**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine
written and directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw I dunno, the wordiness of The Dark Knight didn't bother me that much. I suppose it has something to do with it being a comic-book movie and plot-driving pronouncements seeming the order of the day. I find it impossible now to think of The Dark Knight without seeing it as a corollary to No Country For Old Men: the one composed of broad, garish strokes, the other of grace notes you hesitate to call delicate, but that's just what they are. With Inception, Christopher Nolan's correlative piece is Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, NY, and the comparison in this instance doesn't prove mutually evocative so much as devastating to Nolan's film, exposing his shtick as reams of deadening exposition interrupted by the occasional virtuoso set-piece. It is, in other words, aggressively nothing-special, save for a few astonishing zero-g sequences. As it happens, saying the best part of Inception is its weightlessness is a pretty pithy criticism of the whole damned enterprise. For a film about dreams, it's distinctly light on possibility: Armed with the power to shape reality, our erstwhile dream-weavers fold a city in half in a dorm-room Escher shout-out but decline to, you know, fly and stuff. More, Inception doesn't confront archetypes of any kind, instead retreating into some basic stuff about projections and the architecture of the unconscious being a freight elevator while relying overmuch on the built-in gravitas of father and dead-wife issues. And in case you miss any of that, Nolan crams it into the dialogue like one crams elephants into elevators. Rule of thumb: if a movie uses the word "deep" as much as this one does, it probably isn't.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an ace "extractor" in a sort of Philip K. Dick sense, in that he does weird things in a futuristic milieu and has a neat title to go along with it. As the picture opens, he washes up on some photogenic beach and gets dragged before an elderly Japanese man, Saito (the great Ken Watanabe), in a beautifully laid-out antechamber. Saito points to the contents of Cobb's pockets--a gun and a little lead top--and asks if Cobb's come to kill him. An intriguing beginning, I suppose, to one of those closed-room mysteries by John Dickson Carr, and Inception is nothing if not interested in sources. It soon becomes clear that Cobb is actually a corporate spy who invades industrialists' dreams in order to ferret out trade secrets from their heavily-guarded subconscious minds. So begins Nolan's tribute to Jules Dassin's meticulously-planned expat heist flicks. Saito hires Cobb and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) after a Byzantine test of their talents convinces him they're just the men for the job--the job being to implant (to perpetrate an "inception") the germ of an idea in business rival Fischer (Cillian Murphy) that will lead Fischer to dissolve the house that daddy built because, wait for it, Fischer has Father Issues. But, problem, Cobb may be a danger to his somnambulist partners because, wait for it, he has Dead Wife (Marion Cotillard) Guilt Issues. Another pickle: their "architect" has died, meaning they need a new one, meaning there's room for Nolan's obligatory Michael Caine cameo and a role for earnest Ellen Page as architect-savant Ariadne. People with a cursory knowledge of Greek mythology take note: this is Nolan making a nod to Jung. Everyone else will probably be content to know that Ariadne is supposed to be really good at weaving stuff out of dream fabric, though it all looks like a city--oh, and a glacier--to my uninspired eyes.
In lieu of depth, Inception offers complexity; it's the philosophical/existential equivalent of a Rubik's Cube. Better, it's this generation's Spellbound (Hitchcock version), which may have seemed awfully smart to contemporary audiences but looks awfully embarrassing today--but there's a great dream sequence in that one, too, right? Cobb and his buddies hatch a series of dreams-within-dreams to trick Fischer. They intend to do this with the help of an ace pharmacologist who's carefully engineered a cocktail potent enough to keep his subjects asleep through almost any upset but leaves the inner ear "live" so the dreamers can "jolt" out of their dreamscape capers at predetermined "kicks." Ah, idioglossia. What they don't know is that Fischer's own subconscious has been drilled to react to interlopers with a...and that if their avatars die in their sleep they'll...and that Cobb just wants to go home to see his kids' faces but...and that they have to live out a scene from From Russia With Love because...and there's a vault and some "lost" number sequences, therefore...and is that Tom Berenger? What kind of dream is this? What also isn't explained well is how our dreamers manage to stay asleep when the van containing their sleeping shells flips down an embankment--what with their inner ears being "live" and all. No matter, as Inception is all, ahem, a prestige: a gaudy flourish of a film that attempts at the horrible, stomach-moving profundity of Memento's solipsism but makes a terrible hash of it in the bloat to epic size.
