Before I begin this review, I have a confession to make.
I am a Cinema Cheerleader.
By that, I do not mean that I gobble up every movie spewed into the marketplace. It means that when I think a film is great…I mean a truly great work of art…I will exhaust myself talking about it and praising it and harping on what makes it so good. It means that I enjoy hailing great films far more than I enjoy deriding bad ones. It’s common in film writing and criticism to take particular pleasure in tearing apart the work of others. This often comes from both a desire to assert one’s own intellectual superiority and, far too often, a need to massage a seething envy beneath the profession of many film writers, many of whom sought another role for themselves in the cinematic landscape before they “settled into” criticism. I love movies, and I love it when a film is great. If it’s not, I’ll note its shortcomings and recommend against it and move on. Simple enough.
There aren’t many great films. In a given year, when hundreds of titles are released in the United States, there might be 6 or 7 great films. Of that number, there may be one or two true masterpieces. My definition of a masterpiece is a film of consummate creative vision, one that could be created by no one else but one filmmaker. It’s a film that will endure the test of time, and most important of all, it’s a film that changes the way in which you perceive your world. These films are truly special, and they often require a degree of foresight to identify when they first come out. Again, in a given year, you may see only one.
That was a mighty long intro, so I’ll get right into it.
Inception is a masterpiece.
It’s a work of such focused, inspired vision and towering creative power that I believe it will quickly sear its place in the American cinematic canon, even if that exact place isn’t clear until years from now. In that regard, it may well hold a similar fate to Blade Runner, a film to which it bears some resemblances and whose meager box office returns Warner Bros. surely hopes to far outdo. But director Christopher Nolan even one-ups Ridley Scott, because as great as Blade Runner is, its greatness ultimately lies in the mind of author Phillip K Dick. Inception is the artistic property of Nolan. He imagined the idea and he developed the film’s universe with remarkable precision and care. He’s created something far too rare in this era of endless sequels and TV-show spinoffs. He’s created something original. Original and stunningly beautiful.
The plot, as you surely know, involved dreams. It revolves around an “extractor” named Cobb (DiCaprio), who along with his team uses a new technology that allows people to create and then inhabit the dreams of others, often with the hope of stealing important ideas from their subconscious without their knowing. But for reasons I won’t spoil here, Cobb must perform an even more daring feat. He must perform “inception,” the planting of an idea in the mind. Sounds simple, right? Far from it. For inception is planting the mental equivalent of a virus, a ravenous creation that can come to define a person’s entire sense of self. This dream-play isn’t just games in a fantasy land. This is an extremely high-stakes gambit, and those stakes become higher in ways both horrific in their implications and constantly surprising in their nature.
Nolan is interested in dreams not as a chance to show off his imagination or to circumvent reality, but as a means of exploring what the human mind is truly capable of when the filters are taken out. He’s probing the deep recesses of our mind because it is there that we find the deep recesses of ourselves, and while he opines that those two worlds exist in nearly equal existential space, perhaps it’s separating the two realms that allows us to keep ourselves, and our souls, intact. Our mind is a vastly powerful place, but also an incredibly dangerous one. When you search the depths for secrets, you will likely find things you don’t want to find, and if you search down too many roads, there’s a good chance you’ll get lost. This is science fiction in the greatest and most relevant sense. True science fiction explores the ways in which our technological steps impact our very humanity. In Inception, we have been given the ability to consciously explore the subconscious parts of ourselves that may, in many instances, be better off buried. It’s a decision for us to make, ideas for us to explore, but that can only be achieved through the narrative journey we undertake. This is explosive science fiction art, assured in its execution and maddeningly yet brilliantly open in its resolution, all in service of opening a gate that we must enter, at great risk not to our physical bodies, but to the infinite rabbit hole of our mind. This will survive among the great science fiction canon, a collection of masterpieces often overlooked or misunderstood by myopic critics and the melodramatic snobbery of the art establishment. It will survive the way 2001 and Blade Runner have survived. And it couldn’t do so if it explored its ideas at the expense of its humanity. How much more human can you get than at the center of the human mind? In discussing art and entertainment, people often separate the “heart” from the “mind,” and Nolan’s career masterstroke has been recognizing that they inhabit the same residence, interacting in the same sphere and constantly threatening each other with destruction.
