In this heist film by psychological-thriller doyen, Christopher Nolan, we enjoy the usual action tropes of car crashes and chases, bomb explosions and shootouts, and bound-and-gagged targets yet we don’t find ourselves hanging off the edges of our sticky, popcorn-studded seats. We marvel at the creative CG action sequences and chilly dream landscapes. We get spectacular scenes of men running up and around spinning hotel hallways. The meaning of a “caper” in this film does extend to “frolicsome leap”. While we follow the characters as they fall into or get blown out from multiple dream planes throughout the dizzying dynamics of this dense plot architecture, there’s an echo of baroque vacuity. For an original piece of work that Nolan spent eight years on, Inception doesn’t pack the same suspenseful punch as Memento or Dark Knight and it surely does not lack in pyrotechnics.
Cobb (Leo DiCaprio) assembles his A-Team of oneiroanuts to aid Saito (Ken Watanabe), who challenges him to take down Robert Fischer Jr.’s inheritance of an energy corporation through the inception of an idea in his dreams. I’d call it Operation Enron. In this escapade, he is ball and chained by the ghost of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). So, he enlists astute (incoming Greek reference!!) Ariadne (Ellen Page), who will act as our straight, sympathizing character. The film stars an impressive cast with quality acting and the occasion nod to prior movie roles such as the echo of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regretted rein” Marion sings in La Vie En Rose and the brown bag thrown over Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy) who played the Scarecrow in Nolan’s Dark Knight. There’s even an amusing placement of Dileep Rao from Drag Me to Hell as the exotic shop-owner of an apothecary of strange potions. I call, No racial!
For a dream film that acts as an allegory for filmmaking in the same manner as 8 ½, the problem isn’t that it’s too complicated. The cast, especially Ms. Page, explains things to us. Inception is imbued with strange tensions severed from the rules and empathies of reality so we watch it as we do a Luis Bunuel film or any film that operates within dream laws and mechanics. An awkward relationship exists in the joining of the heist and the dream film genres. Paraphrasing a line from the film itself, the meta- story-in-a-story plot does not make it deeper if there aren’t enough familiar meaningful things to anchor it.
First case in point, where is the cool and sleuthy music? Instead of soundtrack listings akin to Ocean’s Eleven, Snatch, or the James Bond theme song (which would’ve been awesome during the snow slope scenes), we get irritating echoes of “Non, je ne regretted rein”. The song is established as their alarm clock and who wants that repeated? As ironic as the song is to Cobb’s Mal complex and practical in application for diegetic music in dream, when does practical ever make for entertainment?
While tension is centripetal to the “prison-break” exploits, which is marvelously carried out (though technically incomprehensible), the audience anticipates fatalities and a central assassination scheme in heists (So, we open with Saito). In this realm, there are conditions for when to die and the characters either wake-up or drop into veggie-limbo. Since death is not an option and pain is only dream pain (man up, A-Team!), the thrill of trigger-happy onslaughts is mired. The visceral consequences are changed for the characters and ultimately, the audience. Instead Inception delivers a toss and tumble of slaps, head on collisions, and explosions to make us jump (and to kick everyone awake).
Regarding a macguffin specific to dream tokens used to anchor people to reality, this failing is due to the desensitization inherent in action films to exploit attention towards abnormal but let’s face it mundane objects. Lost in the marvelous special effects and settings that lack Kubrick or Lynch’s psychological nuance, it’s hard to appreciate the sublime in banally-veiled tokens used in surreal films to drive the narrative, be a focal point for tension and act as a vessel for character anxieties. When the role of the spinning top is explained and shot under close lens to render it totally familiar, it does not carry the same iconic enigma status as the monolith in 2001 Space Odyssey, the severed ear in Blue Velvet, or the blue box in Mulholland Drive. Although we are speciously advised that the spinning top is key to deciphering dream from reality, Mal makes a better and prettier token. But, she’s just a projection.
The disappointments about this heist film can be summed up in a few enumerations.
· “WHY SO SERIOUS?” Where are the clever, badass one-liners? Spare us dream mechanic expositions (defibrilla-what?), cautionary goading and Cobb’s chagrin whining. Cool points aside, we can do with more emotionally nuanced acting and suggestive aesthetics in place of space-filling jabber.
· All crash but short of whiplash. With a straight shot to the mark on Fischer Jr. and parallel dream levels that reiterate (and buy time before the big kick) more than add profundity, the narrative is devoid of affective whiplash-conducive plot twists. The audience loves to be taunted and teased. Aside from the flaccid “washed-up on the beach opening” (thanks 8 ½) that is explicated midway, we get only one raging hard Shyamalan-style twist at the end.
· All fair-play in this game. Aside from the architect disposed of as quickly as we realized his betrayal, the good and the bad guys are identified early and no lines are crossed. Saito’s ominous admonishing line, “pick your men wisely”, is discarded like the original architect, as garbage.
· Where’s our T-1000 or Alex Forrest? The antagonists are mere projections that can be taken down like Putties from the Power Rangers. Aside from Saito’s incipient testosterone angst, he’s become an amicable invalid. Shortly after Cobb demonstrates a couple dream-parlor tricks, Fischer Jr. is at his beck and call. Even Mal, whose name suggests something invidious, is likeable as full of loving intentions and gorgeous as she is despite her vindictive ticks. You know, shooting Cobb’s accomplices, trashing a dream landscape, sending a TRAIN to run through them. Heeeere’s Mally!
· Scarecrow FAIL! For someone who is trained in mind defense, Fischer Jr. can send projections of henchmen but swallowed Cobb’s coaxing lines by hook and by crook. Considering the complexity of the idea incepted and the magnitude of the corporate empire inherited, the Scarecrow could’ve done a better job to match or “out-psych” these guys for audience sake!
· Lack of brainy, busty babes for a foil. Mal is frigid in limbo and Ariadne is a brunette Olson twin. In myth, she helped and seduced Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth (any more hair product and Mal could have bull horns). Here, she may inspire a peck from fellow baby-face Joseph Gordon Leavitt but there will be no adrenaline makeover to babe status for Ms. Page. And, there’s no follow up on a moment of potential interactive chemistry.
· Ironically, for a movie about plunging into the subconscious workings of the mind, there isn’t much investment in the other characters’ psyche. Everyone has nightmares right? Given the twist ending, it’s still better to color your characters, like Mulholland Drive dreamer Diana Selwyn does, than end up with a cast of somnambulists with frozen expressions.
All in all, Inception is good for a cerebral massage (reference packed and puzzles galore) and a veritable eyeball kick but there’s not much to remember afterwards. It’s more didactic than profound.