Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception
Photo: Warner Bros.

It’s hard to think of another studio blockbuster of this size as smart, dark and complex as Inception. It’s a studio risk to spend this much money on an intelligent $200+ million production without dragons, superheroes or iconic graphic novels involved – though the fact it’s directed by the man behind The Dark Knight doesn’t hurt.

Inception is an original story guided by a broken moral compass and considering writer/director Christopher Nolan’s track record this is exactly the sort of anti-hero content he revels in. Like his breakout hit Memento, Inception plays with time and space with a Mulholland/Lynchian vibe, Kubrickian corridors and a taste for spy novels and corporate espionage.

At the center of it all is a group of con men specifically trained to navigate your thoughts, and hired to steal whatever secrets your subconscious may be hiding. However, this time, rather than the routine extraction, their interest is in planting the seed, or the “inception” of an idea. The morality of this scenario is overshadowed by the team’s leader, a father with a desire to see his children once again and this job could win him his freedom. These aren’t heroes we’re watching on screen, they’re villains of the most dangerous sort. They come at you when you least expect it and are at your most vulnerable… in your dreams.

Nolan has designed an entire set of rules to carry out this miraculous story, a story so big that while you’re watching it you can’t believe it isn’t falling apart and is instead only getting increasingly complex. Yet it’s never so complex you can’t follow what’s going on, though you will be left to question everything you saw just before the credits roll.

To tell the story Nolan has recruited a perfect cast of names that properly fit each role and bring something to their characters either through their command of a scene, the cut of their jib or the overall joy it is to hear them delivering lines (I’m looking at you Mr. Tom Hardy).

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb is at the center of it all, an extractor with an ambiguous past who has been forced to turn to a world of illegality to maintain a place in it. DiCaprio reflects Cobb’s paranoia and torment all while maintaining a modicum of control over the team he’s assembled to carry out the job. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer) plays Arthur, the researcher of the group; Tom Hardy (Bronson) brings his personality to Eames, a dreamworld forger and light-hearted tormentor of Arthur; Dileep Rao (Avatar) plays the team’s chemist Yusuf; Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) plays Saito, the man with the business deal; and Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) plays the mark whose mind is the scene of the crime.

The two lovely ladies of the story begin with Marion Cotillard as Mal, Cobb’s wife and source of constant anguish. It’s hard to imagine a replacement for Cotillard whose soft features, delicate line delivery and wide eyes add intrigue with only a glance. If Inception has a heart it beats with Mal.

The film’s other female voice is Ellen Page as the team’s architect Ariadne, a name taken directly from Greek mythology. She serves as the conscience of the film, questioning the rights and wrongs, but like the audience she soon succumbs to the wonder of it all. The imagination gone wild and the belief anything is possible. This is the true wonder of Inception, the fact Nolan has created a world where anything can happen and the logic of it all services this creative spirit. You aren’t left to wonder how and if something can be done, and in seeing it twice I’m relatively positive I’ve been able to sort out every layer of this mind-bending onion.

Action sequences mix the weightlessness of The Matrix with the practical effects of 2001. CG is used liberally, but never in a way that it stalls or disrupts the story. Most impressive is Nolan’s embracing of the slow motion craze, but only because he uses it to tell the story. Slow motion has reason here, this isn’t the oft copied Zack Snyder on overdrive. While certain shots are certainly made to look cooler through the use of slow motion they also service the rules of navigating the world of the dream.

Hans Zimmer provides another powerful and effective score and I swear film editor Lee Smith was asked to edit this thing down as much as humanly possible. At just under two-and-a-half-hours Inception couldn’t be any shorter than it is and if any cuts were made it would appear they were made to tighten the action sequences as any and all story exposition is an absolute must.

Christopher Nolan has managed to bring a challenging blockbuster of epic size and scope to the big screen and he deserves it with the $1+ billion he earned Warner Bros. after The Dark Knight. Considering the production budget on this one it may come at a loss for the studio, but if such gems as this are the “thank you” from a studio to a talented filmmaker, I’m happy the gesture was made and as an audience member I gladly accept.