Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception: Bad dream

Inception (2010) • View trailer for Inception
Three stars (out of five). Rating: Pg-13, for unrelenting action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.16.10
Buy DVD: Inception • Buy Blu-Ray: Inception (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

This overcooked flick is a lot of fuss and bother, just to learn the identity of Rosebud.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan's brain-bending fantasy boasts a genuinely fascinating premise, but the execution is wanting; the self-indulgent running time (148 minutes) can't be justified by a storyline that isn't nearly as complex  or coherent  as Nolan would like us to believe.
"Draw me a maze in two minutes," Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells Ariadne
(Ellen Page), shortly after meeting her, "that takes me at least a minute to
solve." After a couple of blown attempts, Ariadne adjusts to the complexity of
the test, at which point Dom acknowledges that she might be the perfect
"architect" for his team of dream-thieves. Goodie, goodie...!

Inception is the sort of film that results when an inventive and financially successful filmmaker, armed with a few box-office hits  in this case, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight  is let off the company leash for a long-gestating "dream project" (no pun intended) and granted unfettered access to the studio bank account. Inevitably, the outcome is runaway hubris.

We've seen it happen time and again, with talents as stellar as James Cameron (The Abyss) and Barry Levinson (Toys). The most famous example remains Michael Cimino, whose bloated production of Heaven's Gate literally bankrupted United Artists, back in 1980.

Inception won't bankrupt Warner Bros., but it also won't be the summer blockbuster we've been hoping for, given the film's ultra-top-secret production and tantalizingly vague advance publicity. The rewards remain few in this visually bombastic but emotionally barren drama.

I'm halfway persuaded that Nolan set out to create a film with a climax  running the entire final hour  that out-weirds the LSD-esque sequence that concluded 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. That sci-fi classic had its devoted acolytes at the time (and still does), but I can't help remembering, with a whimsical smile, that many (most?) of the warm bodies filling theater seats during the waning days of that hippy-dippy decade were, ah, chemically altered.

That stargate sequence was the ultimate head-trip, man.

So's the entire second half of Inception. And it'll definitely impress a lot of viewers.

An intriguing idea? Absolutely. Quite thought-provoking, at times. But only at times.

We hit the ground running, as Nolan introduces us to Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his unusual team of professional "dream thieves," as they try to extract a closely guarded secret while having invaded the sleeping mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a rich and powerful business magnate.

Dreamtime landscapes have their own logical illogic, and Dom is close to emptying the contents of Saito's mental safe when the mission goes awry, thanks to the intervention of Mal (Marion Cotillard), a mysterious woman able to interfere with Dom's subconscious sleuthing.

Once back in the waking world, Saito is unbothered by this most personal incursion, choosing to view the experience as an odd sort of audition. He offers Dom and longtime dream-thief partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a rich assignment with a fresh target: Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who's about to inherit control of his dying father's multibillion-dollar empire. The Fischer family is the sole obstacle to Saito's desire to control the entire world's energy market, and he wants that obstacle removed.

The tantalizing solution: Invade Robert Fischer's mind and plant a suggestion  an "inception"  that he should break up his father's corporate monolith.

Ah, but uncovering deeply buried secrets is easy, Arthur objects, when compared to embedding a foreign idea. Apparently the host mind is quick to perceive the introduction of an alien thought, and will create mental defenses to repel and even destroy the invader, much the way white blood cells will overwhelm an infection site.

OK, fine, whatever...

Dom and Arthur assemble a team, much the way Peter Graves' Jim Phelps cherry-picked associates for each Mission: Impossible caper. Eames (Tom Hardy) can "forge" another identity in somebody else's dream, effectively becoming a trusted friend or family member. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is an unorthodox pharmacologist who devises the drug cocktails that keep subjects  and invaders  in dream sleep, while allowing a means for controlled waking.

Saito insists on coming along for the ride, to protect his investment.

Ariadne (Ellen Page), finally, is a university architectural student given the opportunity to "build" the dream landscapes. It's necessary for such realms to appear real to the dreaming subject, again to maintain the necessary level of verisimilitude. As the team's token newbie, Ariadne is our conduit to all this crazy stuff: the person who asks the questions that force explanations from Dom, so that she  and we  can make sense of all this twaddle.

