Inception (2010)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Premise: In the near future, technology has been developed that allows people to enter the dreams of others and interact with their unconscious mind to retrieve secret or forgotten information. A team of extractors is commissioned to do the opposite: to implant an idea in someone’s unconsciousness.

What Works: Inception is a successful combination of a science fiction premise with the plot and genre conventions of a heist film. That combination works because the more conventional elements of the heist film give the audience a way to put the complex concepts of the film in a familiar and understandable context. In much the same way that Blade Runner took ideas about humanity and identity and couched them in a noir detective thriller or The Dark Knight addressed issues of justice and heroism within the context of a superhero film, Inception concretizes abstract notions of reality by giving the intellectual and philosophical ideas a physical representation. Inception is part of a small but distinguished category of films that play with the audience’s perception. When films like this are done well, such as Sunrise, Vertigo, The Matrix, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Memento, they are exciting examples of the possibility of cinema. What Inception does is to take some of the techniques and concepts we’ve seen already in this category of subjective cinema and bring them to a new level. The visuals of the film are revealed as entirely plastic, which ought to be a detriment to the film, but that plasticity extends outward beyond the dream world of the story and creates a concrete reality of its own. This has all kinds of implications, some that are psychological, others that are political or ethical, and still more that are aesthetic. Inception is, in a very real way, an important example of life in the digital age in all of its fractured, synthetic, and post-modern glory.

What Doesn’t: Although Inception is an impressive exercise in filmmaking, the story is far from air tight. The locations and situations of the dream world, especially the final snowbound fortress, seem arbitrary rather than embodying character-based significance. The shootouts and chases also seem less functions of narrative than they are ways of punching up the excitement in the story. The characters of Inception have a lot of back story and the film occasionally gets wrapped up in its own drama, spinning its wheels without actually going anywhere.  Similarly, the characters are fun to spend time with but in the end most are pretty flat and don’t come to any epiphanies about themselves or the world.

Bottom Line: Inception is a good film and probably an important one. It has some significant flaws in its story but those who enjoy cinematic mind games or are interested the plasticity of the art form should definitely check it out.

Episode: #298 (July 25, 2010)