Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Inception: is life but a dream?

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the latest film from that far too smart to be merely human chap called Christopher Nolan. You know the guy, right? He made MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. He is a certified modern filmmaking legend. A man who you know will always give you not just a good movie but a great movie.

And guess what? He’s done it again.

INCEPTION tells the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a guilt ridden man living in enforced exile after being accused of a heinous crime. Cobb is an expert in commercial espionage, but not just any old run of the mill spying. You see Cobb, along with his small team, has the ability to infiltrate other peoples dreams and rebuild those dreams how he wants in order to manipulate the dreamer so as to steal their deepest secrets, their ideas, or in this case to plant an idea, an all but impossible act known as inception. Cobb takes on this seemingly impossible challenge, one that everyone else thinks can’t be done, because if he succeeds, then his new client can pull enough strings with the US authorities to allow him to finally go back home and be with his estranged children.

There is a hell of a lot going on in INCEPTION. This is one densely plotted, intricately constructed film. The film's plot at its most basic is to plant an idea in the mind of a target individual so deeply that they fully believe it is their own idea, one that over time has grown organically out of their own personal thoughts and feelings. But the actual execution of this plot is hugely complex. It is operating (literally) on several levels at once. Dreams within dreams within dreams with every level having its own set of rules, all of which needing to be perfectly synchronised in order for Cobb and co. to complete their mission and get back to reality without falling in to an eternal limbo of nothingness. And if that weren’t hard enough there is a ‘ghost’ from Cobb’s past, living in his mind, who keeps on turning up and sabotaging his plans.

If none of this makes any sense then I apologise. If I try and explain the film’s plot in any more detail then blood might start leaking from my ears due to my brain beginning to melt.

This is a hard film to describe. It is so multilayered, densely plotted and full of ideas and thematic depth. Mere words can’t do it justice. Like a proper dream, INCEPTION needs to be experienced rather than described. Ideally more than once to be able to take it all in and to process all of its many precision parts. It is a film where you have to watch every single frame and listen to every single word in case you lose track of what is going on as well as to decode its many possible meanings. It demands you think on several different levels at once while it simultaneously asks questions about the nature of reality, human emotion, the effect our choices have on our psyche as well as how far we’d go and what we’d be prepared to do in order to stay close to those we love. Ideas based around spirituality are in there too, albeit in a sci fi context. Heaven and hell are evident but are very much places of our own personal creation - the deep down internal hell of guilt and regret and the aspirational heaven of love and hope. In the film, Cobb could also be seen as God, creating his own world and manipulating the lives of those within it. His ‘ghost’ could also be seen as the Devil, someone once close to him, a part of him, who now lives far below in subconscious hell. Someone who is always looking to create chaos and destruction in order to achieve their own ends. The identity of this ‘ghost’ is fundamental to the story and to what is going on in Cobb’s tortured mind. Within this quasi-spiritual context, faith and belief are also important. One character says to Cobb: “You keep telling yourself what you know, but what do you believe?” Part of the story hinges on what a certain character believes. And their belief – be it right or wrong - is unshakeable. Along with belief is the faith to act on that belief, to literally take a leap of faith, which happens at least twice.

“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man filled with regret?” –Saito

Now, all of this could end up rather tiresome and intellectually dry if it were purely an exercise in psychology and spirituality. But in Nolan’s skilled hands, INCEPTION plays as a thrilling heist movie/high tech action thriller - albeit the most intensely complex and smart heist movie/action thriller you’re ever likely to see. The basic narrative backbone is tried and tested. A man with a troubled past must take on one last job, a job he believes can sort his life out. So he puts a team together and comes up with a plan and then executes that plan. But like all good heist films that plan soon starts to go wrong, badly wrong. Cue fleet of mind and foot adaptation involving thunderous, fast paced car chases, gunfights, huge explosions and some truly mind-bending gravity defying fights. So INCEPTION ends up far from dry and tiresome, it is an incredibly smart thought-provoking treatise on the nature of reality, free will and human emotion all wrapped up in a visually stunning, always thrilling sci fi action thriller. Sound familiar? The last movie to do something like this was THE MATRIX. But INCEPTION works on even more levels than the Wachowski Bros. classic. In fact, the Wachowski’s film comes across as rather simplistic compared to Nolan’s deep, deep mind twister. The Matrix works on two narrative levels – the real world and the Matrix. In the latter stages of INCEPTION, the story is working on five – count ‘em – five levels! And all of those five levels have to work in intricate conjunction to tell the story as well as to map the internal emotional journey that Cobb must complete in order to find his peace. And Christopher Nolan does a stunning job keeping everything moving along at pace in what is one of the most incredibly complex and delicate balancing acts I’ve ever seen in cinema. His script is a piece of art, full of ideas designed to lodge in your brain, take root, grow and make you think and question and wonder. An idea is like a virus, Nolan tells us. It can be transmitted from person to person spreading ever further and ever faster. This is what his film is. It is ideas as art, to be seen and to spread and to take root in your mind, to hopefully give birth to other ideas, other stories from other people. It is its own inception.