Funny thing, though: Ariadne also is a savvy psychologist, since she quickly perceives that bad things are rattling around in Dom's subconscious ... and that such distractions could have deadly consequences once the dream thieves infiltrate a host mind in order to do their thing.

About those deadly consequences: Dying in a dream can be a quick way to regain consciousness in the real world, but only in a surface dream. But Dom and his crew are planning to "incept" Robert Fischer by layering several levels of dreams within dreams, and dying within a deeper level results in the invading dreamer's banishment to a limbo-like purgatory, where years can pass during single minutes in the actual waking world.

Mostly, though, all this mumbo-jumbo is Nolan's excuse to populate these dream worlds with nifty visuals  buildings erupting like flowers from a barren landscape, or crashing down in noisy shards; city streets folding over on themselves, becoming Escher-like environments with cars traveling at vertical perpendiculars to each others  and gun-toting, car-chasing assassins.

Indeed, the deepest level of Ariadne's faux constructs resembles the ski-chasing battles from the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service: a pretty thin excuse for inserting action violence into the rarefied premise of dream sleep.

And in so doing, Nolan falls into the same trap that snared director/scripter Peter Jackson, when he recently adapted Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Jackson became so fixated by the dead Saoirse Ronan's afterlife landscape, in all its colorful weirdness, that he failed to pay sufficient attention to the necessary drama involving the living characters, most notably how a mother would react to the death of her daughter.

Nolan similarly glosses over the human element in this story, and spends far too much time with gunfire and chaotic vehicular pursuits. (It would seem that dreamscape bad guys can't hit a damn thing they shoot at, much like their waking-world counterparts in countless dumb action flicks.)

It's therefore impossible to care a jot about any of these characters  none of whom has a back-story, aside from Dom  or be concerned over their potential peril. Actual danger? In a dream? Where all rules of movement and behavior change from one moment to the next?

Page is a remarkably intelligent and gifted actress, and she does her best to give Ariadne legitimate reasons for caring about Dom, and for wanting to help him root out his psychoses. But it's an uphill struggle, and DiCaprio doesn't help much; his default handling of Dom is as a morose, exhausted, gaunt-eyed automaton whose extensive activities in the dream state have left him unable to properly process real-world concerns. As we're repeatedly told.

Similarly, it's difficult to get a bead on the complicated relationship between Dom and Mal. DiCaprio and Cotillard speak their lines with reasonable conviction, but the dynamic uniting these two simply doesn't resonate. (It doesn't help that we recently watched DiCaprio deal with similar mental phantasms earlier this year, in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.)

Gordon-Levitt and Hardy inject flickering moments of mordant humor, and Michael Caine does his usual commendable work at Dom's father-in-law, Miles. I'm hard-pressed to understand why Miles would be so sympathetic toward Dom, however, once necessary details are revealed to us.

Nolan apparently is striving for the sort of dual universe that made the first Matrix film such a marvelous gotcha, particularly when Keanu Reeves first tumbled out of his (our) humdrum illusory world, and woke in the gloppy brain scan chamber monitored by the sophisticated man-made computers and machines that had taken over the Earth and enslaved humanity. Now that was a head-trip.

It also made sense, to a point (much less so, in the two sequels).

Inception really doesn't make sense. Too many questions abound, starting with where all this dream-invasive tech came from in the first place. Who hired Dom to invade Saito's mind, and why? Who invented these suitcase-size mechanisms? Does anybody else have them except Dom and his team? Knowing of the existence of such tech, could anybody ever trust that any experience is real?

For that matter, what bloody year is it?

And the biggie: Why would anybody, for any length of time, knowingly place his or her vulnerable, unconscious body at the mercy of anybody wandering into the room ... not to mention trusting his or her mind to an unpredictable dream state manipulated by somebody with glaringly obvious but undiagnosed psychoses?

We're to swallow the notion that Page's Ariadne, an obviously intelligent young woman, would do this capriciously, with scarcely a second thought?

Only in your dreams, Christopher.

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