Monday, July 19, 2010
Movie Review -- Inception
Christopher Nolan is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. He exploded onto the scene in 2000 with Memento, a shockingly original puzzler about a short-term amnesiac trying to avenge his wife's death, and it told its tale backwards, in order to recreate the feeling in the viewer of not knowing what happened before. It was very effective, got robbed for the Best Editing Oscar, and still is a compelling view even ten years later. One of the biggest reasons that it remains so strong under repeated views is not just in the plot or editing, but in Guy Pierce's haunting performance. He elicits unexpected empathy for his character, even if Leonard Shelby is basically just a misdirected serial killer. It's one of my favorite films for all of those reasons, and it gained so much good will for Nolan that I've seen everything he's directed on opening weekend ever since. So, regardless of the critics' gushings for his later films, why is Memento still his greatest?
Insomnia was okay for a remake, and could be mistaken for a great film if you haven't seen the Scandinavian original it was based on (rent or Netflix it ASAP; it's dark as hell and gets better with repeated viewings). Batman Begins helped begin the 'franchise reboot' craze, but the performances were mostly flat (Katie Holmes, I'm looking squarely at you), and having Gordon drive the Batmobile almost ruined the entire third act for me. The Prestige was better than I thought it would be, but it still felt long and underwhelming. The Dark Knight is 3/4ths of a great film, but gets bogged down in some groan-worthy deus ex machina near the end. And now we have Inception.
I won't spend too much time with plot details, primarily to leave out spoilers, but also because it gets so complex, it would be easier to just cut-and-paste the entire script here. However, a quick synopsis of 'Heat meets The Matrix' will do. Or maybe 'Oceans 11 meets Nightmare on Elm Street 3'? Essentially, it's about people who go into the dreams of others and steal information, international corporate espionage, hot French women locked in basements, and dreidels.
The film is a technological marvel, as are all of Nolan's other films. It's brilliantly scripted, filmed, edited, and scored. Using dreams in film can be risky, because it's been done so many times before (some have made entire careers out of it), but Nolan partially avoids the 'Is it a Dream?' trap by coming out in the first 30 minutes and acknowledging the use of dreams-within-dreams. Those first 30 minutes are perfect, and explain with few words how dream hacking works, and how you can get around things. Then Nolan's script turns into about 60 minutes of solid exposition, but the editing and score help keep it moving at a snappy pace. Then comes the payoff in the last 60 minutes, and while you need a flowchart to keep up with it, somehow it all makes sense. And then we get to why I say Nolan 'PARTIALLY avoids the trap', which is due to the last few shots. Again, I won't get into spoilers, but I'll just say that part of me thinks it's the perfect ending, and the other part thinks it's a terrible cop-out. After you see it, think of Brazil, and how Gilliam made a commitment to an ending, even though you kinda get both. No 'dream' film I've seen since that one has been as strong, and that includes Inception.
Did I enjoy the film? Yes, I did. Nolan used his post-Dark Knight clout to tell the story exactly how he wanted to, with no studio interference. He spent almost ten years working on the script, mapping out all of the minor details, and it shows. It asks much of its audience, which is especially noble in the 'whiz-bang-boom' of the summer season. It has some good action set pieces (the weightless hallway scene is jaw-dropping), but they are not the reason the film exists. So, what is keeping this good film from being great? It's simple, actually: Nolan created a brilliant spreadsheet of a film, but with no sympathetic characters. DiCaprio has the only role that requires more than one emotion, and he came off as passable, but that's it. I'm not saying he's bad, but the film isn't better because of him. I find this to be the case in almost all of DiCaprio's works. What does it say when his best performance was in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape'? He stole that film, and hasn't really carried anything since.
For me, a film can't be truly 'great' unless it makes some sort of personal connection to its audience. Inception isn't concerned with such things. It shows you sights and ideas you've never seen in a movie before, and its craft is impeccable. For those reasons alone, it's worth recommending. However, I hope Nolan will eventually create another sympathetic character like Leonard Shelby, or he'll cast an actor strong enough to go outside what's on the page and evoke emotion from his audience.
Some critics are hailing Inception as the next 'masterpiece', as they incorrectly did for The Dark Knight. Perhaps if it would've been released in the 'award season' of December and January, to higher expectations, it would've reviewed a little lower? However, the great news is that Nolan is only 39 years old, and still has a long career ahead of him. I have enough hope in his ability to where I'll go to his next film on opening weekend, no matter what. There aren't too many directors I can say that about right now.