Dir: Christopher Nolan
Dreams have the ability to both fascinate and bore. When immersed in a dream, we can live a double-life, gifting ourselves with magical powers and conjuring friends and family long departed for just one more embrace. Our dreams can also be terrifying, maelstroms brought forth by the malevolent forces of fear, shame and dark secrets. However, when relating our dreams or when listening to the dreams of someone else, the power of actually dreaming it is no longer there. While filled with more ideas than most summer blockbusters, the experience of watching Inception is sort of akin of listening to someone tell you about an amazing dream they had, for more than two hours.
As Christopher Nolan, the director of the The Dark Knight and Memento has seen his reputation increase, he now leaves behind Caped Crusaders and dueling magicians and attempts to infuse a big Hollywood blockbuster with more heady ideas than we’ve seen in a film of this size since The Matrix. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, the leader of a team of saboteurs who enter people’s dreams as they sleep and convince them to divulge sensitive information and secrets. But dreamscapes are not rooted in reality and entering the mind of the dreamer is difficult for Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), especially when the dreamer’s subconscious mounts its own attack. Luckily, if you die while in a dream you just wake up. More on that later.
After a convoluted introduction that features more twists and double-crosses than an episode of “24″ (and not in a good way), Nolan settles down to inform us of the film’s plot: Cobb is hired by business magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) to infiltrate the mind of competitor Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer, Jr. not to extract information, but to implant a notion. Unfortunately, this is a much more difficult task, where Cobb must not only enter the dreamer’s subconscious, but the dreams within the dreams of the dreams. Woof! Oh yeah, when you’re in that deep, you don’t just wake up if you’re killed.
Once Inception moves into its second half and we enter Fischer’s dreams, the film becomes a taut exercise in suspense where things that occur during one level of consciousness trickle down and affect all the other layers. Nolan masterfully weaves all these elements together, creating a second act that is breathtaking, suspenseful and thought-provoking.
Unfortunately, it takes us a good hour for us to get there. First, we must learn why DiCaprio’s character is such a brooding mess (his wife died and she still haunts his subconscious), Cobb must assemble and train his team (including the out of place Ellen Page) and elude some baddies that have half-baked intentions at best. But what proves truly deadly to the film’s first half is the lack of wonder we should feel as Nolan takes us through dreams where landscapes shift like an Escher painting and characters defy gravity. Instead, Inception remains coolly clinical in its presentation without an ounce of humor or marvel. Cobb says it himself when hiring Page’s character, luring her with the chance to “build cathedrals, entire cities. Things that couldn’t exist in the real world.” What a missed opportunity.
Also problematic is DiCaprio’s character. Hewing quite closely to the brooding and anguished role he played earlier this year in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Inception’s Cobb is broody and anguished from dealing with a similar tragedy. DiCaprio has been making brave choices in the last decade, eschewing the poster boy he could have become following Titanic, but how about picking a role with some levity next time? It’s wearing thin.
While there may be a lot of complaints in this review, I do not want to imply I disliked Inception. The second half is exciting and there are more ideas going here than in the typical summer popcorn flick. However, for all the advance buzz and critical kow-towing assigned Christopher Nolan, I remember another film from years ago that explored the same thin line between dreaming and waking life. Total Recall may have aged, but it is loaded with the infectious energy Inception lacks. Movies are supposed to be like dreams, pauses from the garish light of reality. Inception could use a little more dreamer in its dreams.