As a professional dream invader, DiCaprio leads a good cast of decent performances in a film which fits the bill of summer blockbuster for thrills and spills. But hailed by most for an intricate plot ambitiously executed, the most puzzling thing about Inception is how writer-director Christopher Nolan has got away with it.
After coming up with an interesting (if not entirely original) premise, it's taken Nolan nine years to grout over his flaky concept with a thick paste of bullshit, pre-empting any scrutiny with lengthy explanations designed to confuse rather than enlighten. The aim is of course to send audiences home believing they have seen a film which they know was 'very deep' – shorthand for any movie which mixes reality and non-reality, contains big words like "The Subconcious", and requires viewers to stop grazing on popcorn for a moment to consider briefly the plot. And somehow it’s worked: audiences are flooding back for seconds, literally in their dozens.
Even when Nolan eases on the explanatory dialogue, leaving us to suspend our own disbelief and get on with being entertained, the crimescene of millionaire Fischer's mind which the film enters is disappointingly neat. There is little of the imagination, the probing ambiguity, or the tantalising emotion of a Charlie Kaufmann psy-fi (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche: New York), nor the stylised finesse of The Matrix as the film which Inception has been compared with most. All this said, it does begin to get fun with the 'dreams within dreams' (even if it’s not quite the stroke of genius that Nolan evidently thinks it is), the shifts in gravity seeping through to the lower level dreams to give the film one its memorable set pieces: a spinning hotel corridor where Nolan stages a (half-hearted) tussle and a falling van of sleeping passengers, filmed in terrific slow motion. Here things finally speed up, the final hour gathering pace thanks to the creatively used special effects, an orchestra of Hanz Zimmer horns, and the impending fate of DiCaprio's team.
Normally in these films, the main man's (and it usually is a man) love interest / personal baggage hampers the film with untimely and distractive plot-threads, but here Cobb's personal beef with his deceased wife provides the film with its most intriguing aspect (although ultimately this says as much about the blandness of the film's clumsily edited action sequences than it does about Nolan's ability to write an engaging love story).
But my main problem with Inception runs thus: Whereas The Matrix took real life and pinned it to an absurdly watertight concept, or Momento, with its dizzyingly post-modern structure adapted from the short story by Nolan's brother Jonathan, survives repeated scrutiny, with Inception, Nolan's fault is that he takes a wild hypothesis full of holes and expects us to swallow it whole. The film has none of that tongue in cheek comic book bravado which most science fiction needs to embrace to avoid embarrassing itself. Instead, as in The Dark Knight, in which Nolan did away with the comic book camp of the Burton Batman films, Inception is all frowns and furrowed brows, and ends up taking itself far too seriously.
Coming close to redeeming himself with a playful final twist, Nolan lets Dom Cobb’s totem (the determiner of dream or reality) spin ambiguously – is he still sleeping or has he genuinely returned to a concrete life with his children?
(Just pretend you didn’t notice the totem begin to topple, confirming the happy ending that Nolan just can't resist... kerdunk!)