Don Cobb (DiCaprio) has a very special skill - he can invade your dreams in order to steal your most precious secrets. But when he is approached by a mysterious business man and charged instead with planting an idea he puts himself and his team at risk to get one last shot at making it home to his family.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page
We delved into the mysteries behind Inception in our cover feature last issue, hoping and praying that it would be the film to save an otherwise bitterly disappointing summer at the multiplex. And it's undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year but falls a little short of the masterpiece it might have been.
Director Christopher Nolan is quickly becoming synonymous with a different kind of mass appeal film, altogether darker and more thematically dense than your average summer action effort. After experimenting with efforts like Batman Begins and The Prestige, his unique niche reached its peak with 2008's The Dark Knight - arguably the most impressive mainstream exploration of a comic book character ever mounted. It was a massive success and ensured carte blanche for the 40 year old London-born filmmaker.
Nolan took the opportunity to return to an idea which had been percolating in his mind for decades, eventually turning it into his first self-wrought screenplay since 1998s Following. The result was Inception.
The films closest cinematic analogue is almost certainly The Matrix; both deal with dense concepts using blockbuster sleight of hand to inveigle their way into mass consciousness. Arguably, Inception is the more complex film - although it lacks the philosophical underpinnings of the Wachowski Brothers opus, the stacked layers of dream and reality become almost overwhelming. And throughout, protagonist Cobb's goal remains clear if a tad generic - one last job so he can get home to those he loves. As the team delve deeper and deeper into the subjects mind and the stakes get higher, there's the promise of an emotional pay-off far more intense than anything in the The Matrix.
But it doesn't come. Throughout his career, Nolan has made some memorable and fascinating films, always stylishly shot and constructed with accessible twists that carefully nudge the audience from one revelation to the next. Inception continues the trend, blending some awe-inspiring CG-assisted visuals with impressive real life locations and effects and some truly extraordinary production design. The editing is Oscar-worthy and the sound design works perfectly with Hanz Zimmer's thrumming score to create the tone of the dreamworld poised on the precipice of a nightmare. The concept, too, is utterly compelling - leaning heavily on exposition in the first act to ensure that everyone understands the rules of the dreamstate and the effects of going deeper down the rabbit-hole. It's all set up for a marvellously convoluted action sequence which brings together character and pyrotechnics into a stunning 20 minute, cross-cutting finale.
It's endlessly impressive from a technical standpoint - whether in terms of the machinations of the script or the carefully planned effects and design work - and it plays with your brain like a maniacal pianist but, unfortunately, rarely plucks at the heartstrings. Nolan still hasn't got a handle on bringing emotion to his films. Cobb's journey in the film is archetypal and his relationship with his wife has the potential to be truly heart-rending but we never feel for Cotillard the way we did for the despairing Michelle Williams in last year's Shutter Island. Likewise, there's no attempt to build up the personas of the supporting cast to highlight their plight in the final act and the supposed central thread of father/son relationships (between Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite) relies on weak symbolism rather than actual emotional weight.
Nolan also has serious problems with action scenes and set pieces, possibly stemming from the fact that he refuses to use a second unit, directing every scene himself. There are several conceptually brilliant set pieces in Inception, culminating in the gravity-defying corridor fight featuring Joseph-Gordon Levitt. It's a perfect action scene - reinforcing story elements using hyper-kinetic filmmaking but its shot terribly, with no sense of the momentum of the constantly shifting walls and hacked to pieces in editing. And a large scale, snow bound battle in the final scenes is just tiresome, with angles and choreography more befitting a TV show.
These elements certainly don't spoil the film, it's just curious to find two sweeping issues in a filmmaker this acclaimed. But Inception is all about the ideas, in the grand tradition of the science-fiction form, and they are extraordinarily well put together. So much so that the characters become somewhat secondary, even DiCaprio isn't given room to engage while others in the ensemble are wasted - including Cillian Murphy and a too short cameo from Michael Caine. Elsewhere, Paige seems like she might be the emotional core of the group but never makes an impression, Ken Watanabe is hard to understand and Levitt tries hard in one of the films better roles but is given too little screen time. Tom Hardy manages to make himself memorable by some forced humour, something lacking in the rest of the film, and Cotillard's character is too conflicted to connect with the audience.
Inception is a wonderful technical achievement and a thoroughly gripping piece of cinema, particularly while you are in the throes of its brain teasing final act. But it lacks the deeper resonance which could have made it a masterpiece, the humanity which would have made Cobb's plight heart-breaking to behold. The Dark Knight may have been over-ambitious but the epic sweep and themes of myth and the endless struggle between good and evil were perfectly suited to the scale of the production, matched and surpassed by Ledger's blistering performance. It's a summer blockbuster that will stand the test of time. As Inception's surprisingly generic ending unfolds, you'll feel a surge of relief that the overpowering, multi-layered action has come to a close but the emotion is sorely lacking. Certainly the best of a bad summer, but nothing more.