Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review of Inception

I'm not quite sure if I nailed this review. This was excruciating to write.

This review originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

When Avatar was in full money-grabbing mode, I saw a news report about how some fans were becoming depressed because the real world couldn't compete with the 3-D magic they had absorbed. That problem is simultaneously absurd and understandable. As our lives become increasingly governed by technology, the real world is going to be a poor substitute. For some, going through the motions of work, relationships, and other aggravations will be sheer torture.

Christopher Nolan's Inception is such a visually arresting behemoth that seeing it in the theater is a requirement. It's a fun, twisty time at the multiplex, but one that forces you to consider more serious issues. While Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) dazzles you with cities built from the subconscious and mid-air acrobatics, he knows there's a price if you overindulge in the dream world.

Just ask thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). He makes his living going into people's minds and taking whatever precious information is available in the dream state, then passing that along to an interested, well-funded third party. Though Cobb is excellent at his job, he's starting to slip. A personal tragedy not only prevents him from returning stateside, it seeps into his work, causing unforeseen problems. A flubbed assignment forces Cobb to perform a dangerous job for the man whose subconscious he just tried to fleece.

Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb to enter the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), whose dying father is Saito's chief business rival. Cobb then has to convince the younger Fischer to break up his profitable inheritance, which would make Saito even more powerful. Stealing information is one thing, but planting an idea is near impossible. What compels Cobb to keep the job is that if he succeeds, the authorities vanish and he can return home. A team of heroic nerds is assembled. Aside from his right hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb recruits an architect (Ellen Page) to create the scenery, a con man (Tom Hardy) to get more information on Fischer, and a skilled chemist (Dileep Rao) to sedate the crew long enough to plant the thought in Fischer.

Nothing goes according to plan. Cobb can't shake his angry, beautiful wife (Marion Cotillard), who reminds our hero of his hubris and a fatal mistake. To influence Fischer, Cobb's team must dive into several layers of a dream state, which makes convincing Fischer—and getting back to real life—all the more difficult. A lot has to happen for everyone to escape unscathed.

Nolan's movie is a visual marvel—a city folds on top of itself, Gordon-Levitt battles henchmen mid-air as the dream world shifts around him, Page and DiCaprio sit in a cafĂ© as the surrounding buildings explode—but his big accomplishment is convincing you in the validity of a blatantly sci-fi concept. Nolan's script incorporates background and details about Cobb's livelihood, so that you endorse the plot and submit yourself to every twist and turn. It's not just a collection of explosions and CGI wizardry peppered with philosophical queries. Nolan focuses on the story and uses the special effects as an attribute, not the other way around.

The cast is excellent, especially since Page puts away her dour, moping routine. I was a little skittish seeing DiCaprio in the lead role, but the actor's pretty-boy glow has worn off. He can now look haggard and unsettled. Inception always rises above a gee-whiz adventure story because Cobb's reality and his dream world are both damaged. Where's his safe haven? And DiCaprio actually looks the part, instead of a movie star fighting against his genetic fate.

Inception is the most satisfying adventure story I've seen this year, but is it a classic, as countless others have suggested? I don't think so. Much like Cobb's mission, the storyline hits a few snags that I couldn't quite forgive. (I'd reveal them, but I'd give away several twists.) Nolan's film is still an impressive accomplishment, proof that the new wave of cinematic creativity can awaken the mind and stimulate the senses without completely isolating us from reality. [PG-13]

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