Inception

Movie Information

The Story: A man whose job is to steal information from people's dreams is charged with the task of instead using those dreams to implant an idea. The Lowdown: Dazzling, complex and with a surprisingly strong (especially considering the filmmaker) emotional core, Inception not only lives up to the hype, it largely surpasses it.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller Art-House Style
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard
Rated: PG-13

Inception is brilliant. Even its flaws are brilliant—and without its flaws and a few evidences of self-mocking humor, I’m not sure I’d like it nearly as well as I do. For the first time ever, I walked away from a Christopher Nolan film—and a big-budget, effects-heavy one, too—with an actual sense of the filmmaker’s humanity. That becomes more curious to me in light of the film’s detractors complaining about its lack of emotion. I wonder if we actually watched the same movie. (But then I wonder the same thing about the supporters of Cyrus.)

Depending on your frame of reference, Inception may remind you of many things. It immediately reminded me of Marc Forster’s Stay (2005), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). At the same time, it differs a great deal from these. Stay is visceral and enigmatic, where Inception tends to be cerebral and hides its enigmas. There’s imagery that’s almost straight out of Eternal Sunshine, but the film that Inception most felt like to me was Synecdoche. It’s also inevitably going to recall Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but I suspect this is more coincidental than not. At the same time, there’s one level of the film where it seems to turn into Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but it turns out to be O.H.M.S.S. with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at its core.

All that probably sounds confusing and derivative, but Inception is ultimately neither. Complaints that it’s hard to follow—with its levels of dream states—don’t surprise me, but also don’t hold true for me. I don’t recall ever having any great difficulty understanding what was going on. The story’s science—or lack thereof—doesn’t interest me. (I leave that to the nerdier fanboys, who want to come up with definite “answers” to what really happened without realizing that a large part of the experience lies in personal reading.) I’m willing to simply accept Nolan’s premise and go with it.

The premise—reduced to its simplest (ha!) level—involves Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who has taken industrial espionage to a new level by invading a subject’s dreams and accessing the dreamer’s secrets in them. He is also a man with issues and a central problem, the latter involving a desire to go back home to the U.S. and his children, but that’s thwarted by the fact that there’s a murder charge hanging over him for supposedly killing his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). An opportunity arises to change that when an influential and wealthy industrialist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), promises he can and will settle things if Cobb can go into someone’s dreams and plant a thought rather than extract one. Specifically, he wants to plant the seed in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up his dying father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) business empire. Conventional wisdom—generally expressed by Cobb’s prosaic-minded assistant, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—says this is impossible. Cobb says otherwise.

A large chunk of the movie consists of setting up the concept combined with a fairly traditional variation on the heist film structure of assembling a crack team for the purpose. Nolan here offers us an interesting blend of popular moviemaking and art-house fare. It’s actually one of the best commerce and art balancing acts I’ve seen in some time. One thing that sets Inception apart—and this has troubled some viewers—is that it alters a key point in the heist scenario. Where the audience is normally kept from being able to quite grasp how it will work (the better to dazzle you with), here the participants themselves are being deliberately kept in the dark on several aspects. This results in a deliberate detachment from Cobb that makes him too distant for the viewer to much care about—at least during the first section of the film. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

Nolan has finally crafted a film—a wonderful puzzle of a film—with a strong emotional component. His previous attempts at doing so have always felt forced to me—like he’s going though the motions because he realizes he needs to, but isn’t really connected to them himself. Here, however, the ending scenes (especially one single line from a passport official) provide an emotional punch unlike any I’ve encountered this year. And I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with a single viewing. There’s more in Inception than I realize at this point. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

48 thoughts on “Inception

  1. Ken Hanke

    Is there no Cyrus review?

    Yes, unfortunately, there is. It somehow didn’t get online. I’ve alerted the webmaster.

  2. Dread P. Roberts

    Glad to see you enjoyed this Ken. I haven’t seen all of the films in your ‘top ten thus far’ list, but this one would definitely go near the top of mine. Irronically, I put it up with DeCaprio’s other movie of the year, Shutter Island. I must say, DeCaprio is having an impressive year for quality film output.

