Fame can often be a mixed blessing, the sword of Damocles hanging above a director’s head as they slowly scale the heights of critical and commercial success. As with Martin Scorsese and even Woody Allen, now it infects the work of Christopher Nolan, attracting adoration that may not be entirely warranted.
With his newest work “Inception”, Nolan builds upon previously examined themes and tools in order to present to us a united vision, a conglomerate of his past successes. Despite all the usual fanboy attention, it is important to remember that this picture is a superior experience, but by no means a perfect one.
We are introduced Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, thieves capable of inserting themselves into the dream of another and extracting information or ideas from their mark. These scenarios involve a “point man”, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an architect who constructs the dream world around them, Nash (Lukas Haas). Pain in this world is experienced like that in waking life, however death results in a person simply waking up. Recruited by Saito (Ken Watanabe) after a botched “audition”, he promises them a safe return back to the US if they can do the impossible, insert an idea into someone’s subconscious mind that they will act on as if it’s their own. The mark, the son of a late business rival of Saito’s, Robert Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy). To do so, Cobb is forced to recruit a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy) and a new architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), all the while dodging the memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard).
Sold as a heist movie in the classical sense, “Inception” never quite fits the bill, sprawling too far and wide for such a definition, in a lot of ways boiling down more to the amalgamation of “Memento” and “The Prestige”, another examination of the mind and possibility.
His previous motif of displaced time and place has evolved into layers of consciousness, bringing us further down the rabbit hole than “The Matrix” and its creators could have possibly written for. Each layer becomes more and more unstable, bringing the team and us with them further into what constructs our very beliefs, the ideas we believe form as individuals. The mind attacks intruders, those who seek to undo the dicta of reality each of us prescribe to.
However this does completely gel with the given formula. Whereas a standard heist movie will often have multiple misdirections operating at one time before the final reveal, the director’s change of direction causes often unnecessary confusion. Levels run both consecutively and concurrently, leading to an often frantic pacing and level of action capable of overloading with Nolan having lost control.
Inextricably linked are our emotions, a concept Nolan is not entirely comfortable with. Adding such personal detail to the already complex slight of hand means that both suffer slightly; Mal and Cobb’s relationship often comes across as overly saccharine and the cathartic revelation added to the film’s crescendo does not mask it’s simplicity from the viewer and thus lacks real resonance.
Both DiCaprio and Cotillard work with the often limited scope and bring it beyond the simplistic writing it is often given, overall illustrating their powerful ability in front of the screen. They are helped by a supporting cast that, despite being familiar from previous Nolan projects, assumes their roles with a poise and confident swagger most other summer blockbusters can only dream of.
Never an advocate of CGI where it is unnecessary, Nolan has created a new level of integration for the film’s effects. Characters and entire cityscapes spin 360 degrees or collapse in upon themselves seamlessly. Where “Avatar” created visuals otherwise impossible using the newest of technologies, here it appears as if none at all were brought to the table, obliterating such showboating and redefining once again what it is we expect from the visual arts.
Viewed in conjunction with the attention “Inception” has garnered, it is impossible that it will ever live up to such high expectations. Here stands a movie that in spite of its faults, is an insightful and intelligent marriage of aesthetics and substance. If Nolan can consolidate his victory and work upon its shortcomings, he might just be as good as his press.