By Joseph Viney
Once every so often a film hits cinemas and changes the landscape forever. Whether it is through the use of special effects, star power, scripting or acting, some films are immediately lifted to the pantheon of greats and set a new precedent. The Matrix set the tone for post-millennial Hollywood with its dizzying mix of computer graphics, story and mythology building – at least until those two awful sequels surfaced. This past year may have witnessed two such landmark events. December 2009 saw the release of Avatar, the special effects spectacle that broke box-office records. Summer 2010 has Inception.
From the get go this is a film that exudes quality from every pore. It combines powerful acting and an intricate but engrossing storyline with gung-ho action sequences and one of the most original science fiction premises in years. Put that together with an Academy Award-winning cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite and we may well have a bonafide classic on our hands.
DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt are cast as Cobb and Arthur respectively, the two main players for a team of what would best be described as ‘dream warriors’. Under the guise of national security, shadowy corporate dealings and even personal gain, they infiltrate the dreamscapes of their targets and strive to extract information. Evidently, this is a job fraught with pitfalls. The dreamscapes exist within a fragile framework that can be destroyed or interrupted by the slightest mishap, be it physical intervention or the subconscious desires and repulsions of those involved. Death in the dream is expressed as re-awakening in the real world, largely similar to a computer game. This danger is prevalent throughout.
The film’s opening half hour gives the audience the unnerving distinction of being dumped directly into the middle of things with no real explanations being offered for how and why these people do what they do. Those with concentration and staying power are rewarded myriad times over with a hugely satisfying second and third act.
After the depiction of a failed mission in the film’s opening sequence, Cobb and Arthur are offered work by the mysterious Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito requests that the pair use the technique of inception, the planting of an idea in a target’s mind via an induced dream, on Robert Fischer, a corporate rival. Inception is a dangerous technique with limitless peril to those participating. Some even say that it is impossible.
Cobb, the epitome of a tortured soul, is a man on the edge. On the run from police for crimes unknown, he has been forced to sever all connections with his children and remains a fugitive at large, seeking solace in his own self-loathing and regret. Saito, a powerful corporate figurehead, offers Cobb the chance of redemption in the eyes of the law and the chance to see his children if the inception is completed. With nothing to lose, Cobb reluctantly agrees to the mission and assembles a team.
The supporting cast, though woefully under-developed, are a sprightly and contrasting group of characters. Ellen Page (Hard Candy) is recruited as a dream architect, the person responsible for creating dreamscapes. Named as Ariadne in the film, her namesake is the Greek mythological character who helped Theseus escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth; a subtle and very fitting characterisation. Her character is responsible for some of the more mind-bending special effects on display in the film; watching the city of Paris fold back in on itself through power of the mind alone is a triumph for the role of CGI in the modern blockbuster.
Eames (Tom Hardy) is a forger. His role is to impersonate people close to the target in the dream world, and manipulate them through emotions, bonding and memory. He conducts his business with a sharp tongue and similar fashion sense. As an aside, whenever Daniel Craig decides to hang up the tuxedo and Walther PPK, Hardy needs to be on a shortlist of replacements. He plays the role of Eames with the perfect combination of charm and subtle menace and after DiCaprio, offers the second best acting turn in the film.
Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) represents best the lack of development in the supporting cast. By virtue of the plot he should be one of the main characters but remains confined to the sidelines, his presence only serving to remind the audience that there is indeed a reason for the inception taking place. Fischer is easily manipulated, unlikeable and lacking in mental and physical strength. Though the film calls for him to be sympathised with, it is hard to warm to him.
As the inception begins, Cobb and his team face increasing danger. Fischer has been trained by anti-extractors and his subconscious is trained to repel invaders. Some marvellous imagination and scripting see Fischer’s training manifest itself in the dreamscape as a well-trained, relentless and blood thirsty army, facing Cobb and company at every turn with both firepower and ever increasing numbers.
A gripping and quite chilling sub-plot sees Cobb’s dead wife manifest in the dreamscapes beyond his control. His memories and love for her haemorrhage from his own subconscious into the dreams. Cobb and the rest of the team suffer greatly from her interventions. She haunts his mind, eager to delay or destroy the mission. Despite Cobb’s cool demeanour and his detachment from all around him, he remains haunted by his past and as the film reaches its climax the strain on him, mentally and physically, is starkly evident. In one particularly tense and near-terrifying scene, we accompany Cobb’s travels through his own subconscious; represented by levels in a tower block. Reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, Cobb’s mental deficiencies are broken down in layers and laid bare for the audience to see. As he reaches the final layer, the storage of a ghastly memory, the tension is the air is unbelievable.
Inception provides the rarest of treats; a film in which Hollywood seems to respect the audience’s intelligence. Director Christopher Nolan must take a large portion of credit for this. The man responsible for brain-melters like Memento and the intense character studies of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight has struck gold once more and must surely be able to name his price and double it.
From the start this film grips you. If the plot is too heavy, then the excellent action scenes will leave you breathless. Some of the acting on offer is top-notch and the originality of the storyline alone is enough to mark this out as film of the year. The only drawbacks to this otherwise excellent piece of cinema are the under-developed supporting characters and the weakness of the central plot. The reason for the inception itself is rather understated and seems to serve only as a last minute way in for the rest of the film.
Unlike many films, this one will have you tense, nervous and excited up until the very end. The final few seconds provide both a frustratingly open-ended yet hugely satisfying close and the promise of excited debate by cinemagoers for a long time to come. This is a dream that has been fully realised.
9 OUT OF 10
All images © 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.