Sunday, July 18, 2010
Reflections on Inception
I’ll never forget the dream sequence in Vertigo. As brief as it is, as cartoonish as it is in the light of what CGI can do today, it never fails to chill me, and when we consider the ordeal Scottie has endured prior to his nightmare, it packs an emotional punch, and the tense romantic relationship Hitchcock has so artfully developed has brought us to that punch. Recently, when it comes to films which present a dream world or a world inside someone’s mind, I can still recall the disturbing grotesqueries of The Cell (2000), created by CGI and amazing costume design, and the vivid, stunning images of the storyworld imagined by the crippled stuntman in The Fall (2008), images created by breathtaking shots of real settings. But after my first viewing of Inception, Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller about “extractors” who use a technology called Inception to enter a man’s dreams and plant the seed of an idea from which they will benefit, I expected some punch-delivering imagery, but I couldn't think of an image that beckoned me to go back and see it again.
I also found myself thinking of Vertigo early on in the movie when Hans Zimmer's rather repetitious score seems to echo the main theme that accompanies Hitchcock's classic depiction of the haunting, forbidden, unreal yearning that grows between Scottie (Stewart) and Madeleine (Novack). Similarly, in Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory, in seemingly real form, of his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who beckons him back to a passionate but painful relationship that is totally unreal and as dreadful as death.
But watching Inception I was having trouble connecting with it on the kind of emotionally gripping level that Hitchcock creates in his classic thriller. As much as I was intrigued by the premise and the journey into three dream levels, I felt there was too much information to take in. I was too busy listening - and Watannabe and Hardy's accents didn't help the situation. There seemed to be no time to connect emotionally with a story that I objectively found fascinating. My initial response - to echo a key word in the story - was "disappointed," disappointed by the film's lack of impact though I had been moderately entertained by its ideas, psychological themes, and sci-fi storyline.
I decided immediately that I had to see it again. I had to iron out my comprehension of the many plot elements. I would look forward to my favorite image: the diesel-driven train barreling down a congested city street. But I felt it wasn't the memorable image it could have been, as the whole film could have been, with better editing, less time spent on gunplay, and more time spent on clearly establishing the urgency of the predicaments the extractors find themselves in when they enter the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy - a wonderfully sensitive actor), the son of a dying energy magnate (Pete Postlethwaite), whose last word is "disappointed."
I couldn't fault the acting. Although Ken Watanabe as Saito never makes me care, and Tom Berenger as Browning is a weak link, each member of the extraction team delivers an earnest performance. As the extractors do their thing, I found myself thinking of The Sting, and you might find yourself thinking of Oceans Eleven though the operation is more of a confidence scam and less of a heist. In order to plant the inception of an idea in Robert’s mind that will benefit Saito financially and allow Dom Cobb to evade a fabricated murder charge that has kept him away from the States and his two children, the team gets together for a psychological flimflam that will take them to three levels of unreality. I’m very impressed with little Ellen Page as Ariadne, the "architect,” who molds the dreamscapes they must navigate. (Ooh-ah! In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus negotiate the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur.) One of the film’s strengths, Page uses her wide-eyed reaction to the power of Inception to take us along for the ride. The team also includes Tom Hardy as Eames, the "forger,” whose job it is to change his appearance (I can’t explain how) and impersonate key figures in the deception. Eames makes his presence count whenever he's on screen, and he provides a little comic relief along the way with his flip one-liners.
Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the "organizer” is mostly relegated to the duty of fighting off aggressive "subconscious projections" of the dreamer’s mind and planting charges to provide the falling-sensation “kick” that can jolt you out of a dream, he’s just plain cool in all he does and I wished he had been given more time for character development. I love his weightless conflict with adversaries in the tilting hallway, and I love it when he outwits an adversary by changing the direction of the stairway. Meanwhile, Dileep Rao, as Yusuf the "chemist,” and Cotillard, as Mal, are solid at what they do, but darn it if Michael Caine doesn’t shine once again in a few brief scenes.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I could have done with more CGI – more CGI and less shooting. Or, perhaps not necessarily more CGI but more dramatic introduction of the CGI employed by the film. When “limbo” (the place where dreamers go when they “die” under the influence of a heavy dose of sedation) could be any bizarre realm imaginable, why is it that Dom and Mal’s “limbo” is nothing much to look at? When the stronghold that Robert has been trained to dream up as a defense against extractors could be any amazing level upon level of impregnable defenses, why is it just a fake-looking James Bond villain's stronghold in a snowy canyon complete with a bland shooting ski chase straight out of a James Bond movie as well? And if Dom is jeopardizing the mission because of intrusions from his subconscious such as the barreling diesel engine, why isn’t this premise used to introduce more surprises, suspense, and stunning imagery elsewhere in the story?
The story is clever, the acting is solid, some of the imagery is promising, but this fairly entertaining thriller is seriously in need of editing. (I still feel that way after a second viewing.) In a film that cries out for an intense beginning, Dom Cobb’s entrance into Saito’s limbo and the cut to Cobb’s presence in Saito’s dream constitute a dull opening. There’s nothing immediately interesting here. When the film cuts suddenly from the room where the extraction team is supposedly inducing Saito’s dream to the rampaging "subconscious projections" rioting and blowing up buildings, there’s no tension or suspense because we have no idea what’s going on yet. Thus, the film's opening lacks impact. On second viewing, knowing what was going on, I was more engaged, but I still found it to be an unengaging opening to a film that becomes more engaging once the team is assembled, the ramifications of the different dream levels are explained, and planning problems are solved.
My second viewing was a remarkably different experience. Even though I knew what was going to happen, and I knew the meaning of a whole glossary of terms from "kick" to "totem," I was totally involved in the premise and ideas, and nicely gripped by the action - despite the inordinate amount of bland shooting at the snowy fortress - and especially because of the masterful parallel editing of the three dream levels as the team members move toward the "kicks." Also, with a clearer understanding of the story, I saw the imagery differently and found it more dramatic. This is a very good movie with an inventive story that is consistently gripping once the team members enter the first dream level, but with tighter editing, something more imaginative than numerous James Bond shootouts, a less disjointed, flat beginning, and clearer, more strategically placed explanations of how dream travel works, it could have been much stronger.