paradoxical circularity and the last images are wonderfully bittersweet, their ambiguity recalling films of the 70s such as Don’t Look Now or The Stepford Wives. I particularly like the film’s concept and management of time, exploiting the fact that five minutes in a dream can seem like an hour and expanding on it so that, at the deeper levels, whole decades can seem to go by, though the consequences for this in ‘reality’ can be disastrous.
Yet, if the high concept and frequently amazing visuals don’t blind you completely, there are nits to be picked. Though it goes to some pains not to copy other films too slavishly, Inception inescapably brings to mind The Matrix, Dark City and more obliquely Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Moreover, not only does the whole snowscape battle recall (with a bigger budget) similar scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the comparison with Bond begs a key question: the idea of invading someone’s subconscious offers limitless possibilities, so why does the film choose as the enemy something as unimaginative as legions of nameless henchmen shooting badly from close range? You also have to say that whilst Cobb’s story and climax are moving, the ‘missing the kids’ angle is a bit hokey and Cotillard’s Frenchness is a minor obstacle to fully empathising with the couple as their full history is revealed (there is of necessity a lot of explanatory dialogue between Cobb and Ariadne, the newcomer). Furthermore, the concentration on Cobb comes at the expense of a full resolution to the supposed thrust of the film, namely the scheme to change Fischer’s mind. It may well be a deliberate decision, but after all the team go through we never really know if the inception is successful.
Inception looks like being a big commercial and critical hit and the success is well-deserved, given that it’s beautiful-looking, well-performed and orders of magnitude more thoughtful than most summer blockbusters (Nolan’s own excepted, of course). But is it as good as The Matrix? For me, not quite. Inception is a clever film, and cleverly constructed so that whilst it’s a puzzle, it’s not too baffling if you’re prepared to concentrate. You should see it, absolutely, as individual scenes and situations will blow your socks off; and if you’re not sure what happened the first time, you’ll probably want to see it again to make sure. Believe me, I’m an extractor fan (sorry): I just have doubts that it’s so good, or that original, that I’d want to watch it time and again.