by R.L. Shaffer
I have very mixed emotions regarding Christopher Nolan's latest opus, a mind warping adventure about dream thieves. On some level, Inception is a brutally imaginative spectacle -- an amazing achievement on nearly every level, from cinematography to visual effects to story, performances -- you name it. It also seems to complete an informal trilogy for Nolan which started with the mind-bending thriller, Memento, and continued in the equally twisted 2006 film, The Prestige.
But, on another level, the film simply isn't emotionally satisfying. Sure, we like the motley crew of heroes and villains, who all seem borrowed from a Mission: Impossible episode. Sure, we like our confused anti-hero lead (DiCaprio). He plays like a sci-fi variant of James Bond. And yes, the story provides enough layers of complexity for the hardcore geeks to chew on all while relating that material to the mainstream in a very accessible way, which is no easy feat.
That said, Inception still feels empty, much like a dream. Or rather, like Blade Runner, the beloved cult classic (and allegedly Nolan's favorite film) that questions the fabric of reality and also happens to have an oddly emotionless core. It seems Nolan's desire to create his very own Blade Runner has forced him to copy the film's structure, from it's procedural narrative, to it's moody melodramatic score and tortured, underdeveloped characters.
The problem is, we're never really sure we like the characters he's forcing us to invest in. We only know their flaws. We have no real concept of who they are outside Nolan's dizzying tangled narrative. In the film, Ellen Page's character is brought on the "team" to help create the landscape for a dream. She quickly learns of DiCaprio's weakness and attempts to coach him through his faults. But never once does Nolan question who she is. We know absolutely nothing about her, other than she's a student. Her development stops at DiCaprio's problem.
It's flaws like this that create a functioning disconnect to the entire story. Looking back at Nolan's first major film, Memento, one can quickly see how each character is drawn into the narrative. We know every single character-- who they are and who they were before the film began. In fact, one aspect of film's point is that our lead must learn exactly who he used to be. Same goes for Nolan's other features. When characters are blended into the story, there tends to be back stories and/or visual character development for each of the leads and supporting characters, to an appropriate extent, at least. Even The Joker gets a fascinating background simply by having none.
I guess one could argue that the film is, in some part, a mechanism of the subconscious and thus, we are receiving just the right amount of character development. But that suggests we understand exactly what Nolan is trying to say with his film. However, throughout the picture, he never really gives us enough of the pieces to complete his thought. What remains are theories. In that regard, the film plays like a big budget David Lynch drama. Mulholland Drive meets the 1984 cult film, Dreamscape, which, incidentally, bares a similar plot resemblance. But, on a purely intellectual level, the film is a magnificent descent into the labyrinth of Nolan's mind. The film whirls it's viewer through a myriad of intense dreamscapes, guided by fascinating dream logic, twisting and turning the narrative as our characters travel further into the subconscious of their subject (played by Nolan-vet Cillian Murphy).
Mainstream audiences might find the project immensely exciting (particularly the gravity defying duel featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but ultimately a bit too ambitious. However, Inception is certain to leave a very specific audience wanting, but in the best way imaginable. This is the sort of film that's destined to ignite forum boards and late-night discussions for years to come creating fiery debate among film geeks, sci-fi nuts and metaphysical types. The film is, after all, a clever hybrid of other much-discussed cult classics of similar origins (the film is deeply rooted in the works of Philip K. Dick as well).
Don't let this review deter you from playing in Nolan's playground. In a lot of ways, the movie is a work of unbridled genius. But like so many geniuses, there's an emotional connection that seems to be missing. Forgive Nolan of this error, and you're bound to find an enjoyably dazzling, complex adventure. Even so, I guess I just prefer Nolan when he's playing around with Batman. His side projects are certainly enjoyable and I'd hate to see him stop making them, but Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply more metaphorical, viscerally entertaining and emotionally rounded films.