Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb
Ken Watanabe as Saito
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur
Marion Cotillard as Mal
Ellen Page as Ariadne
Tom Hardy as Eames
Cillian Murphy as Robert Fischer, Jr.
Tom Berenger as Browning
Michael Caine as Miles
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Cobb (DiCaprio) is an expert at extraction, the art of manipulating one's subconscious state to travel within dreams and steal valuable information. Exiled because of his tormented past, Cobb is given a chance to try and win his old life back, but only if he can pull one final job with his hand-picked team. This time, though, the mission is not to steal information but to plant it, through the act of artificial inception, a technique thought to be impossible.
In a great many ways, "Inception" is an exceptional film. It boasts a larger than life cast, a virtually unrestricted budget and a director at the top of his game both commercially and artistically. Action scenes feature mountain ski chases, zero-gravity fights and flawless special effect dreamscapes. So how is it that "Inception" comes together as such a bore?
"Inception's" problems stem completely from the screenplay. While we're meant to believe that the world Nolan has created is of the utmost complexity, it is nowhere near the level that the exposition affords it. "Inception" is a monstrous, all-consuming exposition that seems to devour character and emotion to the point that, on the whole, the film feels like the origin story for a much more interesting tale. That is, the dream-espionage set-up is wonderfully original and clearly well-researched, but far too much time is spent establishing the rules of the world and far too little twisting those rules into anything other than face value.
Ellen Page's Ariadne is the most clear cut example; Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, needing to pull a dream heist, brings her in as an "architect," someone skilled at creating realistic dreams. She essentially plays the audience for exactly one scene, letting Cobb give us the setup and then she's gone. Not physically gone. She's still in the rest of the film, she just, almost instantly, becomes like the other members of the team, void of history and emotion and little more than an extra warm body. A viewer would be hard-pressed to name a single personality trait of any character in the entire film outside the shallowest plot elements. We're told, not shown, every bit of how the world of Inception works, as though Nolan is deeply concerned that we're not going to get it. For a film about imagination that seemingly wants to rest on its cerebral laurels, it doesn't offer much respect for the mind of the viewer.
Moreover, for a film about dreams, there's a mechanical coldness to it all. It's raining in one dream because, we're told, a character did not go to the bathroom first. Time, in dreams, moves at exactly ten times the speed of real life. These are ideas understandable from a storytelling perspective, but suggesting that "Inception" achieves a realistic portrayal of dreams is like looking at a financial data as an artistic statement. Nolan treats the mind as plot and plot alone, divorcing dreams from, say, sex or any other baser instinct. There's something in this very reminiscent of Tim Burton's recent "Alice in Wonderland," ascribing real-world logic to a place where logic is oftentimes antithetical. It's far too much sense and not nearly enough nonsense.
While it may be unfair to criticize a film for what it isn't, "Inception" tries to make a break for itself on the same terms, asking audiences to "think but this and all is mended." The scapegoat defense of the film will be something along the lines of, "It didn't have to have characters. Dreams don't have them." Were the film a bit more delirious, it would be a lot easier to take solace in a such a shoddy narrative.
"Inception" works better, on quite a few levels, as a metaphor for the waking mind's creative subconscious than for anything to do with an unconscious dream state. Theories have and will continue to be tossed around as to the specific allegorical representations of each member of Cobb's team and, once the spoilers settle, there will be some fantastic arguments as to why some of "Inception's" more obvious faults may have been intentional (Intentional meaning both the result of a failed attempt to take the film in a specific direction and intentional meaning that they may, in effect, not be faults at all). There are interesting comparisons to be made between Cobb's heisting/idea planting and the human mind's creative process (most obviously in the case of Nolan, to filmmaking), but even if long-term analysis can win back the meta side, there's little that can be done in the short-term to save the plodding, two-dimensional narrative.
The Bottom Line:
What is most infuriating about "Inception" is how close it gets to being something really great. Instead, we're left with "Solaris" (but never as existential or as meditative) meets "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (but never as fun or thrilling). Compared to most of this year's releases, "Inception" should still impress and, at the very least, inspire some worthwhile discussion, but it's hardly the heady blockbuster summertime savior that audiences have been waiting for.