    All that probably sounds confusing and derivative, but Inception is ultimately neither. Complaints that it’s hard to follow—with its levels of dream states—don’t surprise me, but also don’t hold true for me. I don’t recall ever having any great difficulty understanding what was going on.

    Thank you, I agree. I was ultimately more confused by a review or two that I read, faulting the film for being incoherently confusing. I went in with expecting to get lost, but ultimately found it rather easy to follow. One review stated that the viewer won’t have any clue what’s going on during one sequence when the group is being tied up while floating in mid-air, but I understood perfectly what was going on – and so did the company that I was with.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t layers of complexity (treasures to uncover at latter viewings) hidden beneath it all, because I think that there absolutely is – espessially in pertaining to Cobb’s personal demons, and dream ‘state‘.

    I leave that to the nerdier fanboys, who want to come up with definite “answers” to what really happened without realizing that a large part of the experience lies in personal reading.

    *SPOILERS*

    Just out of curiousity, are you partly referring to the very end, with the spinning top, right before the credits roll. I loved how the question of whether or not he was still dreaming was ultimately left up to the viewer to decide. I think it opens up the possibility to add another level of fun, in trying to decipher if there is an answer to that question, hidden somewhere within the films framework. I was prepared to ask you, Ken, if you had come to any conclusion, and if so, what it might be? But it sounds like putting thought into that isn’t really of interest to you?

    Also, for the sake of random nit-picking, I have a question about Cobb’s wife being confused. Earlier in the movie, when Cobb is explaining the point of a totem, he states that his spinning top totem was his wifes, and that the whole idea came from her. So if she was more aware of how to contemplate what was reality – and what wasn’t – then why would she be the one who was ultimately so confused? If the top theory held true, then all she would have to do is spin the top, and know is she was awake or asleep, right? Was this a plot-hole, or a deliberate referrence that perhaps Cobb was/is the one who’s lost? …hmmm

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    This movie had no imagination of dreams … which was what it was all about. 2 1/2 stars at best!!

    TJ, you’re certainly entited to this opinion, but I can’t help but think that the problem is simply that it didn’t match up to what you wanted from a film relating to the “imagination of dreams” – moreso than the actual quality of the film. Am I misreading your statement?

    My interpretation was that we, the audience, were participating in Nolan’s fully realised personal dreamscape. Irronically, I appreciated the fact that the movie didn’t feel like he was just throwing out ‘cool stuff’ that Nolan thought the audience might have fun with. That stuff was in the movie, but (to me) it always felt within the boundaries of Nolans own vision; never just tacked-on. Everything had a point.

    It sounds like you might really enjoy Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). It’s one of (if not the) favorite movies of mine from last year. Based on your comment, I recommend that. It might fill that void for what you’re looking for, sir.

  4. TokyoTaos

    I don’t know if I’ve ever had quite as strange an experience with a movie as I have had with this one. First off I had extremely high expectations going into it (never a good idea with any movie) based on my enjoyment of Nolan’s previous films and my general love of complex movies with multiple layers and possibilities – but I left the movie feeling strangely unsatisfied. I was even bored a couple of times and found my mind wandering. And yet …
    I’ve continued thinking about this movie (and it’s three days since I’ve seen it), my mind mulling over concepts within it and the alternate possibilities that didn’t come to me until later. One concept I loved was the difference in a dreamer’s experience of time with each deeper level of dreaming and the idea of ‘kicking’ the dreamers up from one level to the next.
    ***SPOILER*** One alternate possibility that struck me about ten minutes after the movie ended was that Cobb was actually the one still in a dream while his wife Mal is the one who has already awakened (and not really killed herself.) It’s a fascinating possibility in itself but there were a couple of hints at it in the movie as well (or my interpretation of it.) First, when Cobb is remembering Mal’s jump from the hotel (and telling Araidne about it) the room behind Mal looks exactly the same as the room behind Cobb as he sits on the window ledge across from her – which would be very unlikely in reality. Also when he finally meets up with his kids at the end of the movie their position out in the yard is exactly the same as it has been in all his memories of them – again highly unlikely in reality.
    I guess I’ll be watching this movie again!

  5. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t seen all of the films in your ‘top ten thus far’ list, but this one would definitely go near the top of mine.

