Early in Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio tests Ellen Page’s puzzle-making skills by telling her to draw a maze in two minutes that takes one minute to solve. That’s not unlike the challenge writer-director Christopher Nolan shouldered with this movie: Take a decade’s worth of development and compress it into a summer flick people can absorb in 148 minutes.
Nolan tends to stuff too many ideas in his movies, which is better than having too few. But he hasn’t solved his compression puzzle with Inception. The world of the movie is compelling enough to generate a novel, a video game, maybe an HBO series. (And I’d buy all of them.) As a feature film, it’s a frenetic dash. Inception has more emotional heft than The Matrix and Avatar, but not enough to be the thoughtful sci-fi classic it might have been.
That’s because, when plot and exposition are compressed to the boiling point, there’s not a lot of room to develop characters. And this movie has more than its share. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a smooth guy in a suit who earns his keep by stealing people’s secrets from inside their dreams. Basically, he’s a high-tech cat burglar of the subconscious.
Japanese mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) asks Cobb to take on a last big job: Implant an idea — in the mind of the heir to a rival business empire (Cillian Murphy) — instead of extracting one. That’s called inception.
To accomplish this feat, the dream thief assembles a full support team. Joseph Gordon-Levitt runs point; Page creates the dream’s internal “architecture”; Tom Hardy impersonates pieces of the dreamer’s subconscious; Dileep Rao provides the drugs that make it all possible; and Marion Cotillard ... well, she’s not on the team. As DiCaprio’s estranged, sexy, violence-prone wife, she just keeps popping up in his dream world and sending him into throes of angsty reacting not seen since Shutter Island, where the actor was similarly afflicted with spectral-spouse issues.
The thing is, our protagonist needs to have more than DiCaprio seems able to offer ... a dark edge, a hint of real madness under his veneer of control. As Page notes when she visits one of his dreams, “You have quite a subconscious on you.” I wish Nolan had cast someone who could convey that — such as Hardy, who was riveting in last year’s Bronson and stands out in this film, too, where he’s mostly comic relief.
Comic relief matters, though. Nolan’s films benefit from the presence of a raspy-voiced clown to mock the hero’s high-mindedness — Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy in Memento, the Joker in The Dark Knight. Here, the closest we get to an effective foil is Cotillard, though she is pretty husky voiced (and scary).
Inception has the seeds of a good drama with something to say about dreams and why we need them and how they can take over our lives. (In one scene, we see a room full of supine people who are addicted to dreaming the way some people are addicted to video games.) But Nolan is so eager to make the movie work as an action blockbuster that he sacrifices storytelling to set pieces.
Still, what set pieces. Some critics have suggested that Nolan’s dreamscapes, with their focus on architecture and “levels,” are less like dreams than video games. Maybe. But way back in the 1820s, Thomas de Quincey wrote of his opium-induced dreams, “the splendors of my dreams were ... chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds.”
The splendor and pomp of deserted cities, washed by apocalyptic sunsets and backed by a pounding Hans Zimmer soundtrack — Inception offers those stimulants, along with an ending that’s not soon forgotten. It may not be a great maze, but it is amazing.