Who are the brain police? – Inception **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 24, 2010)

Somnambulance chasers: DiCaprio and Page in Inception

So-how do I best describe Christopher Nolan’s boardroom thriller/sci-fi mindbender, Inception, without sounding like I’m off my meds? Executive Suite meets Solaris? No? The Bad Sleep Well meets Fantastic Voyage? Still too obscure? What’s that…I’m showing my age? Fine, I see how you are. How about…Duplicity meets Dark City?

Think a heist film- but in reverse. Reverse, forward, up, down-it’s just another day punching the clock and free-falling through the looking glass, for professional “extractor” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Because you see, his “job” is not necessarily grounded in everyday reality (kind of like a movie critic). You know how some people are so adept at what they do that we say that they could do their job in their sleep? That’s the only way Cobb can do his job-in his sleep. He extracts secrets from dreams. Other people’s dreams.

 I’m a spy, in the house of love

I know the dream that you’re dreamin’ of

I know the word that you long to hear

I know your deepest, secret fear

 -The Doors

What Jim Morrison said. Except “love” rarely enters the picture (alright, sometimes it does-but no spoilers). Typically, Cobb offers his special services to some evil corporate bastard, who wants to steal information from some other evil corporate bastard. He gets a lot of gigs, because he’s tops in his field (of dreams).

This is a shadowy world to work in, literally and figuratively, and it has caught up with him. He’s still for hire, but he’s also on the lam, so he has to choose his employers carefully. When a tycoon (Ken Watanabe) offers him a unique challenge (to plant a thought, as opposed to stealing one) he can’t resist the allure of pulling off the perfect “inception”. Like any heist movie worth its salt, the protagonist must now assemble a crack team of specialists (bet you’re  glad I didn’t say, “dream team”).

In addition to his long time partner in crime (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb enlists a newbie (Ellen Page) to be the “architect”. Her job is to design the dream world that the team will need to navigate in order to plant the thought into the subconscious of their target (Cillian Murphy) without arousing the “suspicions” of his, erm, subconscious self. Suffice it to say, much cerebral copulation ensues, with enough conundrums to start a fistfight in heaven between Freud, Jung, Adler and Perls. Not to mention our hero sorting through some issues regarding his late wife (Marion Cotillard) while still on the clock.

Nolan (who wrote as well as directed) has proven in the past to be a consistently intelligent, imaginative and inventive filmmaker; whether working with a modest budget (Following, Memento) or blockbuster-sized bankroll (The Dark Knight), which is why I was disappointed to see him stumble here (more on that in a moment).

From a production standpoint, the film is extremely well-crafted; Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Lee Smith’s editing, and the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas are all outstanding, and the CGI work is impressive. The cast (which also includes support from Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite) does a fine job (although DiCaprio, while adequate, has done better work).

But…here’s the rub: For a story that takes place in the boundless universe of the subconscious, a wholly “other” world of symbols, signs and wonders, there’s too much reliance on standard-issue action film tropes, and with a 2 ½ hour running time, it starts to feel like an endless loop of an action movie within an action movie, into infinity (I’m sure Nolan was aiming more for the dream within a dream). The film lurches toward thought-provoking Tarkovsky territory, but ends up in shoot ‘em up Bruckheimer land. This is not an altogether bad film, but considering all the talent and money involved, it’s a squandered opportunity, and that’s a real shame.

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