Adapting his philosophy of the self to a bigger canvas, Nolan feeds it into the grinder of multiple explosions and a script so literal it'd be insulting if the viewer weren't distracted from it trying to keep up with its labyrinthine arbitrariness. The only thing of real interest in the picture is that it appears to be trying to define itself (that is, the medium of film itself) as an analog to the dream life--a pursuit it shares with far, far superior essays of the uncanny like Mulholland Dr., Last Year in Marienbad, and, yeah, Synecdoche, New York. The only thing of real interest in Inception, in other words, is that besides having an ingenious weightless fight and more parallel editing and slow-motion than a normal person should be forced to endure, it's possibly/maybe a gateway drug to harder stuff like Altered States and eXistenZ. Dare to dream. Originally published: July 16, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers By now, everyone and her grandmother owns a copy of Inception on Blu-ray, and my assessment of its A/V credentials falls in lockstep with theirs. It's a beaut; thankfully, this isn't an artifact-riddled IMAX dump like The Dark Knight's 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. Colour and contrast boast a purity that might be a placebo effect, knowing that Christopher Nolan and DP Wally Pfister graded the film chemically instead of digitally--nevertheless, both have excellent dynamic range. Do I detect the tiniest bit of edge-enhancement? Maybe, but it doesn't subtract from the impressively glassy detail. The controlled grain and frequent amber lighting schemes combine to produce an image more often than not best described as elegant, while the gutturally bassy 5.1 DTS-HD MA track honours a meticulous mix that doesn't sound nearly as harsh and self-cancelling during the picture's sonically relentless second half as it did in at least one theatre last summer. A very strong demo disc indeed.
As for the 45-minute "Extraction Mode," it's made up of fourteen brief HD featurettes--"The Inception of Inception," "The Japanese Castle: The Dream is Collapsing," "Disintegration of the Paris Cafe," "Constructing Paradoxical Architecture," "The Freight Train," "Ambush on the City Streets," "The Tilting Bar," "The Rotating Corridor," "The Mountain Fortress," "Simulating Zero-G," "Limbo: The Design of Unconstructed Space," "The Fortress Explosion," "The Music of Dreams," and "The Dream-Share"--viewable separately/individually under the menu heading "Jump to the Action." Some fans have complained that this documentary material doesn't delve deep enough, but it will certainly sate the appetite of the casually curious. Nolan suggests that he extrapolated his own seemingly square dreamlife for the Inception screenplay, while various personnel testify to the versatility of air cannons. (Aside: in "Disintegration of the Paris Cafe," there's a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio's and Ellen Page's stand-ins that's hilarious just because.) Escher is cited early and often, and the breakdown of the anti-gravity sequence(s) is particularly edifying--as is the bit on Hans Zimmer's score, wherein The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr backs a full-scale orchestra that's been hired to mimic electronic music with their acoustic instruments. For what it's worth, the Extraction Mode ends with a teasing shot of a top, too.
A second BD houses Roko Belic's "Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious" (44 mins., HD), in which "Regular Joe," i.e., Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appears to have aimed cameras at himself for his host segments. The piece begins by interviewing a variety of behavioural scientists (one of whom proved lucid dreaming possible, calling it an "art") who talk about the nature of sleep, Freud's theory of the subconscious, and the like, including REM Sleep Disorder. This is lite, easy viewing, but that subtitle's something of a misnomer: Although Georges Méliès is excerpted and imitated throughout for visual flair, Inception is the only film covered in any depth and it hardly constitutes the "cinema of the subconscious" by its lonesome. "Inception: The Cobol Job" (15 mins., HD) is a comic-book prequel brought to life with rudimentary animation and word balloons in lieu of pricey voice talent; I really have no patience for these things. Rounding out the platter: a BonusView archive of "highly secure" dream-share technology schematics, "Project Somnacin: Confidential Files"; the entire Inception soundtrack in DD 5.1; conceptual art and promotional art galleries; and, in HiDef, three trailers plus thirteen TV spots for Inception. The keepcase additionally contains the movie's retail DVD release and a Digital Copy of the film, also on DVD. Originally published: January 19, 2011.
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