(2010) director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/17/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, San Francisco, Calif.
The summer of 2010 has been a dire one in regards to the movie scene. Christopher (The Dark Knight , The Prestige , Batman Begins ) Nolan’s latest film, Inception, looked to be the potential summer savior. Cue the striking trailer, complete with M.C. Escher-like visuals of impossible cities and stairways and flying fight scenes that looked to reinvent what’s cool for movies post-The Matrix (1999). The complex, intellectual, and head-trippy film looked to be the rising tide that could lift all other boats, and maybe we’d escape this summer without going Titantic (as in the real Titanic, not the megahit movie).
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. As his whole body of work continues to show promise, hope for Inception seemed genuinely real and palpable. And the rest of the summer was making it that much more stark a comparison.
Inception, however, doesn’t quite measure up. It’s cerebral, sure. The whole thing is about guys who usually break into people’s dreams to steal information taking an assignment to break into someone’s dream to implant 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 realities are nested like Russian babushka dolls, and the dream thieves’ levels of awareness are 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 of that reality, along with 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. While 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, it becomes increasingly harder 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, which certainly made the film look like several strokes of genius and whet the appetites of film-goers and enthusiasts. Many writers were looking at Nolan as the second coming of Stanley Kubrick.
Ultimately, I’m left less satisfied than I would have hoped. And thinking that Nolan, who is indeed quite good and quite interesting, has yet to make a film that truly reaches the caliber of “greatness.” (However, 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 disappointed in Inception, I’m not trying to suggest that it, like so many of the films of 2010, is garbage. It’s strikingly designed, entertaining and weird, challenging and pretty darn interesting. Just less than my admittedly lofty expectations.
I for one, hope that Nolan continues to develop films in this direction, but manages to execute and really achieve something significant with subsequent efforts.
For the full, extensive archive of movie reviews by Ken, please see kennelco.com/film_diary