"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


This review first appeared on Edward Copeland's blog earlier today. I've given it a few tweaks and a polish here and there.

Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) is the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career to date. It mixes the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). His new film takes the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with the science fiction genre as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering the dreams of their targets – think Dreamscape (1984) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve – and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Heat, The Matrix) – there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues Nolan’s fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real right down to the last enigmatic image.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, he is visited by his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful, and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has only been done once before and Cobb was the person that pulled it off but can he do it again? In exchange for completing the job, Saito will make the necessary arrangements so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities in connection with his wife’s death. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.

Inception delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. While there is a lot of exposition dialogue to absorb during these scenes, Nolan also keeps things visually interesting at the same time. This is arguably the most cerebral part of the film as he explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on – pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are all impressively staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with the character of Cobb and his desire to return home to his children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.

Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tries to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focus on a costumed vigilante that wages war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, and layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that the actor does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.

Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy, in particular, are stand-outs and their banter provides several moments of enjoyable levity during the course of this intense, engrossing film. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity – think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight – and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger some well-deserved mainstream exposure after languishing in direct-to-video hell, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.

Regardless if whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan has wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film to date. With Inception, he has created a world on a scale that he’s never attempted before and been able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan has created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.

Devin Faraci over at CHUD offers some great analysis and one of the best theories on what the film means. Over at Cinema Blend is a great visual guide that breaks down the various dream levels in the film. New York magazine has a fantastic interview with one of the film's stars and he offers some fascinating insights into the meanings of the film. Sam Adams, over at Salon.com has a great, in-depth look at the film that lays it all out in incredible detail. Finally, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell offer a fantastic, in-depth analysis of how Inception works stylistically on their blog Observations on film art.
Feel free to offer your observations, opinions, insights and theories on Inception in the comments section below.


  1. J.D. - Well done here. This is well said - "you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences."

    Yes, what I liked most about this movie is that it's different and it's not a sequel and it's not a superhero movie. I had to give this one two viewings before I really connected with it. On first viewing, I enjoyed its clever story, but there was just too much information to take in and I was distracted by that.

    On second viewing I was able to enjoy it much more and feel some sort of emotional connection with it. Still, the thing needed some editing - and less shooting, which was mostly not gripping.

  2. Yeah, I really do need to watch this film again. The first time around I was so busy trying to absorb everything that I didn't get a chance to really enjoy the nuances of the film aside from DiCaprio's excellent performance.

    I think that one reason some people are responding so passionately to this film is because it is bucking the trend of making a sequel, remake, etc. and doing something original which is a rare commodity in Hollywood these days.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

  3. Once again, I just have to point out that I love this movie for being an original, single entity. We need more movies like this. I don't want sequels or movies-like-other-movies. I always want to see something different.

  4. Well, J.D., I have of course subsequently read at WitD that you did like the film quite a bit, and I am definitely in the same camp. Sue there were times I was frustrated and exhausted with the non-stop pyrotechnics, and the reach of the vision (and maybe Nolan probed one dream too many) but this is one of the most thought-provoking deceits in recent years, and as Hokahey rightly contends, it's a real pleasure to get an original idea, devoid of the superhero context. Hence, this is closer to Nolan's MEMENTO, but still largely in its own sphere. Di Caprio was as good here as he was in SHUTTER ISLAND (hence it's tied for his best performance ever) and the supporting cast were at the top of their game. Zimmer's score has come under fire in some quarters, but I thought it a pulsating aural component that was at times aurally electrifying.

    This one will be talked about for some time.

  5. Unfortunately, it will be the DVD release until I get to see this film, but you review has me even more stoked to see it. A mixture of Memento & TDK promises so much. For me, Nolan has barely put a foot wrong since Following (his dry run for Memento) and I'm gutted I'm not well enough to attend a cinema screening. I'll check out your review again, prior to catching it on Blu.

  6. Sam Juliano:

    Good comments, Sam! It was, at times, an exhausting experience watching the film as Nolan packed so much detail in which I think is why it will play even better on DVD when you can hit pause and take a break and chew over what you've just seen or rewind back and check something out.

    I agree with you about DiCaprio. I thought he was quite good in SHUTTER ISLAND even though he seemed to be mining familiar territory but hey, practice makes perfect, right? I actually thought he was very good in THE AVIATOR and also CATCH ME IF YOU CAN which is a fun romp of a film.

    I also agree with you re: Zimmer's score. It perfectly suited the images and added to the overall atmosphere of the film.

    Steve Langton:

    That's a shame that you couldn't see it on the big screen where the visuals are pretty impressive to behold but as I mentioned in my response to Sam, this is a film that almost plays better on DVD because there is so much to absorb and so many things going on that you want to rewind it back and see something again. I am really looking forward to the inevitable DVD release of this film.

  7. I really want to see this film. I've wanted to see it since I first heard about it. The trailers definitely had my interest peaked.

  8. Keith:

    I think you would totally dig this film. If you can, you should really check it out. I'd curious to read your thoughts on it, my friend.

  9. I was very excited about this movie when I heard about it. I went to watch this movie with great expectations and I was very much satisfied after watching it as this movie came up to my expectations.