There's hardly anything in the world as mysterious as dreams. The subconscious is a locked universe that comes to us nightly in unpredictable, hard-to-remember bursts. We know little about the science of dreams aside from creative entrepreneurs who craft meaning to sell books and make money. Pure hokum.
When dreaming, we are at our most vulnerable state, completely lost from the world around us. Imagine if someone had the power to invade your dreams and manipulate your behavior without your knowledge.
That's the frightening hook of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Inception, a mind-trip of an action film that is as exhaustive as it is thrilling, entertaining as it is confounding and incredibly crafted as it is overwritten. It's the rarest of movies during the summer months: a big-budgeted blockbuster with ambitious, artistic aspirations.
Inception is a vexing movie that is flawed yet absorbing, full of ideas that don't always work but the journey into Nolan's rabbit hole of a story is likely to be the most challenging mainstream film at the multiplex until the fall. And it has lots and lots of shootouts to help pass the time if you get too befuddled along the way.
The plot: Here is where things get murky when writing about Inception. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, a highly paid thief of a different sort. Rather than stealing objects in the material world, Cobb makes a living retrieving ideas, thoughts and scraps of extremely valuable information from people's minds as they are dreaming. That's right, he's a mind-thief. He's taking corporate espionage to a whole new level.
Cobb doesn't work alone. Shared dreaming is a complicated endeavor, so he assembles teams to assist with the robberies. You need people such as "The Architect" to build the dream and "The Dreamer" to actually house the dream's events. Then there is the mark, unaware that in their dream lurks people who seek to do them ill. With helpful chemical compounds and a nestle of wires attached to the nervous system, a group of people can enter a single dream and retrieve whatever it is they are paid to find.
Or, they can plant ideas into the victim's mind, a much more difficult task called "inception." To do this properly, the team cannot enter a single dream and whisper sweet nothings in the target's ear as they are in REM delirium. No, "inception" requires the team to go deeper into the abyss: A dream within a dream within a dream. Three levels takes an extra strong potion, and the drugs create real danger for the dreamers -- die in the dream and you don't wake up, your mind is dropped into a void of nothingness for a long time.
"Inception" is what Cobb & Co. are assigned to do by a wealthy, powerful Japanese man (Ken Watanabe) who dangles the ultimate carrot for Cobb: the ability to return home. There's a lot of money in being a mind-thief, but Cobb is doing it for the most sentimental reason -- to see the faces of his two children. Such begins a highly complicated, layered story of attempting to go into a person's brain to spawn a small, simple idea in a convincing enough way to where they believe they thought of it.
This is the crib note version of Inception.
There are good and bad things about Inception -- let's start with the positives. The action sequences are jaw-droppingly amazing spectacles to behold. Shootouts are pedestrian filmmaking these days so those scenes didn't impress me much. But there is a section of the film that involves traditional gunplay, anti-gravity action and slow-motion that is stunning in its shared execution of editing, production design, performance, pounding ominous score and CGI across multiple levels of dream states. Wow.
A couple of my favorite ideas in the film are the security firms who specialize in "militarizing" a client's mind, reducing the risk from dream thievery. You think bodyguards are bad-ass in reality? Wait until you see how they can protect you in a dream.
Another captivating thing is the underground dream dens that sort of resemble 19th Century opium dens. Nolan, born in 1970, has likely read some cyberpunk science fiction from the 1980s at some point and these dens harken to that genre. Nolan's switched virtual reality for dreams, but many of the concepts in Inception are the same. The notion of why people would want to live in the real world versus the dream world is taken directly from cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.
The problem with the film is that Nolan stuffs so much detail in the story that it's a challenge to stay current with everything coming at the audience. There's so many ideas flying by it's hard to keep up with the rules of dream thievery, the made-up science, the psychological ramifications and what level of dream we are watching. Nolan has solved this problem for us though: When things get really confusing on the screen, he has simply written some dialogue that will explain what is going on.
I'm not sure I've seen a film recently with so many prominent characters spouting lines that exist only to keep the audience in the loop. I hated that.
In Nolan's 2000 film Momento, a mind-boggler if there ever was one, he was completely satisfied to have the story puzzle us. A decade later and Nolan wants to unsettle but will cover his tracks when possible. I would have preferred the utter confusion of "what in the hell is going on" to having Ellen Page's cutesy naif "Architect" character recite line after line so the masses won't have to work so hard.
Inception has me in a quandary. The film is artistic, ambitious, incredibly well-crafted and at times riveting, yet I just can't ignore the frustrating and force-fed nature of the script. Christopher Nolan wanted to dazzle us with a multiple layered maze of the mind, but he never lets us completely become lost in the subconscious world he's created. I wanted to be lost. Even if I was confused as the events of the film unraveled. Isn't that what a dream is really like?
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