Inception (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/17/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The summer of 2010 has been a dire one in regards to the movie scene.  Christopher (The Dark Knight (2008), The Prestige (2006), Batman Begins (2005)) Nolan’s latest film, Inception, looked to be the potential savior of the summer movies of 2010.  With its striking trailer with M.C. Escher-like visuals of impossible cities and stairways and flying fight scenes that looked to re-invent what’s cool since The Matrix (1999), the complex, intellectual and head-trippy film looked to be the lost hope of big summer movies for this very wan year.

Nolan, since his breakthrough film Memento (2000), has looked like one of the more interesting writer/directors in Hollywood.  The Dark Knight seemed to prove him out to be the intelligent and stylish deliverer of American cinema (yeah, I know that he’s English), or at least to prove out that people responded to that film with the sort of ardor usually reserved for the films of the Star Wars canon.  But frankly, his whole body of work continued/s to show promise and so hope for this film seemed genuinely real and palpable.  And the rest of the summer was making it that much more stark a comparison.

Inception, however, isn’t all that it’s trying to be cracked up to be.  It’s cerebral, sure.  The whole thing is about guys who break into people’s dreams to steal information, but who are put on a job to break into someone’s dream to “plant” an idea.  So this is a complex flavor of science fiction, featuring an ornate set of rules (in a dream, when you die, you wake up, but if you are overly sedated, you might end up in a limbo; for every “dream within a dream” time expands exponentially, etc., etc.).   Lots of complicated innuendo and rules, stuff that makes it hard to follow unless you’re really paying attention in detail, and even if you are paying attention, it still might be hard to take it all in.

That’s the thing, really.  The film gives you a lot to take in and not a lot of time to take it in, and then tries to set its story against that background and expects the audience to be engaged and invested and comprehending.  As good as some of the sequences look, as trippy as some of the ideas, I have to say, Man it’s hard to keep up.  It’s sort of like all the ornateness and complexity assumes that you’re along for the ride.  And maybe if you feel you are, this film is freaking genius.

But from the opening sequence, in which the realities are nested like the Russian babushka dolls, and the levels of awareness of the dream thieves is being rapidly peeled back from the onion skin of the narrative, I was already a little lost.  Leonardo DiCaprio and his team are inside Ken Watanabe’s dream, and the rules and complexities (the dream within a dream, the “kick” sensation of falling that can wake you up), and just what exactly they were up to, I don’t know that I ever fully understood.  Watanabe is their employer, yet he’s trying to hide something from them, and succeeds so they fail and they need to hightail it out of wherever they are and move on.  But then Watanabe offers them another more complicated gig, which DiCaprio is open to because he’s a wanted man and somehow Watanabe can fix that.  It’s a lot to take in.  I mean, I got the gist of it, but in this head-trippy narrative, where you’re constantly meant to be saying “Whoa!” when some new level of complexity is revealed (what is reality? are any of these levels real?), it’s hard to know if you care.

The cast is excellent, with DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Lucas Haas, Michael Caine… (many of whom have worked with Nolan before).  And some of the visuals are super-striking and cool.  The fight sequence in which Gordon-Levitt flies at zero gravity with a constantly turning hotel hallway really does look like the most interesting fighting shot since The Matrix re-invented the visuals of the fight sequence.  And when Page’s experimenting with controlling the architecture of a dream landscape, folding Paris onto itself, it’s really pretty cool-looking.

But in the end, that was all in the trailer, what made the film “look” like several strokes of genius and whet the appetites of film-goers and enthusiasts.  I mean, this summer has outright sucked.  And many writers were looking at Nolan as the second coming of Stanley Kubrick.  And so where does that leave us now, with this film, which has a lot going for it, but ultimately isn’t all that one would hope it to be?

Well, less satisfied than one would have hoped.  And thinking that Nolan, who is indeed quite good and quite interesting, has yet to really make a film of the true caliber of greatness (though I’m certainly thinking of revisiting Memento now, because I recall thinking that it really did deliver on its concepts and promise at the time it was released).

But as much as I’m stating disappointment in Inception, I’m not trying to suggest that it, like so much of the films of 2010, that it’s garbage.  It’s strikingly designed, entertaining and trippy, challenging and pretty darn interesting.  It’s just not all that it was hoped to be, and for much of us, that will be a bit of a downer.  What have we to look forward to?  More superhero movies?  I for one, hope that Nolan continues to develop films in this direction, but manages to achieve something more than he has as yet.

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