For years we’ve been giving Pixar credit for being one of the most consistent entities when it comes to quality filmmaking. While the animation studio continues that trend this summer, so does another force in quality storytelling: Christopher Nolan. From Memento to The Dark Knight, Nolan hasn’t maligned audiences yet, and his latest picture, Inception, just might be the crown jewel of his career to date.
With an incredibly original story, Inception looks at the world of dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an “extractor” – someone who breaks into people’s dreams to steal their secrets. He’s a man on the run, unable to go home after a tragic event from his past. An offer from businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) tasks Cobb with a nearly impossible task – implanting an idea into the mind of the dreamer instead of stealing an idea, but with a reward of reversing Cobb’s fortunes and letting him go home, the thief has no choice but to attempt the impossible.
Although it possesses action sequences that will beg comparison to The Matrix, and is set in dream environments that, frankly, have no compare, at its heart Inception is a brilliant heist film. All the elements of a heist story are here – the assembly of an incredible team, the planning (which requires explaining the plan to the audience), the execution of the plan, including many turns-of-fortune. It’s a heist-flick unlike any other you’ve seen. Where a movie like Ocean’s Eleven will go back and explain to audiences where slight of hand or twists have occurred, Inception demands the audience’s attention. If you miss a plot twist or change in the story because you weren’t paying attention, that’s on you. It’s an intelligent approach to storytelling I wish more filmmakers would use, forcing the audience to stop taking phone calls or texting or talking during the movie and just involve themselves in Nolan’s fantasy world.
Nolan has given himself the ultimate storytelling “out” with his use of the dream world. Although the movie carefully establishes the rules of the dream world, when those rules change, nobody questions it – not the characters, and not the audience. This is a world of dreams, of course, and we all know how random and chaotic that world can be. Inception’s setting becomes something everyone is familiar with, even if we’ve never been in the situations the movie portrays. We all have dreamed, and we’re willing to excuse the most outlandish situations when they occur in dreams. Nolan doesn’t push the envelope on this, however. It doesn’t become an excuse for sloppy storytelling, excusing everything as a dream. It’s a carefully constructed script that makes the most of its environment, without abusing it.
An example of what I mean: Inception relies on a lot of effects to create the dream world, yet Nolan approached many of these effects practically, to enhance the reality of what’s captured on film. A movie set in unreal worlds is the perfect excuse for millions of dollars in CG effects (see The Matrix, The Lovely Bones, What Dreams May Come, etc) yet Nolan attacks the effects with practicality. He wants audiences to buy into what they’re seeing, even though the dream world means they shouldn’t. It’s a beautiful paradox – the reality of the dream – and it’s what gives Inception an incredible amount of depth and substance.
On the performance side, Nolan has assembled an amazing cast, constructed of actors the director has worked with before (Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy) and newcomers to Nolan’s direction. DiCaprio’s character runs deep, with his biggest character flaws presented for the world to see within the dream worlds, and yet he manages to maintain his composure in an excellently subtle performance that is only burdened with the fact that it bears some similarity to his Shutter Island character. Ellen Page, an actress I’ve felt had been pigeonholed into the hipster Juno type, provides the movie’s conscience with an elegant performance that breaks new ground for the actress. There simply isn’t a weak member of the ensemble, and although DiCaprio and Page get the most opportunity to shine, everyone contributes solidly to the film as a whole.
While the performances are striking, the action sequences are amazing, and the score might represent composer Hans Zimmer’s best work yet, ultimately it will be the story that leaves an impression on audiences. Nolan has found a way to tap into a communal experience with his story – a shared familiarity of dreaming – and weave that chaos into something sublime, while still allowing it to feel like chaos at times. It’s that brilliance of Inception that will keep people talking about the movie long after it’s over; a victory for Nolan as a master storyteller, and for audiences who are tired of mindless action and want something of more substance.