This review was written 4 years ago, and only remains available online in its original form for nostalgia. Apologies for the writing quality.
I don't want to call Christopher Nolan a hack director, because by all rights, he isn't. But if he continues to receive these accolades so undeservedly, I might just have to in order to balance out the hyperbole. In truth, this movie was far from terrible, and on paper, much like Nolan's The Dark Knight, this film is my dream movie. As a fully realized epic depicting a futuristic world with equal parts sci fi, sophistication, dream science, and suave- all made possible by near-perfect special effects and amazing camera work- how could it go wrong?
The story follows, primarily, Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary agent of sorts working for various private companies to extract information from other company leaders' minds while they sleep. Naturally, to give him a backstory, Cobb is also seeking redemption from the United States for some unknown reason, and has been forbidden to returning to his children due to exile. As the story progresses, Cobb is given the opportunity to get a clean slate, if only he can successfully build a team of people to go into the mind of the head of a major executive and plant an idea instead of extracting one- inception.
Throw in an excellent cast of characters, how incredibly cool does this sound? How does any of it not hit home?
And in fact, it doesn't really go wrong- perhaps by the sheer merit of the aforementioned ingredients and premise. However, three major, glaring problems hold this film back from realizing true greatness. It's risky for me to bring you, the reader, three levels into my psyche, but it's necessary. We need to go deeper.
1. Logistics and plot holes.
On the first plane, we have the logistics of the movie. For all the praise this film is getting, you would think that this film was immune to pitfalls as basic as logical story arc progression. Unfortunately, it isn't. In fact, this film is simply riddled with myriad examples of nonsensical rules that are set up and broken all within the two hour run time.
At the beginning of the movie, much like that little indy film The Matrix, rules are set up explaining how extraction/inception works, and how the dream world (parallel to the Matrix) operates. Well, that's great- that's just what you want. To establish rules for an alternate reality is necessary in a new film. The issue is that all throughout the movie, Nolan decided it would be great for characters to continually add new rules while simultaneously breaking the old rules.
If you set rules, don't break them shortly thereafter. This breaks the trust of the audience, and the believability of the world you created. Without ruining anything, the second half of the movie is essentially a multilayered dream. In order to get out of each level, one must get a "kick" to move up until you reach complete consciousness- usually easiest to do this by getting killed or killing yourself. However, due to various extenuating circumstances, the multilayered dream won't allow for such an easy wake-up. Instead, dying brings you down lower in the dream state to a subconscious realm called Limbo. Way to switch up the rules.
That would be fine I suppose except then, simply killing oneself or getting killed in Limbo kicks you all the way back into reality. Wait- so then what's the big deal about getting stuck in Limbo?
This annoyance comes along with a slew of other made up plot devices which feel completely synthetic and appear to be used for sheer convenience. Shame on you, Mr. Nolan- leave that hack style for the bad directors.
2. Violation of accepted rules of dream science
Okay, I'll keep this brief because I'm a nerd and most everyone else doesn't care about this. However, I say it is relevant because Nolan professes to love the idea of dreams and how they work.
There is a field of study around dreaming, and more specifically, "lucid dreaming"- wherein someone is dreaming but is conscious and acting with the knowledge that you are in a dream world. This has been well documented and there are official rules governing how a lucid dream works.
Nolan is free to take liberties with dream sharing, something that is not real and is a great concept for him to invent and talk about. However, lucid dreaming is not science fiction- it's real. And in that dream science, the rules are as follows:
A. To find out you are dreaming, check fine print on signs, books, etc. It will usually be nonsensical or a blur, because your mind won't fill in that level of detail.
B. You may also check any digital clock to see if it is unreadable or rapidly changing, another indication you are dreaming.
C. Flipping a light switch should do nothing in a dream- light levels are usually unchangeable in the dream state.
The worst part is definitely that Nolan managed to follow rule C. throughout the dream sequences... but why does all of this matter in the long run?
Well, the core love story between Cobb and Mol (Cotillard) is based around the tragedy that Mol could not be convinced that once she had woken up that she was not in a dream anymore.
Just flip a switch, Mol.
3. Inception doesn't at all feel like a dream.
If this is how Nolan dreams in real life, he must have the most boring, linear dreams ever. Not that the movie itself is boring, but it is linear- and for a dream, it is rather dull and uninspired.
Movies that come to mind include The Science of Sleep, Waking Life, Amelie (among others) when I think of films that accurately capture at least some aspect of how a dream plays out. The only time this movie truly felt like a dream- and this may be a spoiler so if you want to skip this paragraph, go ahead- was when in the first level of the multilayer dream, a train appears out of nowhere, produced by Cobbs subconscious.
I thought for a moment there that the movie was going to really embrace the weird, illogical nature of dreams as the aforementioned films had, but instead, it merely presented more set pieces that felt cold, calculated, and dry.
Now, after going three levels into my critical mind, there is Limbo. It's not such a fun place to be- just ask Cobb or Saito. My feelings about Inception reside in Limbo- see it as a summer action film, not as a cerebral experience, and you might not find it to be so problematic
I also want to say that this movie is not complicated at all and dispel that rumor as best as I can. Primer was complicated. Memento was complicated. Inception was not.
After thinking for two minutes about what you just saw, it is as easy to understand as Harry Potter. As I said, the plot is 100% linear, aside for some jury-rigged cyclicality which connects the first scene to one of the final scenes. Nolan/Cobb's idea of "going deeper" most closely means that the story will progress over time to its climax, just like any other film.
Finally, the love story between Cobb and Mol and background to Cobb's depression, which at first seemed secondary to the far more interesting inception plotline (notice Nolan is once again ignoring the title of his film), is boring and unnecessary. Nothing else to say other than that I just am so disappointed that that story took precedence over the main epic.
On a last note, commendations are in order for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this film, once again- his character Arthur is charming, funny, and suave. His small love story subplot with Ellen Page's character makes for an interesting diversion, unlike Cobb and Mol. JGL gives another spectacular performance, and was easily my favorite part of this movie.
So in the end, I still gave this film an 80%- despite all of those issues in my rant. This film works as long as you go in thinking of it as a summer action flick and nothing more. It's not the A-Team/Crank shut-your-brain-off cartoon of a movie (not that there's anything wrong with that), but don't listen to people when they tell you this is the next Memento. It's just good fun, and try not to think too hard about it. I enjoyed myself.
P.S. No comment on the ending. It simply proves my point that Nolan is not doing his job very well- and it just made me angry. Moving on.
Verdict: Movie Win (as a non-intellectual summer action flick)