In his films, Nolan walks a precarious tightrope when it comes to character. On the page, one could fairly call his human creations thinly drawn, and thus the casting of his roles is of paramount importance. And part of Nolan’s brilliance is painting his characters with just enough cracks so that great actors can fill them in and create something amazing, and Nolan is secure enough to give them plenty of room to do so. His scripts don’t give actors blustery monologues or screen-humping Oscar lines (with possible exception of the Joker, but how many people foresaw the killer clown walking off with an Oscar?). But what he does give them to say can be so much more understated and meaningful in the right hands. And finding the right hands is something Nolan and his casting people so incredibly well. They find confident, assured actors willing to embrace the complicated worlds in which they’re placed, and the actors take full advantage of the opportunity.
Thus it would seem a perfect opportunity for Leonardo DiCaprio, a remarkable talent and a mature thespian still exploring the true depths of his abilities. This might be his most challenging role yet, and he responds by turning in one of his greatest performances. It isn’t a performance that will immediately stand out to you. It isn’t marked by hysterical camera-hogging or the old Method flourishes. It’s an incredibly grounded portrayal, filled with simmering guilt and instability barely hidden beneath a very fragile strong-man veneer. DiCaprio specializes in this type of role, but this is different from similar turns in Shutter Island and The Departed. Here he isn’t allowed to merely crack at the seams and look tortured. He must maintain a believable yet precarious composure as he plunges through the depths of his own mind, his anxieties expressed through dazzling dream-world visual cues rather than ostentatious fits and melodramatic preening. He must keep this film grounded in a human reality, or the house of cards will fall. And his success is a real wonder of screen acting that won’t fully be appreciated until repeat viewings. He keeps us there. He keeps us believing, even as reality comes apart.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. The parts outside of DiCaprio’s Cobb aren’t given much meat on the bones and it’s a miracle that the respective players breathe so much life into them. We feel Ellen Page’s wonderment at the power of mental creation. We feel the pain of Cillian Murphy’s tormented billionaire with daddy issues, as hard as that is to make sympathetic. We’re emboldened by the stern professionalism of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s Arthur, even as we’re unnerved by his thinly veiling fear. These are real people working in an unreal realm, and without them populating Nolan’s meticulously designed subconscious landscape, it wouldn’t mean a thing to us. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the stunning Marion Cotillard, who is fitted with a role so simple and yet so challenging that watching her haunt both our dreams and those of Cobb is a chilling and enthralling experience. These are great actors fitted perfectly to their roles, and Nolan’s team has pulled off another remarkable feat of casting.
There a few greater pleasures in cinema than watching Nolan’s dazzling yet obsessively disciplined visuals. He has such a firm, exact vision and uses only the tools he needs, creating incredibly assured set-pieces marked by a lack of overcooking and an emphasis on real stunt work over CGI. He will use computer visuals to fulfill his greater ambitions, but they are clearly a last resort. Here is a filmmaker in complete command of his effects, perhaps even more so than Steven Spielberg, and the result is a fascinating and thrilling cinematic universe that doesn’t lose us by dipping too far into creative masturbation (a la Tim Burton). Some have complained that Inception’s dreamscapes are too controlled, missing too many of the wild flourishes the mind is capable of when we’re asleep. But that’s exactly the point. These characters are artificially creating an artificially subconscious space in an attempt to blend the real world and the dream world. If they fail at that, then their objective is failed, and so is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement….the melding of worlds and the illustration of how thin the barrier really is between our perceived reality and the reality created through the wondrous powers of our mind. The two can crash into each other with devastating effect, and the consequences could be as severe as the entire loss of self. The visuals support this potent premise rather than overshadow it. Once again, as fantastic and enthralling as his films often are, it’s Nolan’s restrain that proves to be his best friend.
Just like The Dark Knight, the film is a technical marvel. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is astonishing, achieving a deft balance of harsh realism and the disturbingly fantastical. His career-long collaboration with Nolan has been a fruitful one, and cinema fans can sleep easy knowing they’ll likely be together for a long time to come. The editing of David Lee might end up the film’s most underappreciated accomplishment. In a film this complex, the editing has to be top-of-the-line, and what Lee pulls off, especially in the last hour, should be an Oscar front-runner and will be admired by those in the industry for decades. And filling the film, as well as our dreams long after we’ve seen the film, is Hans Zimmer’s spectacular score. Understated and wondrous at times and then horrific and haunting at others, it should also be tabbed as an Oscar front-runner. The decision to mark the deepest layer of the dream world with thunderous horns and martial percussions is a brilliant one, casting the surreal visuals of this forlorn netherworld with a note befitting the opening of the gates of Hell.
And that’s perfectly suited to Nolan’s wondrous search into the treacherous depths of the mind. For if the mind is the true lair of the human soul, then it is deep within that we find the keys to salvation, and the gates of oblivion. Inception takes us deep, and then deeper still. Cherish the ride.