Bogged down by ambition, the thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio barely misses greatness.
“Too much is not enough” should be the motto of writer-director Christopher Nolan, the Fanboy Savior of the Universe who singlehandedly rescued Batman from erstatz camp oblivion while spending his off-time reworking Sudoku puzzles into icily brilliant cinematic whatzits, a la The Prestige.
His breakthrough art-house hit Memento traveled backwards through an amnesiac’s tortured mind, and Nolan is singularly obsessed with mashing up the syntax of conventional thrillers, rearranging a shattered time-frame to match the doomed M.O. of his tragic leading men.
Inception is the kind of weirdo pet project that could only happen in the wake of The Dark Knight, when somebody lands a couple hundred million dollars for helming one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, no questions asked. It’s an expansive brain-fuck rooted in base genre satisfactions—half Solaris, half Matrix. Simultaneously goofy and inspired, Inception is a thrilling, ultimately exhausting headlong rush through its creator’s science-minded pulp fatalism.
If Nolan only knew when to say when, it might have been a masterpiece.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a sullen corporate espionage agent, slinking around Kyoto stealing valuable information from Captains of Industry by infiltrating their dreams. We get vague hints that this began as a military project gone awry, but in the meantime Leo and his devilishly handsome mercenary counterparts cruise from one subconscious to another in meticulously plotted Danny Ocean capers, absconding with dark secrets and viable intel.
He’s got a bad past, parceled out Nolan-style in fragmented flashbacks. DiCaprio’s unfortunately named Dom Cobb cannot return to America, for reasons that will be explained later. After a gig gone bad, a shady Japanese energy tycoon (Ken Watanabe) offers an ultimatum, clearing our protagonist’s name with the authorities in exchange for an impossible mission.
Inception—hence the title—is the act of planting an idea in your target’s dreamscape, then having them wake up and claim it as their own. Most folks say it can’t be done, but wounded DiCaprio knows better: He did it once, with heartbreaking results. What was I saying about that tortured backstory?
Cobb enlists a rogue’s gallery of shady, scene-stealing supporting characters to torment and reshape the mind of a feckless heir to a massive conglomerate (Cillian Murphy) by manipulating his dreams.
This should play like a regular heist picture, but Nolan’s most brilliant flourish is to establish the concept of dreams-within-dreams—jumbling the movie’s separate realities into one continuous suspense sequence. It keeps several action scenes happening simultaneously, with the same characters starring in four discrete dimensions.
I could have done fine with three. Four starts to feel like overkill.
Inception is a huge movie full of meaty ideas and eye-popping special-effects, yet much like Dark Knight, the go-for-broke ambition becomes a bit of a grind. Nolan doesn’t know when to stop, adding layer after layer and twist after twist, until the entire third act becomes characters shouting exposition and arbitrary rules over one another, seemingly making it up as they go.
Bronson’s Tom Hardy nearly carries the picture away on burly nonchalance, while effortlessly suave Joseph Gordon-Levitt is granted a zero-gravity fight scene that plays out like Fred Astaire inside the Matrix. It damn near brought down the house at my screening.
But it’s DiCaprio’s suffering that keeps Inception grounded. Peering out behind those anxious eyes in a dreamland redux of his Shutter Island dementia—so much so that a handful of Scorsese’s signature shots are eerily echoed here—he’s a hero racked by guilt and falling apart at the seams.
Nolan’s a cool-cucumber filmmaker who understands slick precision and mathematical exactitude. He needed to finally meet an actor like DiCaprio, who gives Inception its messy, troubled soul.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Running time: 148 minutes