Be sure to check out the Christopher Nolan Blog-A-Thon over at Bryce Wilson's Things That Don't Suck.
It's pretty rare for a movie that fails to live up to its hype as uniformly as Inception does (though Jesus, is it any surprise, with that kind of hype?) to still function as an enormously entertaining summer movie, but if writer-director Christopher Nolan's latest manages to do just that, it's mostly because what it is (an action-heavy heist movie with several mind-blowing setpieces) is an entirely pleasant substitute for what it isn't (a psychologically complex investigation into dream logic, and the relationship of the conscious and subconscious minds). The worst thing about it, I think, is the financial success of The Dark Knight: Nolan earned a free pass when that film clocked north of $500 million, and so he has taken the Peter Jackson route of post-blockbuster clout in making a film that's a damn sight too long and a goodly bit too certain of its own cleverness and profundity. But even if 148 minutes of Inception is easily a half-hour more than the story can bear, it's a pretty great ride nonetheless.
The film's story - OH MY GOD NOT THE STORY, cries the received wisdom about the film, for this is a story that makes babies weep blood and will explode the skulls of lesser mortals. Only a team of MIT engineering students could possibly lay the story out in anything less than the time it takes to tell. Bullshit, says I. Here's the story: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master thief with a shady past, given an opportunity by mysterious businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to redeem everything he's ever done, and in the process reunite with the children he left in the U.S. when he was forced for shady reasons to flee the country. Saito's offer includes completing an impossible mission, for which Cobb must assemble the best team ever compiled for such a mission. Everything else is just details.
And devilish details they be. For Cobb - as you've noted from the ubiquitous advertising - specialises in breaking into people's dreams and stealing their ideas. Saito's particular offer involves planting an idea in the head of the heir (Cillian Murphy) of his greatest rival (Pete Postelthwaite), a process called "inception" (hey, that's the name of the movie!). How this dream-invading works, and whether the film takes place in the future, or is set in a fantastic version of the present, is left for the viewer to ponder after the credits start to roll.
What some critics have praise/assailed as "confusing" in Inception is really just a sign that you need to pay attention. There's not one moment in the film - not even in its bravura third act, which cross-cuts between three time periods all taking place simultaneously over three different durations (it makes perfect sense while you're watching) - that Nolan is deliberately obfuscating the narrative. In fact, I tend to agree with James Berardinelli, who made the single most insightful observation about the movie I have yet read: "one could make an argument that the straightforward nature of Nolan's approach to such potentially mind-bending material is one of Inception's weaknesses." The story is blissfully straightforward: first, the rules are clearly laid out, then we see examples proving rules, then we are given a test run of the rules at their most absurdly convoluted. But if you don't leave the theater to pee or buy fresh popcorn, it's unimaginable that you can't follow along, if you're willing to try.
So: we get a whole lot of character fulfilling functions plainly laid out: the "architect", Ariadne (Ellen Page) - and by the way, fuck you Chris Nolan for the ham-handedness of that character name - creates the dreamspace; the "point-man" Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does all the background research and makes sure everything in the dream proceeds according to plan; the "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy) fakes whatever details are necessary to make certain the mark believes the dream-reality. All the while, Cobb's personal history, in the form of his projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) - hey, there's another ham-handed character name! - keeps threatening to ruin everything, if Cobb can't get his demons in check, which Ariadne helpfully reminds him of, in dialogue along the lines of "Cobb, you better get your demons in check before everything is ruined."
Depth is not the strong suit here, despite the film's apparent misapprehension that it's tapping into something deep and profound. I might call it Nolan's shallowest film since his debut, Following - beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's thinner soup than his Batman films, with their obsession over the nature of personal identity, or The Prestige, which covers procedural ground in an infinitely more satisfying way while adding some real observations about rivalry and... personal identity. It's a pet theme, what can you say? At least he's a genuine auteur, in a summer that desperately needs some auteurist heft.
Depth, though, really doesn't matter; not when you've got a story that proceeds from A to B to C with such clarity of purpose. The Sting won a Best Picture Oscar on no more grounds than being an elegant con job against the audience; why shouldn't Inception reign as one of Summer 2010's few genuinely good movies (though not its best; Toy Story 3 will be moving audiences to tears generations from now). Every right-thinking person loves a good caper movie; from at least Rififi onward, they've consistently been among the most sheerly delightful movies you could hope to see. Inception isn't one of the genre's greats; it's not even, to my tastes, as good as last year's Duplicity, which had the added value of some gleeful kinkiness.
But it is still very good; and there's always a certain joy that comes from the "here is an intractable problem to be solved, here is the superstar team that can solve it, here it is being solved just like we diagrammed" plot structure. Since I keep mentioning that, I should probably answer the theoretical question, Is that all? No, of course not: being a Christopher Nolan film means that it's handsome as all get-out, from Wally Pfister's dumbfoundingly perfect cinematography (if it's not his best work ever, that's only because The Prestige is is fucking beautiful), to Guy Hendrix Dyas's reality-based, but hauntingly otherworldly production design, to, yes, Lee Smith's editing - so many people are so hopped-up about his work in Nolan's films, but that's an argument that I simply don't fathom, even when the critic involved is a genius like Jim Emerson, and he's careful to show all of his work. Me, I find these criticisms to be unduly concerned with the idea that editing is only supposed to ever contribute to the spacial integrity of a given film; what Smith and Nolan are doing is a lot more unusual and only sometimes effective, cutting according to rhythmic beats that aren't driven by the story, by space, or by emotion, but by a flow that seems "outside" the movie somehow. It reminds me of the 1920s French conceit that cinema is the most musical of all artforms, which I've always took to be a reference to the durational element added to cinema by editing; but it's not a question to be resolved in just one review, except to say: I loves me some Lee Smith.
Anyhow, issues of craftsmanship or no, the question stands: does Inception have anything else going on? It certainly doesn't have complex characterisations (Cobb's emotional arc is facile at best, and like all Nolan films, the writing is too baldly functional to suggest genuine human beings are involved), and the emphasis is on using dream-physics as the excuse for some hugely spectacular action sequences, and not at all imaginative flights of fancy. The Cell this is not: Nolan is obviously more concerned with telling a twisty, but largely coherent story, than in developing rich alternative universes. Frankly, I'm alright with that: sometimes you just need some cinematic candy, and Inception is the very best kind of candy: it's entertaining as hell even as it demands that you keep your brain switched on. It's just what the moribund, overly 3-D enhanced summer season needed.