I totally loved The Dark Knight. Screw anyone who didn't; I thought it deserved every critical rave it got, as well as every one of the $1 billion-plus dollars it earned at the box office. And that's the really amazing thing, that such a dark and uncompromising film could also turn out to be so universally popular. The lion's share of the credit has to go to writer-director Christopher Nolan; although his brother Jonathan and David Goyer contributed to the screenplay, it was Nolan's direction that took a typically dark Batman story (typical, in that the comics had been doing it for decades) and faithfully - and very effectively - translated it into film. A film that I'd gladly give 5 stars to.
Inception gets 4-½ stars from me. But goddamn, who's counting?
Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an "extractor", a corporate spy who utilises futuristic technology to enter people's dreams and steal secrets from their subconscious. He is hired by a very wealthy and powerful man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform a wholly different job - that of inception, planting an idea into another person's subconscious in such a way as to make them believe the idea was their own. Most people think this is impossible, but Cobb accepts and begins assembling his team: point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and newcomer and "dream architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page). Their mark is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a billion-dollar corporate empire and Saito's business rival. But Cobb's subconscious is haunted by traumatic memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose manifestations threaten to wreak havoc with an already difficult job.
I feel it best to posit a warning for those intending to watch this movie: be prepared for people talking in the cinema. I've seen it twice now (and yes, that does put it in rare company), and both times there was someone in my audience who kept explaining the movie to their companions. Are you an inattentive viewer? When you go to the movies, do you think nothing of munching noisily on snacks, carrying a conversation with your friend or on the phone, or stepping out for a pee/cigarette/leg-stretching break? If you are, then do not watch this movie. This is a film that requires concentration. It demands your fullest attention. It necessitates you to continually think about what you're being shown and told. Which, by the way, is the proper way to watch a film, although films that reward this kind of mental investment are rare. And Inception's rewards are myriad and immensely rewarding. (Also, if you are that kind of viewer, screw you, and stay the hell away from any cinema I go to. And if instead you are the kind of viewer who likes to show off how smart you are during the movie, screw you too.)
But as complex as it is, and it is a very complex movie, it's still pretty accessible - provided you are able to pay attention. It lays out all the rules of the dreamworld(s) in elegant ways - expositional dialogue worked into scenes in which the plot continues moving forward, and/or there's something interesting happening on screen. The first time Cobb takes Ariadne on a tour of the dreamscape is the most obviously explaining-things-to-the-audience scene, and that's the one with the spectacularly trailer-and-poster-worthy scene of an entire city folding back on itself. It's only after the midway point of the film, in which the heist finally begins, that all these rules are demonstrated - and broken - in deliciously twisty ways. But while I'm still puzzling out all the details of its mind-bogglingly meticulous plot, the basic storyline remains clear and engaging throughout.
Because I guarantee you this: it all makes sense. Trust me. I know movies that tried to get all deep and complicated and failed to make sense, but this isn't one of them. It never lost me - in fact, I was constantly open-mouthed in awe throughout the film. Yes, Avatar did that to me too with its amazing visuals; Inception did it to me with both amazing visuals and amazing ideas. The dream-Paris scene had me awestruck even before the folding-over, because of Cobb's running explanation of how dream-sharing works. And then there are the legitimately awesome scenes, such as the hotel hallway fight scene, first with its constantly-shifting gravity, and then with zero gravity. Whoo. That. Was. An. Awesome scene, and I can guarantee you've never seen anything like it before. It's stuff like this that qualifies Nolan into the hall of all-time great film directors; he can make an effective blockbuster film, with plenty of action and spectacle and special effects, and still base it on fascinating ideas and genuine human drama.
And yes, there is genuine human drama in this film. I've heard Nolan criticized as being an emotionally cold director, but I don't think that's true; the emotions in his films are dark, not cold. Cobb reconciling with his memory of Mal is front and center in the story, but only a little to the periphery is the subplot of Fischer reconciling with the memory of his father. This is executed with as much care and attention as the former, and neither would've worked as well without some terrific acting. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy are faultlessly convincing, even if Murphy gets the somewhat thankless role of the mark - and even if DiCaprio, perhaps coincidentally, does a redux of his traumatised widower performance from Shutter Island (a film that is, perhaps coincidentally, similar to this one in more than one way). The rest of the cast are all charismatic performers who imbue their supporting roles with as much flair as they are allowed, but the standout is Marion Cotillard. Whoo, she is terrific - hers is the most emotionally complex role, and she not only pulls it off, she looks smokin' hot while doing it. No film with a performance like hers in it can be accused of being emotionally cold.
So why aren't I giving it 5 stars? For one reason alone: I felt that it started to drag towards the end, and that the editing there could've been tighter. (Whereas The Dark Knight had me gripped from start to finish.) But having read a number of negative reviews, I'll gladly defend it against any other criticism. Emotionally cold? No freaking way. The action scenes were lackluster? No, they were unremarkable but perfectly competent, and anyway, the hotel hallway fight scene, so there. The dreamscapes were mundane, and not as bizarre as we all know dreams can be? They're meant to be mundane, because the whole point is to fool someone into thinking it's real (on one level at least), and anyway the film already establishes that the more fantastical the dream gets, the more the subject rejects it. Mainly, my answer to these complaints would be that you can't have it all. What this film sets out to do, it does extremely well already, and I think that more than forgives the things it doesn't pay as much attention to - which, again, are perfectly competent at least.
Sigh... I know, my review is terribly late; most of you reading this would've seen it already. This has not been an easy one to write, and I doubt I did a very good job of it; I've been so caught up in discussing the movie, online and with friends, that I haven't given this review the attention it deserves. So let me close by saying this about Inception: you will discuss it. You will talk about it, right after you step out of the cinema and perhaps even days after. You will think about it - about the intricacies of its plot, about the rules of its dreamworld(s), about the themes and the issues it raises, and especially about the ending. (Whoo. What an ending.) And that's the beauty of this film; it makes you think, from the very first scene till the very last shot and long after. It's a film that proves that thinking about a film can be a terrific pleasure. So get on the forums, have long mamak-session debates, and talk about it till the cows come home. Better yet, watch it again. Prove to Hollywood that audiences are smart enough to enjoy smart movies, and that you want more of them.
NEXT REVIEW: Mantra
Expectations: Azhari Bloody Zain again