The time has come for Christopher Nolan to scale back. After four straight films that actually fit hyperbolic descriptors like “grandiose” and “epic,” one senses that a trend is emerging. As Nolan’s images become increasingly grand and assuredly awe-inspiring, the returns on the substantive aspects of his films are steadily diminishing. The trend, unfortunately, continues with his latest blockbuster, “Inception,” which was released this week on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Leonardo DiCaprio leads the cast of “Inception” through a twisty, turny, but mostly convoluted plot that borrows bits of “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Mulholland Dr.”, “La Jetée”, and “The Matrix.” DiCaprio, playing the awkwardly named Dom Cobb, is an international fugitive specializing in the extraction of secrets from a person’s subconscious while they dream. The wealthy and enigmatic Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to implant an idea into the subconscious of the weakling son (Cillian Murphy) of a dying competitor (Pete Postlethwaite). For reasons that remain intentionally vague, Watanabe needs Murphy to believe that the perishing patriarch wants his son to break up his inherited energy conglomerate. In exchange for this service, Saito promises to return Cobb to America and his children with a single phone call. The stakes are high, as inception is a difficult and risky procedure that requires entering dreams within dreams within dreams. Nothing comes easy when dealing with the subconscious.
When enumerating the many problems of summer blockbusters, the lack of thoughtful (and thought-provoking) big-budget spectacle seems to be the problem mentioned most often. Bombastic action movies, adolescent comedies, and CGI-animated kid films monopolize the screens at multiplexes, leaving little room for anything whose goal is to inspire as much thought as awe. In this respect, “Inception” is an exceptional film. No matter how derivative the plot feels at times, the film is an action blockbuster that asks you to think. Nolan deserves a lot of credit for the images he creates: deserted cities crumble into a subconscious sea; trains plow through streets full of cars; Paris folds in on itself; extremely slow motion is used extremely liberally (but never wears out its welcome); and zero gravity fights give way to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt lassoing a group of his floating compatriots and hauling their weightless bodies into an elevator. Nolan, even in all of this eye-popping grandeur, never loses focus during the small moments or lets the big spectacle overwhelm the frame. His camera is always flawlessly placed and his staging always flawlessly executed. At this, he remains masterful.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film falls flat. The performances aren’t bad, per se, but they’re lifeless. Nolan simply doesn’t know what to do with the enormously gifted cast he has assembled. Ellen Page’s natural charm struggles to shine through her character’s role as an exposition depository. The enormous talent of Gordon-Leavitt is similarly wasted as clunky dialog rips away his mischievous gravitas. He typifies a problem most of the cast faces (Marion Cotillard withstanding) in that the characters are little more than husks and Nolan’s elaborate, mechanical plot doesn’t allow them room to fill that vacuum. DiCaprio fares the worst, though. Cobb lacks a compelling inner struggle, forcing DiCaprio to glower and sulk gloomily in lieu of portraying genuine emotion. It is a good performance, but ultimately one that is ill suited for the film, which might’ve fared better had the portrayal been lighter. As it stands, DiCaprio’s brooding demeanor overwhelms nearly everyone around him and forces a severity and over-importance on all.
Nolan’s biggest problem isn’t the dialog. It isn’t the performances, Hans Zimmer’s thudding, ubiquitous score, or even the needlessly complicated plot construction (it’s not as complicated as you’ve heard, but it does require your constant attention). The big problem is that Nolan simply isn’t up to the task that he put in front of himself. He is too literal-minded in his depictions of a dream world to create a compelling rendition of the unconscious. Portraying the subconscious as a construct lacks the courage to depict it for what it is; a jumbled, hazy maze of thoughts, memories and fantasies where reality is never entirely clear. Nolan’s is more like several realistic action films jammed together; everything is clear, everyone is recognizable. Placing the majority of the action within the subconscious affords Nolan the ability to flex his $160 million dollar budget and come up with some memorable images in the process, but it doesn’t ever explore the subconscious in a meaningful way. Where David Lynch had the courage to confuse, reverse course, and circle back to images and scenes in his dreamscape film, “INLAND EMPIRE,” “Inception” reveals Nolan’s unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to adequately address the nature of dreams, the unconscious, or the perception of reality. Questions linger at the end of this two and a half hour tome, but none of them are particularly compelling or worth the weighty thought the film pleads with the audience to them.