Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Film Review: Inception

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a special sort of thief -- he steals information, but not from bank vaults or corporate offices. He places his target in a dream state of his own creation, then enters that dream and takes the information out of the dream. This time around he's attempting what has never been done before: inception -- the placing of an idea into someone's psyche.

The film starts with Cobb requiring a talented 'architect', Aridane (Ellen Page) to join his team of psychological thieves. This gives us a chance to learn from an innocent person (Ariadne) the peculiar physics of the dream state. The 'architect' is the person who enters the dream and constructs the world that the mark experiences. The subconscious mind of the mark (and the thieves) supply life to fabricated world in the form of 'projections' -- the people walking the streets, etc.

Cobb explains to Ariadne how important it is to make the dream state seem as real as possible because once the cover is blown that this is not reality the projections all immediately look directly at the architect and if the 'failed' deception continues they will attack, like white blood cells attacking a foreign body. It's actually somewhat creepy to see everyone on a crowded street suddenly look directly at you and prepare to rush you.

Director and Writer Christopher Nolan (the guy who brought The Dark Knight to the screen) manages to make a movie that's exciting, with action and spectacle that also works on an emotional level. Ariadne learns that Cobb can no longer act as an architect due to psychological problems of his own concerning his dead wife. Because of this, Cobb's dead wife, Mala, occasionally intrudes on whatever caper that is underway.

Cobb's latest heist is meant to be his last. He cannot return home to the U.S. because he is blamed for his wife's death. In exchange for this one last heist (or deposit, rather) his client will erase the charges against him and allow him to return to his children.

The movie is not for the faint-hearted, however. There are dreams within dreams, complications, deceptions, improvisations and perfect timing is required for the team of thieves. In some ways it feels like a much more serious version of a Ocean's Eleven-style caper. Each member of the team brings something necessary to the plan -- and the plan is as labyrinthine as the inner worlds that the team tumbles through. You'll need to pay attention.

The movie does risk being laughable at really only one point -- the team enters a dream, and then discover that the person whose mind they've entered has had training against just such an incursion. As a result the 'projections' are militarized, shooting at them and hunting them down. The next phase of their master plan was to go one level deeper into the subject's mind by entering yet another dream level. They pile into a van and the driver (a team member) sets them up with the dream-invading equipment, putting them to sleep. Keep in mind, they're already dreaming. Then he drives around, avoiding SWAT teams that fire automatic weapons at him. For every level 'down' you go into a dream state time passes slower and slower.

By the movie's climax the driver in the first level of dream has driven the van off the edge of a river bridge. But since the team is perhaps two more levels deep into dream, a single minute in 'van-time' could equal hours, maybe even days for the rest of the team.

So as the climax rages on at a crazy pace we sometimes cut back to the scene of a van very slowly falling into a river! The Matrix gave audiences 'bullet-time' -- Inception gives us 'bus-time', and while it does serve to ratchet up the tension by showing the team working on multiple 'depths' of dream state, some people (like me) will have to chuckle at the sight of a van falling so slowly for about half of the movie.

Inception's real achievement is making a rollicking action movie, a heist movie, while turning it on it's head (they're not stealing, they're inserting a thought) and giving it a dramatic, emotional edge. The heist characteristics of the film are a motley of interesting characters (thieves are always interesting, right) but gives it a very clever twist. It doesn't feel like science fiction, either. It's not about the technology, there's no techno-babble. The film also explores issues of reality itself -- which would you prefer: reality as it is, or an augmented (but fake) reality? If you cannot detect the difference, is there any?

The movie's ambiguous ending made my fellow audience members yell out in dismay, but that's what's wonderful about Inception, it gives you thrills, not necessarily answers. It's a movie with enough twists and details to watch more than once. So far Inception is this years best summer movie -- a must-see movie.