When I first heard about Inception, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t a video game or a comic book. And it didn’t have anything to do with Inception!, the popular 80s TV series starring Lee Majors. Then I discovered something curious: Inception was a completely original concept which hadn’t been adapted from any previously existing property. It had been so long since had seen anything like that, I’d almost forgotten what it was like. Needless to say, Christopher Nolan is a witch and should be buried under a load of heavy stones.
Seriously though, and all of the fanboyish love over movies like The Dark Knight (please be seated) aside, Christopher Nolan seems to be one of a dying in breed in Hollywood who have both the desire and the clout to bring a film like Inception — a big movie about big ideas — to theaters. And Inception definitely has some pretty hefty ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who can enter people’s dreams and extract their secrets. His skills have cost him his wife and his children, but now he’s being offered a chance to get it all back. One last job, where instead of stealing ideas, Cobb and his team will be planting one.
Even though the film has a lot going for it, there comes a point fairly early on when you wonder if Inception might collapse under its own weight. Like I said, this movie’s got plenty of big ideas. So many, in fact, that for the first half you begin to wonder if Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page aren’t really acting in the film, but taking turns reciting its instruction manual. That’s a little too harsh, but explaining the movie to the audience does make for some clunky exposition in the first hour or so.
Once the groundwork is laid down, the film picks up considerably. Of course, this is in no small part to the cast Nolan’s brought together. There are some actors out there who, regardless of the film, deliver consistently good work. Leonardo DiCaprio’s definitely one of them. Along with him, you’ve got Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who delivered a good, albeit somewhat boxy performance. Ellen Page, who amazed me by making me forget for two and a half hours that she was in Juno. And Tom Hardy, who has to be one of the most under-appreciated actors around.
But the cast and what a cool concept Inception is aside, what I appreciated most about the film was its sense of restraint. I’m willing to concede that they went a little over the top, but I’m one of those people who will argue in favor of the second and third Matrix films. With Inception, it would have been easy for Nolan to follow very closely in the Wachowski’s footsteps. Crazy CGI. Never-before-seen stunts. And we do get some of that, but Nolan is one of those filmmakers who knows when to dial things back. As Cobb as his team move deeper and deeper into the dreams of their mark, trying to plant their idea, nobody gains superhuman powers. And the dreams we see are all still grounded in reality. Well, except for that last one and if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand. But still, I never felt that Nolan was using the film’s subject matter as an excuse to — as the French say — masturbate all over the place, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
But even when Nolan does turn things up to 11, he does so incredibly well. The physics of the dreams and unique architecture of the dream worlds may be the best example of this. Some may find it simplistic, but I think it was probably the best way to convey this sort of concept to a mass audience. Think about some of the dreams you’ve had, and how batsh*t insane they are. Then think about how the movie would have been had Leo and co. had to navigate their way through freaky childhood clowns and that one time I peed myself in the middle of the Wal-Mart in front of my ex-wife. I think you get the point.
People are already talking about what Inception’s Oscar chances are, but unless we’re talking about set design or special effects, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I think films like Inception are doomed to suffer silently while lesser films get all the big accolades. Maybe that’s as it should be. Inception is definitely a blockbuster, but in a way I’ll always think of it as the little film that could. That is, the film that showed us it’s still possible to meld mind-blowing special effects with an actual story.