Review: Inception Hotwires But Doesn’t Quite Hijack Your Brain

Editor’s Note: This review includes a few details that may be considered spoilers, depending on how uninformed you want to be when you see Inception.

Remember that brilliant, twisted scene in The Dark Knight when The Joker announces to those two ferries — one full of convicts, one full of civilians — that if one of the boats doesn’t blow the other one up, they’ll both explode in an hour?

Inception makes your brain feel like it did in that scene, but for almost the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. Christopher Nolan’s latest mindf*ck, in characteristic fashion, digs up a and connects a series of these kinds of paradoxical scenarios, like some kind of subterranean, subconscious master-planned community. Unfortunately, Inception doesn’t fold up into itself as neatly as that bit of Nolan’s last Batman movie. But if you think a good trip to the theater should pay off on the drive home, you can chase all kinds of mind-bending ideas down their respective rabbit holes and see where you end up.

In the world of Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a freelance dream-thief. He and his hand-picked team extract secrets from their marks by invading their dream worlds. But dream worlds aren’t always friendly places, and once you’re in someone’s mind, all sorts of Freudian shit can hit the fan. Stay in there too long or stir things up and a mark’s “projections” will hunt you relentlessly. And that’s hardly the half of it. In Cobb’s line of work, dreams can be strategically buried within other dreams, like metaphysical nesting dolls. Each subsequent dream builds on the foundation of the previous one, and some consequences echo through the layers so naturally its best to proceed with caution. Cobb is skilled so most jobs are as straightforward as shoplifting. Just in someone else’s brain.

“This forgettable setup is awfully pedestrian for a movie about the imagination, but it just lays the groundwork for what quickly unfolds into a sprawling, intricately imagined experience.”

And of course it’s business as usual until, in a disappointingly mundane setup, some ambiguously rich and powerful guy named Saito wants to shatter his rival’s empire. This involves getting into the dreams of the heir to the rival company and planting the seed that the company should be divvied up, which is dream “inception” rather than your usual crane machine style brainjacking (extraction). This sets the emotional stakes pretty low for the central dream heist, since the whole thing will immediately only benefit some dude’s stock portfolio and then hopefully Cobb, later, for reasons that aren’t initially clear. This forgettable setup is awfully pedestrian for a movie about the imagination, but it just lays the groundwork for what quickly unfolds into a sprawling, intricately imagined experience.

While its vast imagination is impressive, I think Inception‘s intricacies are its strongest suit. In particular, a few fascinating, feel-it-in-your-bones experiences resonate, like the “kick” that happens when you snap awake from half-sleep because you feel like you’re falling or the moment you realize you’re in a dream because you don’t know how you ended up where you are. These brilliant little reappropriated semi-thought experiments are the film’s highlights, and they usually involve the logic that governs dream architecture. Take Inception‘s totems. It makes a kind of visceral sense that we could find our way back to reality (or at least our own dreams) by consulting something as simple as an intimately familiar object. It’s imaginative, but intuitive. It also makes sense that in our dreams (which tend to mix the literal with the impressionistic, in equal parts) our secrets would manifest themselves in locked boxes, physical vaults in our interior lives revealed by our own frantic efforts to protect them, sentries and all.

In a mostly male cast dotted with the occasional dream-haunting madwoman, Ellen Page provided a refreshingly asexual female presence in what (on the surface) is a summer action film. Well, asexual to most moviegoers and to her co-stars, but not to those of us in the audience who know what it means when a woman wears a bandana. (Let’s just say, it bodes well.)

Weirdly, I found sidekick dreamjackers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy to be much more fun on screen than DiCaprio, Page or even Cillian Murphy. While I love the latter three in pretty much everything, I think each of their performances was more of a vessel for Inception‘s general cleverness. Most of the characters stayed out of the plot’s way, for better or worse. DiCaprio seemed watered down, Murphy looked sedated (along with his character) and Page didn’t really add much or take much away, either.

Unfortunately, Page’s character, Ariadne, got saddled with the kind of lines that narrate a story unnecessarily; after she witnesses some seriously unsettling stuff in Cobb’s head, Ariadne verbally reiterates all of the really obvious stuff the whole intra-Cobb part just showed us, like that he’s got some mega-volatile shit going on and it’s gonna get in the way of his job. Huh. We didn’t need to be handheld to that conclusion, but it’s a summer movie after all, I suppose.

