james debate
james debate

Saturday 24 July 2010

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page
Release date(s) Out Now
Running time 148 minutes

Christopher Nolan is one of the hottest names in cinema right now following his reinvention of the Batman franchise, a hype which has reached fever pitch in the wake of the Oscar winning The Dark Knight. This summer he intends to conquer Hollywood again with his most ambitious project to date, Inception.

I have been waiting for this one for a long time, ever since I first heard about it at around the time that the Dark Knight hit the cinemas. But for writer/director Chris Nolan the wait has been far longer, apparently 10 years in the making. What began as a random musing for Nolan while filming underrated classic Memento has blossomed into what is easily the must see film of summer 2010, and after his recent success the anticipation is great.

In the run up to this film's release I had been actively trying to avoid information about the plot. So if you follow a similar practice then skip past this paragraph, where I will be detailing the story and concept. Nolan crafts for us a world where dreams can be picked like any safe and secrets stolen from within, and the battleground for corporate warfare has shifted into the realm of the mind. Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) plays one such "extractor", a man with a deceptively complicated past much like the role DiCaprio played in Shutter Island earlier this year. Cobb and his team are hired to pull off something that's never been done before (or has it?), planting an idea into someone's mind.

Now I have to admit, after the first 15 minutes or so I was worried. The opening scenes felt very weak to me, lacking in heart and throwing an awful lot at you. I don't mean this in the sense that it was difficult to follow, more that it just felt rushed with quick disorienting shots and an overabundance of action right from the off without really giving us any sense of character. It also didn't help that they jumped straight into the "Is it a dream? Is it a dream within a dream? Is it me dreaming or him dreaming?" twists, it was laid on very heavily and at first I was pretty worried that I was going to be watching a very long episode of the Outer Limits. Clearly I should have had more faith in the gifted film maker/writer that is Christopher Nolan, and for that I apologise profusely. As soon as this opening sequence is over the film really gets started and from then on it just gets better and better.

The mythology can at first seem pretty daunting, but the film does a very good job of getting you up to speed and making it an entertaining learning process on the mechanics of the dream extraction process. These scenes and the internal logic of this world flow surprisingly well and really does hold up to scrutiny (in most cases) and it quickly becomes clear that the intention here is to make you think, more than to simply dazzle you with confusing concepts and arbitrary twists.

Equally impressive are the visuals at work here. Some shots are really quite spectacular, like the twisting, constantly changing streets of Paris, or the crumbling ruins of the inner recesses of DiCaprio's mind. Combine this with some fantastic action set pieces, notably a skiing chase scene and a zero gravity fight, and you have all the ingredients for a summer blockbuster. But once again, Nolan's true gift is how he manages to combine the visceral with the cerebral. The plot is crafted in such a meticulously thought provoking and intentionally ambiguous way (in particular the astoundingly perfect ending) that it is sure to provoke debate and discussion for months and maybe years.

In this regard, Inception really goes above and beyond the call of duty. The concept of dream invasion is not new for sci-fi, but Nolan manages to make it seem fresh and unique. One expects the inevitable philosophical discussion over the nature of reality vs dream that comes with the territory, but Nolan adds another angle to it, one that's personal and emotionally engaging.

At it's core this is a film that's as much about human nature and subconscious repression as about dreams and reality. We learn what really drives the protagonist, Cobb, and delve deeper into the baggage that simultaneously holds him back and serves as his one constant in a world that's constantly changing.

For this to work as well as it does, a lot of credit must go to Leonardo DiCaprio who delivers his finest performance yet in a career that continues to rise. DiCaprio drives everything about this film, it is the depth of feeling in his performance that allows the audience to become absorbed in what is otherwise hardcore science fiction. He needed to provide the emotional investment in order for this movie to succeed, and he has. It's not an ostentatious or hammy enough performance to earn the attention of the Academy, but it's perfect for the purpose of this movie.

DiCaprio is the star, but special credit really needs to be given to the rest of the cast. One of the first things that attracted my attention to this film was the lineup of quality actors, and they really produce a remarkable ensemble performance.

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard gives a haunting and beautiful performance as Cobb's wife Mal, and is never anything other than spellbinding when on screen.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who you may remember as the kid from 10 Things I Hate About you and 500 Days of Summer, takes an unexpected turn as an action star. This takes a bit of time to get used to for anyone who recognises him, but he actually pulls it off, and is dependable as what is essentially a sidekick.

Fresh from her Oscar nomination for Juno, Ellen Page reminds us that she really is a talented young actress, as well as extremely cute. Anyone who has ever seen the likes of Hard Candy knows that Page has never been afraid to step outside of her comfort zone, and she does so once again here in a genre with which she is unfamiliar.

I make a note of these four in particular, but really every role is performed to an extremely high quality. The likes of Michael Caine, the always watchable Cillian Murphy and yet another previous Oscar nominee in Ken Watanabe, all deserve massive praise. Tom Hardy finds his breakthrough role playing the closest this film has to a comic relief character, and carrying it off with aplomb. Really this is the best ensemble cast I've seen in many many years, and they all deserve credit for it.

The cast is indeed fantastic, and as has already been said, the film is spectacularly well made by Chris Nolan. But additional praise needs to be given to a key part of this top notch production, Hans Zimmer and his brilliant score. Zimmer has a great many noteworthy films to his name in his long and illustrious career as a composer, but this is arguably his most complete production yet. Not just aurally, but thematically. For example this score quite brilliantly uses elements from a certain Édith Piaf song which has a significant role in the film that I won't spoil here. At times beautiful, melancholy and powerful, the score is an integral factor in drawing the audience into the emotion of the story, and the climactic finish to the film provides an example of some of his finest work.

But this is not a perfect film. As I mentioned the opening scenes were weak at best, silly at worst although it wouldn't surprise me if they were more palatable on repeat viewing. While the script is generally good, at times I found it very lacking in subtlety, particularly in the scenes where Page's Ariadne pushes Cobb for details on his past. These scenes just don't flow, they don't feel like real conversations, and the characters often just blurt out detailed analyses of their deepest thoughts. These scenes are largely aberrant, however, and for the most part dialogue is deftly put together, especially as the film goes on.

Another slightly nitpicky annoyance for me as a man who spent 4 years at medical school is that much of the mechanics of the plot seems to be based around a woeful misconception on how that "kick" feeling when you're on the verge of sleep actually works. Long story short it's not really anything to do with balance and more related to breathing and oxygen intake. But this is a film, so i'll let it go.

Rarely does a film take me from extreme disappointment to extreme joy in two and a half hours, even rarer is it for the film to fully vindicate all its weaknesses (which are few in this film) with such a fantastic total package. Inception is easily the best movie so far this year, and probably the best yet from Nolan. You have to see this.

Great cast
Great production and score
Chris Nolan, awesome

Occasionally weak script
Poorly handled opening

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