It won’t take a viewer long to notice that Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending movie Inception has a lot in common with the Wachowski Brothers’ reality-questioning Matrix trilogy. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio (as Dom Cobb) is our new Morpheus, expertly manipulating the virtual reality, except this time he’s an “extractor” who steals corporate secrets by entering a target’s dreams. When he gets hired to plant an idea into a target’s mind (which is what they call “inception”), he recruits newbie Ellen Page as their team “architect” (a term that may ring a bell with Matrix fans). The plot continues to get complicated as Cobb’s past (in the form of Marion Cotillard as his wife Mal) starts to intrude on their dream realities, and the movie gets more convoluted as well.
Unfortunately, as the movie’s “game logic” began to get more confusing, I tried to keep track of things in my mind and decipher all the rules of their realities. As I was trying to connect the dots, I found it challenging to stay absorbed in the story because of all the confusion. Some things were clearly explained while others just seemed there to introduce more difficulty for the characters. Case in point: according to the movie, being injured in a dream is painful because pain is a mental construct; but being killed is merely an exit. However, when the team’s patron Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) is shot in the dream, he starts to bleed out and his health gradually deteriorates to the point of dying, which doesn’t make sense if the only reality is the pain, and pain is just a mental construct. I had very similar experience with the first Matrix movie. I remember going on and on about plot holes as I walked with my friends to the parking lot. I got hung up on these inconsistencies, but the coolness factor kept me coming back and I eventually got past those issues to really enjoy the film. I think the same will be true of Inception, because there’s plenty of coolness here too.
DiCaprio does a good job with his usual sense of dramatic urgency. Cotillard is wonderful, playing Mal as steely yet fragile. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Cobb’s right-hand man and seems to have the most fun with the special-effects (he gets to float around in zero-gravity, and dangle people off the edge of physics-defying stairwells). Unfortunately there is not as much of the fantastic effects that you would have expected from a movie about dreams. I guess Nolan thought it would have added even more chaos if people started turning into pigs or opening the bathroom door led into the Sahara desert or something. (Apparently Nolan made a conscious effort to use CGI only as a last resort, thus somewhat limiting the phantasmagoria in the film.) Surprisingly, what he didn’t avoid was cutting between the nested realities that had been set up as dreams within dreams. Though it wasn’t hard to tell them apart by their settings, I think it would have been much simpler to finish up in one dream before showing what’s happening in the other.
I’m not against complexity — in fact I really enjoy it — but I wonder how much of it was really necessary. There’s evidence that Nolan could have made the rules of Inception’s dream world more clear and meaningful because he did it with one specific element that he used for the very last scene. I’m not going to spoil it, but that last one second of the movie did wonders for redeeming the entire film in my mind. From his past films such as Memento, The Prestige, and even Dark Knight, Nolan shows that he’s a master of non-linear narrative structure. So, it surprises me that he didn’t employ more of that finesse to the Russian-doll realities that he was juggling in this film. Despite my complaints, no other movie this year has been as thought-provoking or as inventive (4 out of 5 … at least until I rewatch).