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Not Quite Dreamy, Inception Gets an 'A' for Effort

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2010 15 Jul
Not Quite Dreamy, <i>Inception</i> Gets an 'A' for Effort

DVD Release Date:  November 30, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  July 16, 2010
Rating:  PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action throughout)
Genre:  Science Fiction, Adventure, Drama, Thriller 

Run Time:  148 min.

Director:  Christopher Nolan

Actors:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao

Don't be fooled by people who tell you that if you're not gung-ho about Inception, you simply couldn't understand it. The new film from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige) is complex, and its story about exploiting the dreams of others has rewards for those who can follow its story across multiple levels. But ultimately, the story doesn't quite coalesce. However, if the plot of Inception isn't quite up to the film's fascinating premise, it deserves credit for creating memorable dreamscapes and for its coherent depiction of action across several physical and temporal planes.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, an expert in extraction, the art of stealing information from people while they dream. He's a tortured soul whose marriage to Mal (Marion Cotillard) went awry and whose professional and personal lives have crumbled. When a businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) challenges Cobb to enter the dream world of a rival and implant, rather than extract, an idea, Cobb grabs the chance to redeem himself with one final job. Joining him are Inception team members Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne (Ellen Page), an "architect" who builds dream worlds.

There's just one problem: Cobb is having trouble letting go of Mal, and her hold on his own subconscious manifests in, and threatens, the dream worlds that he and his team must penetrate and alter. The film increasingly becomes about Cobb's emotional trauma, revolving around his past failings as a husband and father.

Sound familiar? DiCaprio played an eerily similar role earlier this year in director Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island, and although Inception is not as well executed as Scorcese's film, its ambitious attempt to be a brainy summer megahit is commendable. Still, a film that revolves around the distinction between dreams and realities is asking for trouble. The characters' moments of confusion in determining what's real and what isn't can easily spill over to us, the audience, leaving behind those who aren't willing to try to follow the multiple levels of action and timelines the film lays out. Ecclesiastes 5:7 reminds us, "Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God." Trying to follow the different levels of Nolan's dream world can be exhausting, and the fear that the story won't amount to much substantively is difficult to shake while watching Inception. Nevertheless, the hope of an emotional, even spiritual payoff keeps us watching, even if we don't fully understand every detail.

Does the story come together in a satisfying way? At nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, Inception asks a lot of audiences, and, at times, it delivers. The film has a fantastic premise, some gravity-defying chase scenes, and a palpable sense of tragedy underneath the veneer of visual razzle-dazzle. But it is a cold film, almost entirely lacking in humor or, more crucially, a reason to make us care about any of its characters other than Cobb. The goal of the Inception team's mission gets lost along the way, and the outcome of the corporate-espionage storyline is anticlimactic. By the time it arrives, the audience is invested much more deeply in Cobb's tenuous hold on reality, and his temptation to flee into a world that promises something he desperately wants, than it is in Saito's reasons for initiating the Inception mission.

That imbalance makes the film overwhelming—not because it's too smart, but because the film's length demands a plot that's big enough to make us care about the Inception concept. The film's premise will be catnip to certain viewers who enjoy the open-ended discussions such movies like this one can stimulate, and the film's final shot will send them out of the theater buzzing. Others will find the film's ominous, heavy tone to be ponderous, and will simply be grateful that this lengthy film, with its drawn-out finale, has ended.

Which group you fall into may depend on your willingness to give Inception more than one viewing. This critic sat near two other critics who had seen the film once before, earlier that same day, and had returned to experience it again. If the possibility of having to see a film twice in order to get a better handle on it appeals to you, then Inception is the movie for you. If not—if you think even challenging, complex movies shouldn't require more than one viewing, whatever rewards subsequent exposure to the storyline might bring—then it's best to find another alternative to Nolan's film. You won't lose any sleep over the decision.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; some foul language (godda--, a--hole, he--, etc.).
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  None, except for people being drugged so that Inception team members can enter their dreams.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Kissing.
  • Violence/Crime:  Gun violence; in dreams, worlds collapse and people die through violent acts; multiple explosions; cars run into people, and a car door is flung open in order to strike a man; brawling; a man slaps a sleeping man's face; a man puts a gun to his head and threatens suicide; a man spits blood; characters are cut down by a rope strung across their path.
  • Religion:  Nothing specific, but talk about how we create reality; a subconscious dreamstate is referred to as "limbo."