While not entirely absent, the cerebral drama I thought I paid for rode along the margins. Nolan, who beyond “Batman,” also directed “Memento” and “The Prestige” among others, is great at dialing back the complexity of his narratives to their most accessible level. This means “Inception,” particularly in its first half, leans against a scaffolding of exposition, on which characters glassily explain how the business of dream invasion and information extraction works, right down to its subtlest intricacies. It can easily become grating, but the transparency of the writing is somewhat forgiven by the strength of the performances, and the not-so-insignificant fact that it exists purely to deliver an incredible, uninterrupted finale. Honestly, the sooner you stop expecting “Inception” to challenge you, the more you’ll enjoy it.
It’s hard to say on first viewing whether any of that exposition could be cut without compromising audience understanding of the events that unfold—Essentially “Inception” is a reverse heist film, with a crack team of dream spelunkers (Leo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page) attempting to ‘plant’ an idea in the subconscious psyche of the heir to a corporate mogul’s empire (Cillian Murphy)—But even at his most condescendingly explanatory, Nolan runs at a brisk pace; he forgoes atmosphere in favor of adrenaline.
And there I do take issue. Maybe I bring my own dream experience into the equation, but when I remember my dreams, I more often recall abstract feelings than concrete cause and effect. Conversely, it seems Nolan’s dreams are all about events—Meetings, kidnappings, James Bond compound infiltrations. It’s all very exciting, but not as emotionally transporting as I would have hoped.
But then it’s not Colin George’s “Inception,” and my dreams run antithetical to Nolan’s greater intent. His film isn’t faux sci-fi gone sour, it’s a smarter than average thriller, and taken in thriller context, its unquestionable genre elevation. Here Nolan not only crafts visually distinct, memorable action scenes, but he understands that those scenes carry weight only because of their context to his characters’ journey.
Precisely for that reason, the opening of the film did little for me. It makes all the sense in the world to begin with an elaborate dream sequence gone awry, but without immediately knowing what’s at stake, we have no reason to root for the characters or care about what they’re doing—Beyond the fact that it all looks gorgeous. Nolan finds his footing when he introduces Page as DiCaprio’s protégé, and as an outlet for the exposition, she keeps the audience in the loop. Granted, it’s not the most elegant solution, but without it, “Inception” runs the risk of spiraling into entropy.
Simply put, it isn’t the sort of film that deserves to be critically scrutinized, playing just a few short weeks after Shyamalan’s snoozy “Airbender” and barely a month removed from the inept action comedy, “Killers.” By no means a perfect film, “Inception” is damn near the perfect summer film, and during an unusually tepid season, it’s exciting just to see someone brave enough to get into the water.
And Nolan puts his head under. It may not have been the revelation I stupidly expected, but “Inception” backs up brawn with brains, and that’s what the director does best. Whether he’s working within the guidelines of comic book canon or acting as the architect of his own worlds, he doesn’t necessarily innovate—But he always reinvents. Exclamation point.