1. Christopher Nolan has been thinking about and working on his script for Inception for more than 15 years, so it’s difficult to blame for choosing this moment, in the wake of his Dark Knight triumph, to finally put his pet project together. After that movie, he’d be allowed to do whatever he wanted, so he chose this. I think that choice was a mistake. Not because the idea isn’t a great one — the movie certainly is not lacking in serious thought — but because he has taken a small, fascinating idea, and turned it into a cause for The Smart Person’s Summer Movie. He has made it too big. I certainly understand why Nolan would feel compelled to expand the scope: The man is nothing if not ambitious, and the idea of a multi-level Dream Heist movie, that also-oh-by-the-way attempts to deal with Man’s Psychological Displacement In The Universe, must have seemed too tantalizing a concept to resist. But blowing this up into such a grand scale alters our expectations, and Nolan’s obligations. It turns into a movie that is trying to do everything, and, ultimately, there are too many plates spinning.
2. One major problem with Inception is that, by the nature of the project, large, long sections of the movie are devoted to characters attempting, often in vain, to explain to us the complicated rules of the universe Nolan has created. The world of dream invasion — I can’t be the only person who kept humming a Dokken song in my head throughout the movie — is really complicated. (Honestly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character should just be called Exposition.) Let’s see what I remember. If you die in a dream, you wake up, unless you’re under sedation from some sort of crazy Dream Potion. (Dream Potions!) If you are in someone else’s dream, that person’s subconscious will try to push you out. You can trap memories in a dream, I think, as long as there is an elevator. One minute in the first level of dreams is 20 minutes in the second level and two hours in the third level. Or something. Some of this is compelling; I love how the extras in one’s dream all keep looking at the dream invader, ready to attack, a nightmare version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) But it’s just a lot, you know? The movie is so intent on making sure you understand all its rules — and I’m pretty sure I did understand them all, by the end — that it never really takes off and runs on its own. It would be like if, while Luke was attacking the Death Star, Obi Wan showed up and said, “OK, yeah, I forgot: Here’s another thing about The Force you need to understand.” I admire how intricate and fair Nolan is in creating all the rules, but it makes it hard to invest too much into the characters when they’re so busy furiously explaining what’s going on.
3. The plot is driven, Ocean’s 11-style, by a heist, an attempt by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Danny Ocean and his crew — The Extractor! The Architect! The Chemist! — to plant an idea in the head of a young heir (Cillian Murphy) that he should dissolve his father’s company so a rival company can own the market. That is to say: The Dream Warriors are simply there to pull off a corporate scheme. This is rather low-stakes for a multi-tiered-dream heist, and it makes you wonder why any of the crew (other than DiCaprio’s character, who is wanted for murder in America, where he wants to return to see his children) is even bothering to go through with it. The whole MacGuffin heist plot, which is the entire second half of the movie and the reason everyone is doing all this running around in the first place, isn’t particularly interesting: The father-son dynamic isn’t well fleshed out, and it’s not something the audience is particularly invested in. But it sure does lead to some dynamic action sequences, including a bravura section where Levitt is fighting in zero gravity as the dream world collapses around him. But it’s a lot of impressive noise about very little: It feels more like Nolan showing off that he doesn’t need 3-D or CGI to show you a grand time. He’s right, but we’re watching it, rather than experiencing it.
4. There is of course a love story, and here’s where Nolan the showman betrays Nolan the storyteller. DiCaprio’s character is a seasoned veteran of the dream landscape, and, at one point, he even spent several decades with his wife (Marion Cotillard) in the fourth dream-level, alone with a world of their own creation. This eventually drove her mad, and when they returned to the “real” world, she committed suicide, thinking that world unreal and that her death would lead them back to an actual existence. DiCaprio’s guilt drives him, and, in a nice touch, brings his wife — his “projection” of her — into the dream land, where she inevitably wreaks chaos in her attempts (or “his” attempts) to have the two of them live in dream land forever. This is an enticing concept: A man, haunted by dream memories of his dead wife, wrestling with whether or not to live in a happy fantasy world, or the dreary, tragic actual world. Unfortunately, as game as both actors are, their love story never quite breaks through the Epic Bigness happening around them. Their story becomes DiCaprio’s motivation, rather than his obsession: He needs to be more insane here, not the hero. We want to care about their relationship, and his attempt to let her go, and Nolan certainly wants us to, but the heart of it is lost among everything else. Nolan’s ambitions derail him: We want to engage ourselves in their story, or the heist story. He keeps trying to wrangle them together, and it makes us lose interest and faith in both. Each story is enough for a whole movie; both is too much.
5. I’m coming down harder on Inception than I mean to. This is a serious work, done by an undeniably talented artist, that is a massive attempt to thrill us, provoke us, move us and challenge us. That is to be admired, and Nolan certainly hasn’t gone wildly off the rails here. (It’s not a disaster: The man knows how to work an audience too well to completely lose us.) But it brings us back to our original point: Nolan’s eyes here were a little too big for his stomach. If he wanted to make a small personal movie about loss and memory and escaping into dreams, he should have made that. If he wanted to make a multifaceted dream heist movie, with a team of extractors leaping to and fro around the subconscious, he should have made that. But making both at the same time, while still making sure he wowed the audience with intricate set pieces? I appreciate that Nolan felt he was talented and deft enough to pull that off. If anyone could do it, it would be him. But I’m not sure anyone could. I’m not sure anyone should have tried. Grade: B-.
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