“Nolan could’ve cut down on the snowmobiles and given us a few more scenes on how dream architecture works or just extended the zero-gravity fight sequence in the hotel, which was amazing.”

In that vein, toward the last quarter of the film, our dream-team enters some kind of arctic military stronghold that just seemed like a good excuse for Nolan to flex his blockbuster budget. These scenes felt weird and unnatural in what was otherwise a psychological thriller and not a round of Modern Warfare 2. It’s just hard to take violence seriously when everyone is dressed like a snow bunny for no apparent reason. A lot of time was wasted on mindless, uncreative action sequences that could’ve been devoted to any number of other impossibly interesting things going on in Inception. Nolan could’ve cut down on the snowmobiles and given us a few more scenes on how dream architecture works or just extended the zero-gravity fight sequence in the hotel, which was amazing.

Adrenaline aside, Inception engaged on a mainly intellectually level, but that isn’t to say that film didn’t pack an emotional impact. If you can get your mind to stop wrestling with the infinite regress of the dream states, the story between Mal and Cobb explored a few pretty hard-hitting questions. Could you resist the allure of living forever with someone you’ve lost? What could you give up? Is it possible to choose willful ignorance on such a large scale — could you reject reality entirely?

Ultimately, Inception was a taut, wickedly smart puzzle that will haunt you at least a little ways out of the theater. Perhaps it’s not as taut as the ferry scene from The Dark Knight, not as wickedly smart as Memento, nor as haunting as The Prestige. But when you don’t measure the director up against himself, there are very few other filmmakers who’ll make you think like this. Nolan twists our imaginations into a kind of sci-fi tangle, but he keeps us grounded in incredibly vivid realities, usually small, smart things, like the totem idea. If you like your movies to play out like an over-caffeinated philosophy class, then you’ll be happy to take Inception home with you to tug at all of its little conceptual knots. I know I am.

Taylor has written 137 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. “If you like your movies to play out like an over-caffeinated philosophy class, then you’ll be happy to take Inception home with you to tug at all of its little conceptual knots.”

    I know exactly what you mean. After I saw the movie, I got in my car, turned off the radio, and just sort of pondered on my way home. The philosophy of what reality really means to the characters and the viewers was a total win. I don’t remember the last time I’ve thought about a movie this much after I saw it initially…and then again…and again. It’s a movie that lives and breathes intellectually, not in hot chicks and explosions (which are awesome…but not altogether intellectually stimulating).

  2. Excellent review, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Looking forward to the film coming out on DVD to watch it again and again and again. One of the few films I’ve watched with a convincing alternative reality, I loved the decaying perfect world Mal and Cobb created for themselves

  3. great review. i definitely agree that a lot of the violence and big blockbuster scenes were really uncalled for. i really enjoyed the film, but i think the heist-themed plot could have been more intriguing and creative.

    but the thing i really love is just the overall ideas and concepts that the film touches. its definitely a movie that has had me thinking about it for days after viewing. maybe its just that i’ve always been intrigued by dreams and the thin separation between reality and fantasy (in a not harry potter way)

    its a very smart movie and i love nolan’s brain for movies like this and memento.

  4. Great movie. I agree that they could’ve taken out a few of the rather pointless action scenes and given us some more info on the technicalities of the whole dream-theft idea. I was left wanting more explanation as to how they induced their sleep states (did they use some sort of intravenous drip?), and just more about the whole concept in general.

  5. Fun fact of the day: In Greek mythology, Ariadne helped Theseus find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth with a ball of thread.

    I agree with your review Taylor except I felt like the action sequences were relevant though. Maybe they were a little over the top but considering the movie is taking place in people’s dreams, I was surprised they didn’t do more. Or maybe I’m just a guy who likes his action movies. In my opinion, as with the bank heist setup, it’s another familiar construct they chose to tell the story and I can’t fault them for trying to make Inception into a more marketable movie. (This is quite a remarkable thing for me to be saying after watching This Film Is Not Yet Rated, courtesy of Autostraddle, but I have to say it hasn’t made me totally cynical.)

  6. Can we talk about spoilers? Like, explicit end spoilers? I have some things to say about the ending but I don’t want to crush it for anyone. Suffice it to say that I think they were intentionally vague about the set-up.

