In spite of its travels to the depths of the human mind, Inception may be most interesting as an expression of the limits of Christopher Nolan's ambition. His film is by no means a failure, but it balks at taking big risks; Inception rarely feels like the unfettered roller coaster that it should be. Instead, it is a neat film – one that mostly challenges on the superficial level of plot and hesitates to unsettle the audience on a more meaningful level.
The premise, however, is irresistible. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor. He, along with his team, enters people's dreams and steals their ideas. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman, approaches him with a unique challenge: He wants Cobb to plant an idea in a competitor's head. The process, known as "inception," is largely untested and very risky. Nolan's script spends roughly the first hour of the movie establishing these risks and the complexities that go into mitigating them. It makes these early minutes slower than one would expect, but it's necessary; when the shit heads for the fan, it's much more fun if we know what's at stake.
Whether it be extraction or inception, Cobb's plans are meticulous. For example, the dream world that the thieves enter is never that of the victim. Instead, one of the thieves constructs a dream world in his or her own mind, then the victim is slipped into it. It ensures that the situation is as tightly controlled as possible. The variable? The imagined people inhabiting the dream are created by the person entering it. This means that your average heist must be pulled off in a setting filled with projections of the victim's subconscious – crowds of people keeping a suspicious eye on foreigners at all times.
Cobb brings a problem of his own into the equation: He's a little hung up on his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). As a result, she occasionally pries her way into a dream and wreaks havoc. Cobb's baggage is ostensibly the core of the movie. Nolan works hard to give the film a strong emotional thread, but it never quite resonates; Mal's scenes are often intense, but never moving. This is likely due to Cobb's impenetrable, sullen attitude. (Yet even the great supporting actors struggle to achieve some sort of presence amid all of the plot machinery.)
Mal serves the film a bit better on a plot level. With Cobb's plans keeping the dreams as tame as possible, she is the wildcard that is guaranteed to make things interesting. The moment Saito's heist begins, she delivers. I don't wish to spoil anything, but the action sequence that ensues makes surprising and harrowing use of a freight train, and it fully benefits from Nolan's disdain for computer-generated fakery. For the most part, however, Mal is content to simply tease Cobb.
Likewise, the main heist (which takes up the back hour and a half) tends to play out more through tense dialogue than surreal visuals. By the time Cobb & Co. have ventured into a dream within a dream within a dream, this has begun to ring false. How can a journey into the sub-sub-subconscious play out so smoothly? Maybe this is just me, but I always envisioned my subconscious as a circus of id-fueled madness. Sure, it makes sense that Cobb would try to control it, but I figured complete failure was inevitable. Things certainly go wrong, and Cobb's story reveals greater complexities during the course of the movie, but the dreamscapes never fully unhinge – they never quite feel dreamlike.
That's where this movie pisses me off.
That amazing shot of Paris folding over itself (heavily featured in trailers) is shortly followed by Cobb's admonishment. Manipulating the scenery in such a way is too flashy, he tells Ariadane (Ellen Page), the latest recruit to his team. Cobb would say this; he's running from his subconscious. But Nolan? Why does he seem to feel the same way? One of the deepest dream levels comes in the form of a bland mountain base shootout – for no good reason – and the film's climax takes place in Cobb's old house, in the midst of a decrepit city. It's slightly surreal but, at this point, we're four dreams deep, in an unplanned face-off with his darkest fears. It's downright lame that the setting is anything short of a mindfuck. What happened? It's not like the budget was running short.
Nolan's execution of his ideas is not a complete letdown thanks to a few strong sequences. The aforementioned training sequence with Cobb and Ariadane is quite fun. She serves as the audience's proxy for most of the movie and the role pays off in this scene. She runs through a city, manipulating every structure conceivable – a brief moment where whimsy overcomes the film's portentousness.
The other highlight is an excellent action scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is otherwise criminally underused) has to fight off a few guards in a hallway. Thing is, outside of the dream he is in, he is strapped into a tumbling van. The turning feeling has a direct impact on his experience in the dream. So, he must scamper up walls and and across ceilings as the hallway spins around him. The sequence is almost lyrical as it cuts between Gordon-Levitt scrambling to stay upright and slow-motion images of his unconscious body swaying inside the vehicle.
That scene, as well as the zero-gravity scenes that follow, is a marvel of special effects. I have absolutely no idea how Nolan and his team achieved these effects and, frankly, I do not want to know. Especially when one studies film, moments of genuine movie magic become very rare. This film provides a few such moments.
But, god damnit, those moments are just too few and far between to elevate Inception to greatness. Other than a devilish cutaway at the very end that leaves one major question unanswered, Inception leaves little of consequence to ponder. Nolan seems unable or unwilling to fully explore his biggest ideas; they are, instead, confined to the conceptual stage. Consequently, what could have been a landmark sci-fi epic is little more than a solid thriller.