In nine years, Christopher Nolan has gone from bright new spot in the filmmaking world to one of its leading lights. His first film, Following, was roundly ignored. His second, Memento, was anything but. A mind-bending film constructed backwards, Memento was a film that was far better than it's gimmick premise should have allowed. Warner Bros. liked what they saw and gave Nolan their remake of the chilly thriller Insomnia. Since then, Nolan's rise to prominence has been thoroughly meteoric. He was given the reigns of the Batman franchise after the phenomenal failure of Batman and Robin and gave us Batman Begins, easily the best hero origin film yet made. He followed this up with The Prestige, a sleight-of-hand film about the ultimate sleight-of-hand. The Prestige showed considerable growth fromBatman Begins, which itself showed considerable growth from Insomnia. But nothing could have prepared us for The Dark Knight, Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins. Upping the ante in every respect, Nolan not only gave us the most thoroughly realized depiction of Batman and his world yet put on film, but in the process created a propulsive film that stands alone as its own achievement. It also revealed Nolan's fully mature filmmaking style, assured and well realized. Now, in between The Dark Knight and his as yet untitled third (and presumably final) Batman film, Nolan presents Inception, a big canvas mind-bender designed to be intellectual summer entertainment.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an "extractor." He's a man who gets information from the hardest place to hide it: A person's unconscious mind. He steals information through their dreams. He and his partner in crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have a run-in with Saito (Ken Watanabe), who hires them to not steal information, but plant it through a process called "inception." Normally Cobb would create a dream for the mark himself, but he can't, because he's being haunted by the unconscious projection of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). So he turns to Ariadne (Ellen Page) to create the dream while Cobb and his team convince Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up his father's business empire in favor of building an even better corporation.
Inception doesn't sound too simple on the page, but Nolan takes great care in spending plenty of time introducing every concept that the audience needs to know. In fact, coming from the man who brought us Memento and The Prestige, Inception is downright simple. While most people assumed that the big theme of the film would be what is real and what is not, that is not Nolan's aim at all. He doesn't waste his time trying to trick the audience into thinking that a dream is reality or vice versa. Instead, he focuses on the emotional journey of Cobb as this latest job forces him to face his personal demons. This simplicity is surprising, and in a way, disappointing. The film spends a lot of time talking about labyrinths and mazes, but the story itself is a straight line.
Unfortunately, the mechanics being as straightforward as they are, the film throws its hand in with Cobb and his emotional turmoil for a focus. The problem is that Cobb's issues, aside from ringing shockingly close to the character DiCaprio plays in Shutter Island, don't ultimately connect. The turmoil one feels when they've lost a spouse is offset by the aggressive nature of her projection in his unconscious, which is the only version we ever really see of her. These shortcomings don't translate to the performances, though. DiCaprio and Cotillard both bring their A-game, and Nolan's ability to get excellent performances from his cast hasn't diminished. This is the first time I've found Ellen Page less than annoying, and in fact, she is quite good. Cillian Murphy is also multi-layered, and in fact has the best emotional arc in the film, far more interesting than Cobb's stunted emotions.
This might not have been such a stumbling block had the other characters gotten the kind of development Cobb gets. I know that it isn't their movie, but when you have actors as talented as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, and Ken Watanabe, to make them nothing but elements for furthering the plot is doing them a disservice. I barely remembered the names of the other characters as they are much more easily defined by the role they play in the plot. Compare this toThe Dark Knight, where many tertiary characters are memorable, or Memento, where every character has their own agenda that plays out through the movie. InInception, we got Cobb and Mal and then Ariadne serves as the eyes of the audience. But even as she provides a gateway for us to understand what is happening, we learn nothing about her.
That's not to say Inception is a failure. On a visual and technical level, there's enough here to impress even the most jaded movie-goer. There are several "wow" sequences that are structural marvels. But as well-choreographed as it may be, it still lacks the feeling to give it an emotional kick to go with the sensual one. Nolan also avoids using editing to suggest dream logic, which I find strange as the story makes explicit use of this logic when necessary. Film often acts like a dream, cutting to the important moments, switching from location to location, perspective to perspective without the intervening connective tissue. The brain fills these blank spaces in for us in movies, just as it does in a dream. Nolan doesn't capitalize on these similarities, making the editing as obvious as the story.
And while Inception may be a hollow exercise, it is still an enjoyable one. A bulk of the film takes place in Cillian Murphy's dream, and the mechanics of the con the team has developed to make inception possible is tightly wound and thrilling. It's just a shame that all the best parts have to get bogged down by an emotional through-line that is not as interesting as the world it's populating. While there's a lot to like about Inception, I know that Nolan is capable of so much more.