    I’m not even trying to put mine in order yet — and Clapton knows what’s yet to come. At the moment, I’d say it and Shutter Island, Micmacs, I Am Love and The Ghost Writer comprise the top 5 in some order or other — at least for now.

    Just out of curiousity, are you partly referring to the very end, with the spinning top

    More or less.

    I was prepared to ask you, Ken, if you had come to any conclusion, and if so, what it might be? But it sounds like putting thought into that isn’t really of interest to you?

    In a way it isn’t if only because I think things that are deliberately ambiguous should be left that way. The best you’re going to get is how it feels to you. And how I feel on a single viewing may very well be different on a second or a third or 15th. What happens after a cut to black is pure speculation in any case.

  6. Dread P. Roberts

    Also when he finally meets up with his kids at the end of the movie their position out in the yard is exactly the same as it has been in all his memories of them – again highly unlikely in reality.

    I hadn’t thought about the hotel scene, but the children memory did stick out to me. Plus, they look like they’re the exact same age, and I believe their clothes were the same, too. Hell, everything about that scene might be the same – I’d have to watch it again in further detail.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I can’t help but think that the problem is simply that it didn’t match up to what you wanted from a film relating to the “imagination of dreams”

    I think if one wants “the imagination of dreams,” Stay would be a better choice. These, after all, are designed dreams. That’s the whole reason that there’s an architect. Then too, the imagination of dreams aspect works on the assumption that everyone dreams the same way. I’m not sure that’s true.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I’ve continued thinking about this movie (and it’s three days since I’ve seen it), my mind mulling over concepts within it and the alternate possibilities that didn’t come to me until later.

    You’re hitting on one of the reasons that I don’t like to comment too much on movies right after I’ve seen them. At least that’s true of films that have any degree of depth. I’ll be happy to rant immediately after a Furry Vengeance.

    Actually, your remarks remind me a lot of those of a friend of mine (though he never found it boring), who recited a litany of things he wished had been done differently and still kept coming back to the “and yet” of not being able to let go of the film.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I hadn’t thought about the hotel scene, but the children memory did stick out to me. Plus, they look like they’re the exact same age, and I believe their clothes were the same, too. Hell, everything about that scene might be the same – I’d have to watch it again in further detail.

    I think this is open to a number of interpretations — none of which I’d care to wrestle to the ground on one viewing. But it could just be this is the scene he’s been playing over in his head so long that it’s how it feels to him — that this is where his timeline with them was fractured and now it plays out differently. I’d have to actually watch it for — among other things — the way the shots are broken down.

  10. Tony K

    ****Spoilers****

    “Also when he finally meets up with his kids at the end of the movie their position out in the yard is exactly the same as it has been in all his memories of them – again highly unlikely in reality.”

    They are in the same position, but as for their age and dress, I’ve noticed in other online discussions that people have pointed out that there are 2 different sets of children playing his kids, and not surprisingly, the two little actors in the final scene are 2 years older than the 2 in the dream scenes (someone also said the clothes are slightly different).

    Another person had pointed out that in the movie, whenever he’s in a dream, he has his wedding ring on his finger, as that’s where him and Mal can be together, but when he’s in “reality” he doesn’t have it on. I’ll have to watch for that on a second viewing, but the same poster commented that he didn’t have it on in the final scene, indicating that it was reality. Also, if you pay attention, while we don’t see or hear the top fall down, it does start to wobble before the cut to black.

  11. Me

    Tony K everything ive read online said that the children did not change and the clothes were exactly the same.

  12. Wow. That was quite something. I’ve never been as ignorant of a movie coming in before – I knew nothing at all of the story, and I was glad of that!
    I started off thinking it was THE SCORE and halfway through it turned into SHUTTER ISLAND.
    Thankfully, I had a 25 minute walk home to digest the film after. A very… impactful experience.

  13. Dread P. Roberts

    Thanks for the article…um…Me. That was a great, interesting breakdown. I really do need to see this movie again. Ironically, Reading #2 seems very much in line with DeCaprio’s last film, Shutter Island. I wonder how much that plays into people’s perception? The timing of the two films might be an odd conincidence. It certainly hadn’t occured to me that the plots could be that similar – but who knows?

