From The Parallax Review Vaults: Inception (2010)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Inception was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Just ten years ago with Memento, Christopher Nolan hit us over the head with what should have been an obvious question: What is reality? It sounds like a simple query, but it’s actually quite tricky. Does knowing something as a fact make it real? If you know something is false, yet it feels real, doesn’t it become a truth? Obviously, these are questions and ideas that have been bounced around by artists, philosophers, and stoners for…well, seemingly forever. But few people have managed to wrap them up in such purely entertaining packages as Nolan. From Leonard’s fifteen-minute view of the world in Memento to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight’s ultimate question of who is real and who is the mask, Batman or Bruce Wayne, questions of what constitutes reality have been smuggled into Nolan’s increasingly expansive genre films. With Inception, he delivers what may be his most immersive look at what is essentially an unanswerable question.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an operative who specializes in a very specific kind of corporate espionage: using special technology, he steals secrets from people’s minds while they dream. Unable to return to America for a past crime that is constantly hinted at through the first act, he is tempted into a job that is more dangerous than any he has ever attempted before: Inception. This is literally the planting of an idea in the mind of a subject and making them believe it was their own. If he succeeds, he is promised that all his legal troubles will vanish and he can return to the U.S. and his children. To say anything more would give away most of the fun.

By framing Inception as a heist picture with James Bond-like action sequences, Nolan never forgets that, first and foremost, he has to entertain the audience. With dollops of dry wit — a personal favorite is a character who fails to use the bathroom before going under and dreaming of a world where it only rains — to accompany the scenes of mayhem and physics-defying special effects, the film never fails to engage. In many ways, it feels like one of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies. The difference, of course, being the heady philosophical questions that lurk just below the surface and Nolan’s boundless imagination.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s with the sketchily drawn supporting characters. Cobb is fully formed as a tortured man trying to run away from his past, while simultaneously forcing himself to relive it through stored memories. The only other character who Nolan bothers to show much of an interest in is a corporate tycoon’s alienated son (Cillian Murphy). While underwriting many of the characters, Nolan makes up for this by casting them so well. This is especially true when it comes to Cobb’s team: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Ken Watanabe all bring distinct personalities to their roles. While they may not bring any real depth to their characters, they are talented enough to bring the illusion of depth (which is an especially handy talent for this film). The same can be said for the several recognizable faces like Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, Tom Berenger, and Dileep Rao, who have small but pivotal parts to play.

Working with a top-notch cast and crew (including beautiful cinematography by Wally Pfister and an epic score by Hans Zimmer), Nolan has managed to create a great summer movie for adults. It’s a popcorn movie that’s long on entertainment and ideas. Those don’t come around often. When they do, we should appreciate them as the rarities that they are.

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