With THE DARK KNIGHT, Christopher Nolan established himself as a director with the ability to translate the artfulness of a film like MEMENTO into a blockbuster that packs equal parts action and story. Even with an ensemble case, THE DARK KNIGHT manages to retain a singular character study that remains the heart of the story, no matter how many explosions go off in the background.
Almost the opposite is true of INCEPTION, Nolan’s ‘break’ while finishing up the Batman trilogy. Starring Leonard DiCaprio as Cobb, the head of a team of dream hackers hired out by private organizations to penetrate a person’s subconscious to obtain information. The target this time is Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a powerful British energy corporation on the brink of running Cobb’s client Saito and his Japanese power company out of business. The movie relies on the idea that the only way Saito’s company can survive is by getting Fischer to disband his father’s company, and the only way to do that is to plant the root of the idea in his subconscious mind, and the only way to really get into his subconscious is to take him to a dream, within a dream, within a dream, within a dream so that when he wakes up he’ll feel as if the idea to break from his father’s company was his own idea.
If you can buy that, you can probably also buy into some of the film’s other half-baked ideas, like Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architecture student tasked with designing the various dream worlds for the team to operate in. There’s plenty of CGI-fun to illustrate how she can build and change structures within a dream world, but how her models and plans go from being models and plans to operable worlds in never addressed. Everyone just sticks themselves with a needle full of a dream juice and the journey begins.
A lot is riding on this particular mission. Cobb was the leading ‘architect’ in the field until he and his wife, Mal, (Marion Cottilard) got carried away with building their own private dream world, a rabbit hole that led her to doubt her own reality. After she died his dreams became the only place he could go to see her. Now his obsession with revisiting his past memories with her in dreams is starting to not only blur his ability to discern reality and fantasy, but it’s compromising his work. The only other person who knows about it is the new girl, Ariadne, but Cobb and Ariadne’s relationship never gets as much screen time as it needs to be believable, while the movie’s various chase scenes, gun fights and explosions have the run of the two-hour movie.
And though DiCaprio gets plenty of face time, you don’t sympathize with him the way you do with Heath Ledger’s Joker. The jumps between what can be classified as ‘story time’ and ‘action time’ are brusk and uneven, and plot details are delivered in single breaths as if the actor’s were being timed to make way for more action. The struggle to develop Cobb and his laundry list of issues while maintaing the heightened action leaves other potentially compelling characters like Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb’s former side-kick, by the wayside. Instead, Gordon-Levitt is given a few one-liners and then spends the bulk of the film twirling around a hotel hallway during a few minutes of anti-gravity that are intercut to last for the last half hour. It leaves you wondering if Nolan knows where the story is. If the premise with Fischer is just a ploy to introduce Cobb’s deeper issues with his past, why does it take over the movie with all its nagging specificities? The battle here seems to be between plot and subplot, not between Cobb and his inner demons as I presume was Nolan’s intention. INCEPTION is case of a director being given a tool box and using every one without restraint.