  14. Ken Hanke

    The timing of the two films might be an odd conincidence.

    Apart from the fact that the timing is somewhat artificial — Shutter Island was supposed to come out months earlier than it did — I don’t see how it could be anything other than coincidental, especially if we accept the idea that Nolan’s been working on the script for years.

    In the end, I’m inclined to think — no matter how much I like the film — that Nolan deliberately made what used to be called a “cocktail party picture” — that is, one that people will stand around at a cocktail party and debate. There’s nothing wrong with that and I don’t mean it as a criticism. It’s a concept that has been applied to Fellini in some cases.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    I don’t see how it could be anything other than coincidental, especially if we accept the idea that Nolan’s been working on the script for years.

    I agree – I was merely trying to be more subtle.

    In the end, I’m inclined to think—no matter how much I like the film—that Nolan deliberately made what used to be called a “cocktail party picture”—that is, one that people will stand around at a cocktail party and debate.

    While I can buy into that to an extent, I still think that there’s more to it than that. I feel that the various merits of the movie shouldn’t be downplayed just because the movie is intentionally set up for debate.

  16. Ken Hanke

    While I can buy into that to an extent, I still think that there’s more to it than that. I feel that the various merits of the movie shouldn’t be downplayed just because the movie is intentionally set up for debate.

    I tried to make it clear that I didn’t consider that automatically a bad thing. There are films where I do. This isn’t one of them.

  17. Tony K

    @Me

    From IMDB:

    Claire Geare … Phillipa (3 years)
    Magnus Nolan … James (20 months)

    Taylor Geare … Phillipa (5 years)
    Johnathan Geare … James (3 years)

  18. Dirk

    So figuring out the filmmaker’s logic and discerning plot holes is only for “fanboys.” Didn’t know that.

  19. Ken Hanke

    So figuring out the filmmaker’s logic and discerning plot holes is only for “fanboys.” Didn’t know that.

    And I didn’t say that, so we’re even.

  20. Dread P. Roberts

    I tried to make it clear that I didn’t consider that automatically a bad thing. There are films where I do. This isn’t one of them.

    Sorry, I re-read your previous comment, and it looks like I just misread/misunderstood you the first time.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Sorry, I re-read your previous comment, and it looks like I just misread/misunderstood you the first time.

    No need to apologize. I wasn’t mad or even annoyed. I just wanted to clarify my position.

  22. kjh.childers

    Watched it last night … mesmerized to the end and walked out of Carmike theatre wondering if I still sat in my seat, cast adrift in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream … down there where Leo finds Saito :-)

    Classic film making – one I will add to my private collection once DVDs arrive.

  23. Mike C.

    Excepting some of the set design, I didn’t notice anything “brilliant” about this movie. The alpine fortress scene was pure filler and seemed right out of “Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” including the faux John Barry music. Now there’s a scene that could have used Diana Rigg. Besides that, I was entertained, and that’s all I want from a big budget flick.

  24. S. Wolf

    INCEPTION was the first time I was sorry I didn’t wear a watch. Why? Because, had I been wearing one, it would have given me something else to watch other than this movie. Improbable plot apparently made up on the fly with people making or breaking consistency rules as called for, no likeable characters, a lead who’ll probably be strangled later by one of the people he knowingly put at risk, not to mention an ending telegraphed from light years away. It doesn’t get much worse.

  25. Josh

    Did you feel as if there was a comparison to this film with Bladeruuner, simply in the way the last shot of both films left it open ended. I couldn’t help but feel a similarity and was wondering about your thoughts on that.

  26. Ken Hanke

    Did you feel as if there was a comparison to this film with Bladeruuner, simply in the way the last shot of both films left it open ended. I couldn’t help but feel a similarity and was wondering about your thoughts on that.

    I can’t say that it did, but Bladerunner isn’t a film that’s all that etched into my brain, so it’s not as apt to cross-reference in my mind as a lot of movies are. (I’ve seen it maybe three times over the years.) The comparison, however, is certainly reasonable, though neither film has a lock on final scenes that are designed to leave a film open ended.

  27. What makes this movie significant to me is, I think the implantation of ideas into the subconscious is entirely possible. I bet this is already being done. I’d love to be able to actively hang out in some of my dreams.