From a technical standpoint INCEPTION is top notch. Once again, regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister’s lensing is gorgeous. It is crisp and moody with a widescreen elegance that utilises Nolan’s usual colour palette of deep blacks, cold blues and warm yellow/browns. Pfister proves yet again that he is one of the very best in the business. The editing is precise and perfect and the music by Hans Zimmer is some of his best in recent memory, a powerful, pulsing score full of blasting siren-like horns yet also being soft and intimate where needed. The cast is uniformly excellent with DiCaprio easily giving the best performance I’ve ever seen from him. Single minded yet conflicted, DiCaprio’s Cobb is also emotionally damaged and quite literally haunted. He is driven by one single goal but is more often than not held back by the deepest part of his own mind. The rest of Cobb’s team is made up of some of the best of modern film actors. The cute as can be Ellen Page is Ariadne, the emotionally insightful architect who designs the dream structure. Joseph Gordon Levitt is Arthur, Cobb’s cool and efficient right hand man. Tom Hardy is Eames, the smooth, wise cracking forger who can forge new identities in dreams. Ken Watanabe is Saito, the rich and powerful businessman who hired Cobb and who comes along on the mission. Meanwhile Cillian Murphy plays the mark, the target in whose mind the team needs to implant the idea. And then there is the legend who is Michael Caine in a small but classy role as Cobb’s father-in-law.

Some have accused INCEPTION of being cold and calculating and lacking in emotional depth, of not forging an emotional connection with its audience. They are wrong. The whole point of the film is an emotional journey by Cobb in order to resolve his deep seated issues and to get him to where he needs to be both emotionally, physically and psychologically. Mind you, where he actually does end up is totally up for debate. You’ll see what I mean when you see the film’s final shot. Also, the only way the mission of inception can be truly successful is by creating a genuine emotional response in the mark, a basis for belief in the implanted idea, a basis that lies in emotion rather than in intellect or reason. Okay, so it may be manipulative emotion, but it is emotion none the less. And who are we to question what’s real if someone genuinely feels something. It is real to them and that, in the end, is what is important.

INCEPTION is a work of utter genius that delves deep in to the workings of the human mind and looks at how it relates to perceived reality, how it copes with great emotional and psychological trauma. The film explores the architecture of the subconscious and asks questions about what makes us who we are and what makes things real, what makes thoughts and feelings and memories real. And it does this in a totally engrosing, always thrilling and often eye-popping way. Not since The Matrix has my brain and my testosterone and my emotions been equally engaged at such a high level. An instant classic. Christopher Nolan, you are a genius, sir.

So go see INCEPTION. And then go see it again. And after you have, don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger. (5+/5)

1 comment:

  1. A classic, no doubt, but I need to see iy again. I don't think I've yet experienced the full depth of this movie yet. As such, I can't assertain what it all means and how it compares to other Nolan films.

    At this early point I still think The Matrix is the superior film; there are more layers of subtext (although I've had 11 years to uncover them), plus for my tastes, it's more overtly sci-fi, more mythic and has a strong anti-authority thread.

    However, Inception's ace in the whole is that it's a strong emotional movie, where The Matrix is a little more 'reserved'.

    A masterpiece by any standard.