      • Personally, I think the whole thing was a dream. All of it. I think we’re in Cobb’s dreamspace. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are a lot like that movie – vague set ups, but really detailed plot once the world is established. Remember when he talks about if you don’t know how you got there, you’re probably in a dream? I think that kind of applies to the plot as well.

        Also, the end. Its obvs a dream. Else why would his kids be in the same positioning and clothes?

        I’m also now hungover so maybe when I’ve had a little more sleep/water I’ll be able to articulate better.

  7. Maybe it’s just me, but I found this movie really straightfoward. But that might be that I read too much Charles Stross, idk.

    Someone pointed out to me that this film is an awful lot like Existenz. Anyone seen both like me? I see his point, but I think the feel was pretty different between the two… (Plus, no flesh guns. Thank god.)

  8. Modern Warfare 2. TOTALLY. I was sat there thinking ‘this scene looks SO familiar’, then I realised it was MW2, and all I could think of was having to sniper-kill some men with dogs.

    Apart from that though – I liked the film. It wasn’t quite as clever as I thought it would be (especially with that stellar cast). It was great – don’t get me wrong – I love a tense thriller, and it certainly was that.

    Marion Cotillard was gorgeous as always (be still my heart), and Ellen Page was dressed super-gay and thankfully not playing DiCaprios love interest or anything. Also, I love Joseph Gordon Levitt (gah, I want his clothes! he dresses so well..).

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  10. Thanks for the awesome review, Taylor. I saw it last night… I love the cliffhanger scene at the end that messes with you, and to of course establish the “inception” idea, “maybe it was all just a dream, eh eh?”

    Agree too that some of the subtlety could be left in, but I understand the need to verbally spell out the plot and add some unnecessary fight scenes in order to recoup the $$$ spent on making a giant Hollywood flick, so that even the idiots who go to see this movie and can’t make any sense of the plot can still be satisfied with the fight scenes, rampant gunfire, and shit blowing up.

    I like the fact that the “rules” of the dream world were set up early, so the dramatic tension was really felt throughout. You knew what was at stake. The dream-within-a-dream labyrinth was so complex, though, I feel like I need to see the movie again to go over the plot and tease any inconsistencies out if I missed them the first time around, to figure out what really happened. I think a lot of other people felt this way after they saw it the first time.

    Mostly, I feel like Nolan left the plot kind of raggedy and open-ended so that you do feel the need to see it again.

    My favorite scene is probably the kick scene as they’re surfacing from each dream and waking up. Nicely done.

  11. “Weirdly, I found sidekick dreamjackers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy to be much more fun on screen than DiCaprio, Page or even Cillian Murphy. While I love the latter three in pretty much everything, I think each of their performances was more of a vessel for Inception‘s general cleverness. Most of the characters stayed out of the plot’s way, for better or worse.”

    Totally get this. I love those three (and I totally would watch any work Page and DiCaprio does) but I didn’t feel as connected to their characters as I was to the plot and to some of the other characters. I have a feeling it was intentional. But I did still felt that kinda I missed them in this film.

    A friend told me that Memento totally kicks Inception’s ass so am gonna go see that. And hell yeah about The Prestige.

  12. Yeah, saw the film last night with the missus – we liked it, reminded us of the also not-terribly-smart way that The Matrix explores the “how do you know this is reality” question. But with better action scenes, more likeable characters and a nice intertwining of several different adventure stories. And of course, a woman in a bandana. Super.

    Particularly liked the little twist (well, more of a kink) at the end, where the spinning top didn’t fall over. I think they had to add that though.

  13. “Weirdly, I found sidekick dreamjackers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy to be much more fun on screen than DiCaprio, Page or even Cillian Murphy”

    I spent much of the movie being amused by how flirty Gordon-Levitt and Hardy’s characters were with each other, so came straight home and found the Inception slash fic community on livejournal. The rules of the internet always pull through <3

    I can't wait for this on dvd, it's the type of movie that needs to be watched again and again.

  14. I love the title of this. I suspected that it was 100% true. After viewing the movie I have to say that If that was a mindf*ck, I didn;t cum. :/

    I do not understand the hype and praise for this movie. I did not find it complicated nor enlightening. I also thought it was way too long. I started playing solitaire in the last bit of the second hour. The best part was Tom Hardy’s lips and accent. Momento and the Prestige were MUCH better.

    Note to self, when everyone loves it, avoid it.

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