Friday, 23 July 2010

Inception (2010)

It's been a pretty dismal year for blockbuster films, so I had all my hopes pinned on this one. Usually that ends with me curled up in the corner and sobbing uncontrollably about the state of modern cinema, but it paid off this time with an original, masterfully-crafted blockbuster that doesn't treat the audience like a bunch of drooling babies. Looks like Nolan is becoming the go-to guy for thoughtfully-constructed big-budget thrillers. The Anti-Bay, if you will. If I had to describe this film in a sentence I'd say that it's as if Nightmare on Elm Street had a baby with The Matrix but The Matrix had a problem with her lady parts so Ocean's Eleven had to carry it term, but really it's one of those films that's better experienced than explained.

The trailer told me precisely fuck-all about the film, but I had heard it was one of those joints where you have to take your brain with you instead of checking it at the door like usual. I came to it expecting some Primer level mindfuckery, but it turns out it's not that complicated. It's pretty complex for one of these big summer blockbusters, but if you're paying attention you shouldn't have any trouble following what's going on. Why would you pay $10 to sit in front of a huge screen in a darkened theater for a couple of hours and not pay attention anyway? What else have you got to do? Eyes front, buddy!

Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the leader of a team of "idea thieves" who use some mysterious dream-sharing technology to enter people's subconscious and steal secrets out of their brain. The secrets are usually a pretty literal interpretation, like some top secret papers in a safe. It would suck if they were really abstract and surreal, like an elephant wearing a bowler hat, and you'd be stuck there thinking what the fuck does this mean? Luckily they've usually got someone on the team called an "architect" whose job it is to create dream-worlds that are complex and realistic enough to fool the dreamer into thinking it's reality. Dom can't do it himself because his dead wife keeps sneaking into the dreams and fucking things up.

After they fail a mission to steal industrial secrets from Saito (Ken Watanabe), he offers them a job to infiltrate the brain of a corporate rival (Cilian Murphy). There they will commit an act of inception, the implanting of an external idea in someone's brain. It's widely thought to be impossible, but Dom knows it can be done, and it quickly turns into a heist movie as he assembles his crack team, formulates a plan etc. Because inception is such a difficult process they have to create a three-level dream: a dream within a dream within a dream, which later becomes a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. Each layer becomes more unstable and there's also a time-dilation effect which is multiplied the deeper you go, so by the third act when everything inevitably goes tits up, you've got multiple action sequences happening simultaneously in different universes with time moving at different speeds.

It's kind of a miracle that everything makes as much sense as it does. They throw you in the shit straight away and expect you to keep up, only explaining things a little later on when they hire a new architect (Ellen Page). There's a lot of exposition at that point which eats up almost an hour of screen time, but to their credit it feels really streamlined and it never gets boring. It does a good job of explaining the rules of the dream world, but you never find out too much about the dream-sharing technology or the world they live in, which at times feels more scattered and surreal than the dreams they inhabit.

Corporate types can also train their mind to repel invaders ("like white blood cells fighting an infection" as Dom puts it), so the NPC inhabitants of their dreams (called "constructs") become hostile and militarised. This allows them to stuff the film with gunfights, car chases and explosions. This doesn't bother me much since I love a good action movie, but Nolan still can't direct a fight scene (gun or fist) for shit. I know I sound like a grumpy old man with this complaint, but the geography and choreography is constantly undermined by close-ups and shaky cameras. There's a gunfight in the snow that's almost impossible to follow because everyone is wearing white and the camera is attached to a pogo stick. Nolan really needs to hire a second unit director for that stuff. His car chases are great, though.

Of course, the fact that the dreams are so grounded and realistic means that the dreamscapes in this film aren't particularly imaginative. There's a good, in-universe explanation for why, so it's not a major complaint. When weird stuff does happen though, it's still pretty cool. There's a lot of special effects sequences in this film that do things that I've never really seen before. A big highlight is when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character fights some goons in a hotel hallway as the gravity keeps changing direction before finally disappearing completely. How did they do it? There's other parts where cityscapes warp like a piece of paper or ruined skyscrapers collapse into the ocean. I guess Nolan likes really tall buildings.

Another complaint I've heard about Nolan's films, including this one, is that he's more concerned with elaborate gimmicks and plot mechanics instead of characters. Apparently being an intelligent, well-made piece of entertainment isn't enough for some people. It's clear that the guy is more fascinated with exploring the human mind through puzzle-box movies than developing his characters, but I still thought the subplot about Dom's wife was handled really well. I've heard people say that they couldn't connect with the movie because it was too emotionally distant, but I guess I'm a blackened husk of a human being because it drew me in like a motherfucker.

I can't really fault any of the acting. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page it's like Attack of the Babyfaces, but they're all really good so that's okay. Between this and Shutter Island, let's see if Leo can get another one of these tortured-husband-brooding-over-his-wife's-tragic-death roles and make it a trifecta. He's pretty good at it. I don't have much to say about the technical aspects, since it's all really good. Blah, blah, great cinematography, blah, blah. It's got one of those seat-rattling Hans Zimmer scores that's full of big string instruments and blasting tubas, so it always sounds like the movie is on the verge of the apocalypse. It might be overly-dramatic for some people, but I liked it.

Yeah, this is a good one, folks. I'm sure there are going to be lots of people who complain that there's too many 'splosions and not enough psycho-drama, and others who complain that it's too hard to follow and makes their brain hurt, but for us normal people with simple tastes and functioning brains, I think it hits the sweet spot. Why can't all blockbusters be like this? I guess it's kind of sad that it takes a mega-success like Dark Knight for a studio to bankroll a film like this, but now that it's here I'm not going to complain.

No comments: