Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie review: Inception

My review, in 700 words, of Christopher Nolan's Inception from the Irish Independent's Day and Night magazine:

INCEPTION (12A, General release) ****
Summer season at the cinema is not traditionally a good time to go looking for smart, original films. Expectations have weighed heavily on Christopher Nolan’s Inception to cut a swathe through the sea of insipid sequels and till-ringing remakes.

This is a director who doesn’t deal in the predictable and generic. Ten years ago, he reinvented the psychological thriller with Memento, which didn’t so much tamper with the normal rules of narrative as completely dismember them. When he got his hands on the Batman franchise, he remoulded the tired superhero flick into that rare creature, an intelligent blockbuster.

Inception is Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight (2008). The buzz surrounding it has been stoked by the director’s insistence on keeping the most minor details of the plot under wraps.

The basic outline isn’t revolutionary. Leonardo di Caprio plays Dom Cobb, mastermind of corporate espionage. He steals secrets from one side and sells to the other. He has tired of his lonely, risky lifestyle and agrees to a final big job that will free him to go home and become a Normal Dad to his two children.

Yet this is anything but a typical one-last-job heist movie. Cobb is no ordinary thief. He and his team of egghead accomplices invade the dreams of their targets and prise secrets from their subconscious. This being Nolan’s world, dream-snatching is not as simple as waiting for their man to fall asleep. Cobb and right-hand-man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) construct entire dreamscapes designed to lure the subject into a fantasy world that they control.

Recently though, Cobb’s own guilt-ridden subconscious has been throwing a spanner in the works. A sinister projection of his dead wife Mal threatens to sabotage the missions. Marion Cotillard is riveting as Mal although it is hard to forget her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, mostly because Nolan has bizarrely chosen to use Piaf’s torch song ‘Je ne regrette rien’ as a key narrative trigger here.

Di Caprio, however, is brilliant as the haunted Cobb. As in the recent Shutter Island, Leo looks like he has the world on his shoulders and his fingertips barely clinging to reality. He is no position to refuse the escape hatch cracked open by powerful businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito offers to clear up Cobb’s personal problems if Cobb and company abandon the usual business of ‘extraction’ in favour of an ‘inception’: implanting an idea into the mind of a business rival.

Apparently this is a near-impossible task. We know this because straight-laced Arthur keeps protesting along the lines of, “This is a near-impossible task.” Instead it is the jumping-off point for Nolan’s mind-bending sci fi proposal involving multiple planes of consciousness and the sketchy human grip of reality over fantasy.

Cobb bolsters his team of operatives with wideboy fraudster Eames (Tom Hardy) and narcolepsy-inducing chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao). Nolan favourite Michael Caine dispenses a few bon mots as Cobb’s father but these auxiliary characters don’t really have heart. They seem to exist just to jolly the plot along by pressing the right button to blow up the right fantasy universe at the right time.

Our own Cillian Murphy succeeds in injecting Saito’s rival Robert Fischer with a pathos that fleshes out his role as the hapless ‘mark’ and Ellen Page brings some smarts to dreamworld architect Ariadne.

Mercifully, Ariadne also serves the function of helping the audience navigate the densely-layered fabric of Nolan’s plot. There are dreams within dreams, and dreams within those dreams and – frankly – it can get confusing. When Cobb explains the logic underpinning his intricate theories to new gal Ariadne, he is simultaneously explaining it to us.

The dreamscapes are gorgeously realised. The visuals are there to be marvelled at, a cityscape folding over onto itself, a snow-crusted fortress imploding into ice crystals at the blink of the mind’s eye.

Nolan masterfully ratchets up the tension as the film’s denouement plays out on four different stages. Inception lacks a deep emotional core but it messes with the mind. It is a bold vision that takes its cue from Eames who declares: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger.”

FIRST PUBLISHED HERE (in truncated form):

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