It’s easy to get so caught up in the narrative layers Christopher Nolan drops the audience into while watching Inception that one loses sight of the actual film. As long as he can keep your head spinning round every which way, trying to figure it all out, he can maintain the dream illusion, keep you in limbo and enthrall you with his world. However, like the dreamers, once aware of the actual nature of what they are experiencing, the flaws and inconsistencies become clear.
In creating a story about the mind, Nolan focuses all his development, empathy and nuances on one character, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who hacks into people’s minds and steal their ideas. He’s assisted by the sardonic Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), hires Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design the layout of the dreams and Eames (Tom Hardy) to disguise himself as other people in dreams. Their employer, Saito (Ken Watanabee) tags along because the crew truly isn’t big enough yet. And then Yusuf (Dileep Rao) joins the gang too because of some special dream drug he’s developed.
The characters, if they can be called that, exist as simple constructs with basic personalities. In fact, at certain points it’s not clear who is on screen and how their role is much different than another person. Saito has no reason to be part of the group, neither does Arthur (I still love you, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Most of the time, the audience can’t be bothered to notice because they’re spending all their time trying to grasp what is being explained to them.
Nolan has all these characters for the pure reason of layering on dreams within dreams. By doing this, he has something happening to a character on every level. The construction is brilliant but the catharsis isn’t. There is no understanding or comprehension of who these characters are beyond the roles they serve in the plot of the film. Arthur is the guy who fights people the whole film and there’s nothing more to him than that.
However, by simplifying everyone else down to a bare framework, Nolan can spend a lot of time digging deep into the mind of Cobb. As the film develops and the dreams get deeper, more of Cobb’s mind begins to manifest itself throughout the dreams, creating visually surreal and psychologically troubling moments. Cobb provides an engaging lead and the way Nolan digs into his mind provides a rich character study. Where the film trips up is in the repetition of elements. By the end, there are several images that have been seen time and time again.
This gets into another core problem of the film, the volume of exposition. For some reason, Nolan thinks his ideas are more complex than they are. Granted, they are much more complex than anything the average American audience is use to, but he’s almost a bit condescending in the sheer amount of explanation he packs into this film. He pads it all between action bits and fractures time a lot, but it still can’t hide how much of this film is people explaining what they are doing.
Why not leave this in the minds of the audience? If this film is to take place in the dream world which often doesn’t make any sense, why must so much time be spent making sense of it? Much like how the human mind fills in the dream one experiences, let the audience infer what is going on in the dream world. It’s not as if there are hard and fast rules for dreams, and there isn’t a big reason for Nolan to even craft so many rules. In this way, Inception is greatly inferior to a film like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Suspiria where the logic of dreams remains decidedly illogical.
However, what makes Inception great (and let there be no mistake, it is great) is that Christopher Nolan has figured out how to perfectly tease his audience along, draw them in, constantly keep them thinking about what is going on and always leave just enough hanging that the audience is never quite sure completely what they saw. In this regard, the film is a masterpiece of plotting, suggestion, implication and misdirection. The ending will likely be one of the most debated and talked about endings of any film.
By keeping the momentum going and maintaining this consistent mental stimulus, Nolan has crafted an ingenious mind puzzle. However, one step back and the seams are apparent, the illusion is broken, the mistake so obvious it’s a wonder it wasn’t as noticeable before. There’s a definite one-sided nature to this film and while it might fulfill on an intellectual level, it fails on an emotional one.
Emotional storytelling has never been the strong suit of Nolan and in this psychological thriller, he practically demands it by the nature of the ending. The problem is that he spends so much time in his mind puzzle and tricks that he never gets around to investing the audience in the characters. In picking through Cobb’s brain, Nolan approaches it from such a scientific and intellectual angle, fitting it into his puzzle. Yet he doesn’t give the character any of the warmth or humanity it needs for the ending to provide any kind of emotional payoff (which, one could debate, is actually the point).
Where Nolan doesn’t skimp at all is on the visuals. Teaming up again with Cinematographer Wally Pfister, Nolan creates a visually warm dreamscape that draws the audience in the picture. There’s an extra layer of aesthetics and set design that wouldn’t have been needed, but adds a lot to the dream nature of the film. There’s something key to nailing the visual look of a dream environment, and Nolan achieves it while also making the overall look subdued and even docile.
The special effects could have been in excess, but Nolan uses them wisely, almost always in the service of the story. He has a bit of fun with the world, but tends to find low-budget and non-CGI ways to go about getting the results he wants. There’s a lot of imagery that clearly must have been CGI but it never looks fake and is integrated seamlessly into the design. There are a few scenes that have an excessive scale to them, but it never feels overindulgent.
Yet even after all this, it’s easy to get past the numerous holes in Inception. The storytelling is top, notched even if it is exactly what A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors already did with a spice of Jacob’s Ladder and Shutter Island. Like always, Nolan is interested in the implications of the mind and how the world he crafts for his stories affect his protagonist. Even with all modern technology, the mind is such a mysterious place which is why the exploration of dreams is such a fascination notion.
Inception is a deeply flawed film but still achieves greatness in spite of itself. It’s not Nolan’s masterpiece. The Prestige still holds that title, demonstrating more of what Inception could do better. Well defined characters, taut plotting and an economy of exposition are a few of the qualities The Prestige has that Inception lacks. Nolan proves once again the talent of his mind, but he could develop a stronger heart and write a tauter script.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing