The moment Inception starts, the viewer has to think about what he or she is watching, to experience the plot in a way few movies ask us to. That engagement does not stop during the film, nor does it necessarily cease when the credits roll.
For the first time in years, Inception presents theater-goers with a truly intelligent film that requires participation on their parts to enjoy. Hearkening back to Memento, Christopher Nolan’s previous brain-buster, Inception rewards active viewers while confounding those who want nothing more than a two and a half hours of hollow special effects.
Retreading Solid Ground
Inception is, at its core, about the thin line that separates reality from fantasy. While that is a common theme for a lot of literature, both textual and visual, Inception reminds me most strikingly of two previous movies: The Matrix and Vanilla Sky.
In neither case is the similarity a bad thing, either. In as much as Avatar was this decade’s Lord of the Rings-esque jump forward in special effects, Inception once again makes viewers wonder just what makes the reality we perceive real at all.
The film’s idea of extraction (and its reciprocal inception, for which the movie is titled) is very much like Vanilla Sky’s lucid dreams, where the ability to distinguish between a preset, controlled fantasy and reality becomes next to impossible. In a nod to the road The Matrix paved in unnecessary sequels, viewers are asked time and again whether or not what they are seeing is real, and if knowing the truth is necessary or even possible.
And while that may sound like you’ve seen what Inception brings to the table before, think again. Even though we’re familiar with the tropes of the genre—existential sci-fi thriller is a genre now?—Inception packages them with a compelling cast and interesting heist-movie plot that succeeds at doing something new.
Even though Vanilla Sky makes a big deal about leaping off a building, when seeing it in Inception, its new and different. Even though The Matrix blurs what we consider real by giving us two equally convincing worlds and making us choose which to exist in (blue pill/red pill), Inception embeds multiple worlds within themselves until there is no clear way to discern where one ends and another begins.
And that’s a good thing.
The film does not try to shove something unnecessary down audiences’ throats; Nolan and his cast evolve a proven genre into its next level. Inception doesn’t try to be anything new and off-the-cuff. It tries (and succeeds!) at being very good at something we already know we like. The Matrix became a phenomenon for a reason, despite its numerous criticisms and admittedly surface-level examination of its themes; it laid the groundwork for people—the mainstream, even—to walk out of the theater and question the very foundations of what they understood to be real and true.
Instead of trying to bury its predecessors by ignoring their achievements, Inception respects them by building on what they did and expanding the genre’s breadth and scope.
Not All Roses, Though
Even though Inception will deservedly get a few Oscar nominations, the movie is not without fault. While the few negative reviews I’ve read discuss the film being too esoteric, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. What I do think are bad things, however, are a convoluted plot that offers no reiteration of ideas for understanding and characters who—though I care about them—left no lasting impression on me, not even enough to remember their names.
I cannot argue the plot is intelligent. The movie is a very high-concept thriller where much explanation and exposition must be fed to the audience. Nolan succeeds at this, with only a few scenes (Leo and Michael Cain’s first one together, for example) seeming a little too forced. Because of the nature of this film’s particular high-concept plot, there is little room for reiteration. If you miss information the first time, you will likely be given no explanation for it showing up again later on.
Inception runs just under two and a half hours, and I am a notorious movie theater soda drinker. So I had to leave the theater for maybe a quarter of a scene, but my wife was still in there, fully able to explain anything I missed to me. Or she should have been. Unfortunately in the time it took me to run across the hall and get back to my seat, we both missed the importance of playing music to the dreamers. The music plays a large part later on in the film, and though I partially get what it was doing, we both missed the explanation for it, and it was never offered again.
In a movie that is based so entirely on a fully engaged, thinking audience, not working a few more lines of reiteration for new concepts seems a little sloppy.
And then there are the characters. At its heart, Inception is about the melding of rational thought and emotion. And it worked. The plot was captivating and thought-inciting, and the characters very nearly made me cry at a couple of points. But I still can’t remember their names. Sure, I remember Leo was Cobb, his wife was Moll (Mal?), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Arthur, but aside from that, the rest of the Inception cast is nameless.
For a movie that is so based in character attachment, I find that funny. I should remember the ensemble’s names because I cared about what happened to them. I didn’t want to see them shot or maimed or lost in limbo forever. I still don’t. And I won’t when I see it again on DVD. But for the life of me I can’t remember their names without pulling out my iPhone and checking the IMDB app.
In the end, these are minor grips. I got the film’s full effect, with or without knowing their names or understanding why classical music must be played through headphones. It just feels strange that for a movie with such high production standards, there could be such sloppy nitpicks.
Go See It Now.
If you haven’t already seen Inception, I urge you to. Catch a matinee, if you have to. Just see it.
And if you were trying to decide between IMAX or a normal theater, definitely pick the smaller screen. Why? Because even though the movie is visually spectacular, the narrative is even more so. Being distracted by buildings and cities rolling in on themselves can only dilute a story this intricate. Much of the movie will be lost if viewers pay more attention to zero-gravity fight scenes than they do the subconscious prison that Cobb has built for his memories.
So take an evening, clear your head, and then go check out Inception. It’s not as heavy and serious as The Dark Knight, but it’s just as powerful in its own manner. It’s not often when a movie makes me think this hard about it days after watching it, and for that, I give Inception my highest recommendation.