    Could have done without the filler Alpine fortress and frankly went over my head as to what it was about.

  28. John r

    I enjoyed the film,but left with as many questoins unanswered as answered. The gravity defying effects felt too long to me. The ending led to some interesting discussions, and it was noted that of the six of us that saw the movie, there were six different perspectives, and nobody had a strong enough stand to change anybody elses view.

  29. Ken Hanke

    The ending led to some interesting discussions, and it was noted that of the six of us that saw the movie, there were six different perspectives, and nobody had a strong enough stand to change anybody elses view.

    I kind of like that.

  30. DrSerizawa

    Just saw it in Imax. Wow. One of the most intelligent SciFi movies. It reminded me much of the topnotch time travel novel “Dinosaur Beach” by Keith Laumer. Yes, “Inception” is not time travel but it masterfully reveals multiple layers of reality in a similar fashion. Definitely a repeat viewer. The ending was, well, perfect. 5 stars most definitely.

    Now here’s hoping other film makers can get a clue and give us more creativity rather than dumb, bloated, CGI-fests.

  31. goldens

    Well the critics give it high ratings. Me? I almost walked out midway because of the sound and the adolescent quality of the film. Not to mention how hard they tried trying to get us to feel something, (music, special effects, etc), but never managing to do it. It reminded me of online game sites that the 20-something crowds are addicted to… 4-movies-in-one of chase scenes and false emotion! yippee ki yay. I felt like blowing my brains out.

  32. The StarWolf

    Goldens – I WOULD have walked out, save the theatre row I was in the middle of was packed and I didn’t want to disturb the other patrons. Any time a director BEGINS his film the way this guy did, he’s essentially telling the audience “Don’t bother getting involved in the story or characters because I’ve just shown you anything can turn out to be a dream/fantasy/unreal, so why should you care?” As for “open to interpretation”, that tells me this was badly scripted. The writer is too lazy/incompetent to come up with something worthwhile and has the audience do his work for him.

  33. Seneca

    yeah, Nolan can be a bit suffocatingly serious at times. nice to see him employ lighter moments. he sprinkled some of those over the Dark Knight, which helped immeasurably.

  34. Rick

    The biggest flaw starts after you get the popcorn and sit down, and the movie begins. Its a overated yawnfest and more importantly a sign of Americans and their egos so ready to toot their own horns for seeing the intelligent feature Inception and yet its as interesting as a bread and air sandwich. Be honest you brown eyed (for good reasons) peole and watch a replay of the condom scene in Skin Deep with John Ritter. Better yet if you like folding cities rent Dark City

  35. Dread P. Roberts

    Rick, the tone of your comment indicates that your ‘opinion’ is superior to the opinion of others, who enjoyed the movie. Do you not see the irrony in declaring “Americans and their egos” to be wrong for their opinion of a SUBJECTIVE medium? Please point out a more egotistical comment than yours on this particular forum.

    Furthermore, Nolan has openly admitted to having been influenced by other sources/films (just like 99.9% of all artists), and has even sited some of those influences, like the wonderful Paprika.

    How is enjoying this, or any other, film indicative of one brown-nosing? Who exactly would we (the audience who dared to have the nerve to enjoy said film) be brown-nosing?

    Also, my eyes are blue, and I have no idea what the hell a ‘peole‘ is, but I’m certainly NOT one.

  36. “Its a overated yawnfest and more importantly a sign of Americans and their egos so ready to toot their own horns for seeing the intelligent feature Inception and yet its as interesting as a bread and air sandwich.”

    And you are the grand arbiter of movie taste? Sez who.

  37. Ken Hanke

    Oh, ho-hum, the movie comes out on DVD and the couch brigade emerge from their basements to tell the rest of us we’re full of shit for liking something.

  38. I just watched it again on DVD and, while it loses some of its scope on the smaller screen, it still holds up for me. This is my third viewing, after two in the cinema.

    And god, this better win the Sound Mixing oscar!

  39. Chris

    Ken, can you explain your comment regarding the single line from the passport official at the end of the movie? I am baffled as I didn’t pick up any special significance from the line though I admit that I am no cognescenti of film. Thanks.

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