One of the biggest films of the summer has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, which seems as good a time as any to take a second look at Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team, who steal ideas from dreams, instead being contracted to plant one is one of the most original ideas for a big-budget action movie in a long time, but not one that lives up to the potential of its premise.
Nolan has for a few years been a blockbuster director, but he’s never been one to let the flash overpower the characters and emotion. His films are like watches, all of the pieces are carefully placed and come together very precisely. Inception is that in the worst way. Cities bend and fold over top of themselves, elevators descend from beaches into hotel rooms high above the streets. But for all of this visual flair, there’s nothing underneath. The plot mechanically pushes the characters from place to place and though it layers on emotional conflicts, there’s never a reason to care. Sure, he misses his kids, but—oh my god that street vendor’s cart just exploded! Cobb’s never gotten over his wife’s death—but look at the city collapsing! Of all the big budget directors working today, Nolan, who also co-wrote, is one of the best at balancing character with bombast. It’s disheartening, then, that he, who’s been on a kind of “one for them, one for me” rotation (Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight) with Warner Brothers, has made his “one for me” with less heart and intellect than his “one for them” from two summers before.
There are plenty of reasons to praise Inception. Technically, it’s pretty much perfect. It’s well cast and performed, the effects are impressive, the music is Hans Zimmer’s best score in years, and there are certainly some truly brilliant moments, such as the almost balletic zero-gravity hotel sequence. What’s really remarkable, though, is the way Nolan tries to make sure the audience keeps thinking about Cobb’s dead wife, Mal, despite actress Marion Cotillard’s limited screen time.
Nolan’s always played with theme and style. Leonard Shelby’s jumbled mind is reflected in the jumbled timeline of Memento, and the resolute Batman finds himself confined to the shadows in contrast to the light of the tragic Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Here he almost outdoes himself. As memories of Mal become more intrusive to Cobb,Inception pushes her into the minds of the audience subtly, through the music. Cotillard’s Oscar came for playing French singer Edith Piaf, whose “Non je ne regrette rien,” is used repeatedly. She’s even in the score. The way Nolan uses this as a kind of mirror to the inception of the film’s plot is ingenious, and shows him as a real master of technique.
In the end, it’s an above-average and certainly worth watching action film that tries to be deeper, but doesn’t quite succeed. The problem is that Inception’s characters aren’t people, but pieces to be moved as the plot deems necessary. It confuses convolution with intelligence, complication with emotion, the not-really-open ending with ambiguity. The spinning top leaves us with something to talk about, but that doesn’t mean it matters.