Friday, July 23, 2010

A summer blockbuster with a brain? No you aren't dreaming

In a season of remakes, sequels and adaptations, “Inception,” writer/director Christopher Nolan's mind-bending new film, is a rare thing: a big-budget summer film not based on a previous source material. The film made $73 million in its first four days, proving audiences are hungry for original, smart films.

In “Inception,” "The Dark Knight" director continues to explore the ideas of memory that he touched upon in “Memento.” In that film, a man with short-term memory loss was stuck with only memories of his past which he worked and reworked until it was unclear what was real. Now Nolan mixes memories with dreams and further blurs what constitutes reality.

The premise is that a group of people have the ability to enter people's dreams. This concept isn't new and has been used in such films as “Dreamscape” and “The Cell,” but what is original is where Nolan goes with it.

Leonard DiCaprio stars as Cobb, the leader of a team that not only enters other people's dreams but creates them and then uses these dream worlds to steal ideas. DiCaprio's team is hired by a business tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to take it a step further and plant an idea into the mind of a competitor's son (Cillian Murphy) that would clear the playing fielding. The problem is the idea will only stick if the person believes he originated it.

This is essentially a heist film and follows a lot of the same formula of caper movies like “The Sting,” “The Italian Job” or “Ocean's 11.” Early scenes focus on gathering and recruiting the team together. Then there is the planning of the job and ultimately the execution of the plan.

Things are complicated by Mol (Marion Cotillard), Cobb's deceased wife who he desperately keeps alive in memories and dream. She won't stay put often encroaching like a reoccurring nightmare on the various dreamscapes DiCaprio and his team have created.

Cotillard and DiCaprio's backstory and how it feeds into the main plot provide the emotional base for a film that would otherwise be all artifice. For some, the film will still be about nothing more than its spectacle and the execution of its clever ideas. The film is an exceptionally well made machine and if it works on you than you'll be engrossed, but if it doesn't you'll just see and admire the mechanism.

As is often the case with heist films, it is really only the lead character, in this case, DiCaprio's Cobb, who is fully fleshed out and given a more complete character. The rest of cast, with the exception of Cotillard, are merely part of the team and serve their purposes in getting the job done.

Each character is given a trait or two to play and that is it in terms of development. The team is comprised of solid actors including Joesph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao. These actors brings personality and flavor to their characters even if they only represent different archetypes.

This description is not just of this film, but of the genre as a whole and isn't meant as a criticism per se. Nolan seems aware of the fact that he is working within a template, but he merely uses that as a foundation on which to build upon.

For example, there are different levels of dreams which are achieved by creating dreams within dreams. Each level represents a different passage of dream time to real time. This is working on the idea that when we dream it can feel like hours, but it is really only minutes. On the deepest level, dream time can last for decades.

The dream worlds aren't flights of fancy, but rather based in reality because while dreams can be surreal and abstract, more often than not they are usually set within variations of our existence. Details will be taken for different aspects of our life, but within the dream it feels real.

During a training sequence for Page's newbie dream builder, Nolan explores how in a dream world anything is possible. In the film's most astonishing and likely to become iconic visual, a Paris street literally folds over itself. A later sequence involves a dream with zero gravity.

I was enthralled by the way the story unfolded and by the concluding sequence which has action happening simultaneously on four different dream levels with each level affecting the next. This all probably sounds rather confusing, but when you are watching it, everything makes sense. The film establish its rules and within those guidelines the film is completely plausible.

To see what Nolan is really up to here it is perhaps best to look at his film “The Prestige.” That film was about rival magicians trying to find the ultimate magic trick. Nolan is a filmmaker who likes to play and manipulate his audience. He wants to wow us with the next trick and keep us guessing how he did it.

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