The best way to explain the genius of INCEPTION is just to describe what’s going on at the climax. The main characters are all asleep on a jet, dreaming that they’re in a van that’s crashed and is falling off a bridge. All but the driver, Dileep Rao, are asleep and are also in a dream-within-a-dream where they’re tied together floating weightlessly in an elevator. Joseph Gordon Levitt is preparing to wake them up, the rest are asleep and in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream about blowing up a snowy fortress. But Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are asleep there because they’re actually in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream where Leo is making the emotional decision to leave behind a SOLARIS-type living memory of his dead wife Marion Cotillard to go into a limbo to rescue his client, Ken Watanabe, who has lived a whole life there and is now an old man and forgets that he’s not in reality, because time passes at a different pace within each of these worlds. And there is a decades long slowed down music cue that tells Leo the van in the first dream is about to hit the water and wake them all up.
And here’s the kicker: all of this was understandable even on the first viewing for knuckleheads like me and the millions of people who made it a huge hit summer movie. I mean, you don’t have to like it, but it takes a silly motherfucker to deny the accomplishment of making such an effective mainstream thriller out of a concept this complicated.
The other night I did that thing where I feel like I stepped wrong and I’m in free fall, and I wake up. And my first thought was “yeah, the kick from INCEPTION makes sense.” (They can wake themselves up by dying or freefalling.)
One thing that worked better seeing it this second time was the tragic situation with Cobb (DiCaprio)’s wife Mal. We ultimately realize that her death was caused by him introducing an idea to her – this is why there’s so much apprehension around the idea of “inception,” why he feels so guilty that memories of his wife come after him and endanger all his missions. The scene where he has to tell her to her face that she’s only a shadow of his wife is very powerful.
I know there’s a strong anti-Nolan contingent out there (apparently there wasn’t yet when I wrote my first review), and the criticism I’m always hearing is that because his movies have a real serious tone to them that they’re joyless and no fun. To this I must politely say “you’re fuckin crazy.” Playing it straight is not the opposite of fun, and within this tone he is always building enjoyable suspense and reasons for thrilling setpieces that simultaneously follow the rule that these type of things have to come out of interesting characters but also the ethic of trying to show the audience something they’ve never seen before (the obvious example in this one being the spectacular anti-gravity hallway fight). This movie is what they used to call “a blast!” (And it needs to be said that all of his movies have some good laughs in them too. Let’s not pretend like we’re watching SHOAH here.)
And we could get into the whole “it’s not dreamlike enough” argument if you want to. I still say that my dreams are more like this than like a Terry Gilliam movie or THE WIZARD OF OZ or whatever fanciful thing that’s supposed to mean. As in the movie I’m in some place but if I think about it I don’t remember how I got there, and I might walk through a door or elevator and suddenly be in an entirely different place. Things seem normal as you’re experiencing them, it’s only when you wake up that you realize they didn’t make any sense. That works well for INCEPTION since their job usually requires a mark who doesn’t realize they’re dreaming. And anyway it does have fanciful imagery like the city bending in on itself or the skyline in Cobb and Mal’s reality where the same building is repeated over and over again.
Three years removed from the hype, the expecations and these arguments it’s more clear than ever that THIS MOVIE IS FUCKIN GREAT. It more than holds up. And post DARK KNIGHT RISES it’s kinda cool that it’s the Batman All Stars: Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine from all three BATMAN movies, Ken Watanabe from BATMAN BEGINS, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would then be in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Hardy steals the movie but hats off also to Watanabe. I’m glad they decided to repay him for what little he had to do in BATMAN BEGINS. He gets to be suave, badass, dying, real old…
In the context of this Summer Movie Flashback series it seems even better, because most of the ones I’ve ended up watching don’t have anywhere near this level of originality or craftsmanship. SPEED RACER gives it a run for the money, and even that one had the perceived advantage of being based on an existing title that would be familiar to people. This one was sold mainly on the auteur theory: FROM THE DIRECTOR OF THE DARK KNIGHT. (I bet LEONARDO DICAPRIO on the top of the poster didn’t hurt though.)
Question: was the INCEPTION trailer the start of the current repetitive-drone-trailer cliche, or did that come earlier?
Also, is it in any way a tribute to the camera flash sound from the opening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE?
Well, I guess it wouldn’t be, but some of the other trailers of this type really reminded me of ol’ hitchhiker’s weird noise, especially the one for PROMETHEUS.
I mentioned in my original review that the title comes up right before the end credits, just like with the DARK KNIGHT trilogy. In each of those the timing has meaning: now that Bruce Wayne has gone through all this, Batman begins. Now that the dream of Harvey Dent as “Gotham’s White Knight” hasn’t worked out, Batman must be the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight ascends to become an enduring symbol more than a man, as Bruce Wayne always dreamed (and also the new Batman literally rises up on a platform), so the Dark Knight is rising.
But when it says INCEPTION, watching it this time, I thought it was just the title, no additional meaning. Thinking about it more as I write this, maybe not.
Remember, the movie cuts away before we find out if the top is going to tip over or not. So obviously alot of people fixated on the question of “is he in a dream or not?” This time I noticed hints that it could be a dream. For example, the knowing looks between Cobb and his team as they all leave the airport separately reflect the earlier-in-the-movie notion that in dreams everybody looks at you.
Mala has a point about Cobb’s accepted reality sounding like a paranoid persecution fantasy. On first viewing I just accepted the backstory as I was hearing it, but in retrospect it all sounds so fishy: why would it be so hard to prove that she committed suicide, jumping out a window on a building across the street from him? Why would he abandon his kids rather than stay and try to prove his innocence (or was he already convicted, maybe I misunderstood that)? And how could all this be fixed with a phone call, like it’s only an immigration issue? Even if he could clear himself legally wouldn’t he be in an O.J. situation where everybody thought he murdered his wife?
Also, they talk about it like alot of time has passed, but the kids don’t look like they’ve aged a day. So if I had to pick this time I would go with “yes, he’s in a dream at the end.”
Then again, the very concept of highly skilled scammers hired by business people to illegally go into the dreams of rivals and steal their secrets is very surreal, kinda Cronenbergian. And at least that part has to be real, right? So who’s to say what feels like a dream and what doesn’t?
But my point in bringing it up is to say that it’s beside the point anyway. I don’t think there really is an answer, he could be or not. The significant thing is that he doesn’t stay to find out if the top keeps spinning or not. He accepts the idea that this is the life he wants and it doesn’t matter if it’s reality or not. And maybe that’s the inception. An important idea has made it into his skull, whether somebody meant to put it there or not. INCEPTION.
Anyway, pretty good movie if you’re the type of person who’s into extremely entertaining, original and well-crafted thrillers that are unlike anything you’ve seen before.
* * *
other movies that came out that summer: IRON MAN 2, ROBIN HOOD, THE A-TEAM, JONAH HEX, KNIGHT AND DAY, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PREDATORS, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, SALT, THE EXPENDABLES. (Are you kidding me? This is clearly the king of that summer.)
highest grossing movie that year: TOY STORY 3
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.