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Inception (2010)

by on 2012/01/19

“In the real world we’d have to choose,
but not here.”

* * * *

Inception, in its original run, reminded me of King Kong. Like Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, the theatre closed around me like the restraints of an amusement park ride. After more than two hours, I was breathless with its unrelenting pace, an adrenalizing experience which zeroed my critical faculties.

After the initial rush, I considered matters again, and realized my euphoria didn’t fool me into believing either effort was perfect. I was unable to put my finger on exactly where things fell short and, if I’m not entirely certain, then I’m closer than ever before.

Appropriately, my greatest reservation involves Inception’s similar approximation of problem solving, without reaching definitive answers.

Insofar as the characters are concerned, the problem to be solved is financial, professional, or personal. Dom Cobb (Shutter Island’s Leonardo DiCaprio) specializes in a military technique, infiltrating a target’s mind. He does so through a combination of technology, drugs, and discipline. Once inside their subconscious thoughts or dreams, he can uncover hidden information, or plant an unusual suggestion. The former is called extraction, and is relatively common. The latter is rarer — and rarely successful — and referred to as inception.

The concept is not without precedent, but writer-director Christopher Nolan gives it all a recursive twist. Using a convention viewers of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck episodes may find familiar, he finds excuses and means to nest dreams within dreams for additional brain-twisting appeal.

For audiences unfamiliar with such conceits, the script is careful to explain . . . for a time, at least. A considerable foundation is built as Cobb teaches his craft to a pupil, Ariadne (Juno’s Ellen Page). Here began my most significant issues with an otherwise impressive affair. These scenes are nearly pedantic in their education of us, outlining the rules, and giving us reason to expect the necessities for our understanding will be made clear.

But then those expectations are subverted in ways which strike me as less thought-provoking than unfair. The first way has to do with exceptions. I had the distinct sense I was playing a game with someone who had explained the mechanics ahead of time, then later introduced sudden modifications whenever it lent an advantage.

I know of only one instance where this approach is satisfying: in a comedy, which Inception is decidedly not. In tales with narrative twists and turns, the most satisfying moments come in joining existing clues to form revelations, not in risking retcon.

The second way my expectations were subverted related to missing information: things which could — and perhaps should — have been explained, but were not . . . neither in a timely fashion, nor sufficiently well, if at all. Nolan seems to anticipate this complaint as Ariadne blurts out at one point, “Wait, whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” Indeed, but recognition is not resolution. As an audience member, I’d rather be challenged than frustrated.

I wondered if the construction was deliberately vague to avoid an explanation, or reconciliation of facts, not for any artistic ends. Its operatic Sturm und Drang stylings amount to a kind of illusion, impressive enough to distract us from any disjoint. “You keep telling yourself what you know,” one character remarks, “but what do you believe? What do you feel?” These sentiments lull us away from logic when the groundwork has suggested precision.

The audio and visuals provide enough of a rush that the visceral sweep often succeeds in trumping reason. While this approach reflects the intent of the story’s con artists, it also detracts from the strength of the overall work. If the movie doesn’t wait for us to catch up when it falters, we’ll likely convince ourselves “near enough” is good enough.

I’m reminded of something Gru has told me every now and then: “The enemy of completion is perfection.”

For, though Nolan has clearly finished with his vision, I don’t believe he perfected it. He did, however, get closer to the ideal than I would have imagined possible. I recognize its shortcomings, and might argue against a few, yet I’m no less a fan for my various outstanding questions. I find its internal “logic” frustrating, but it still has great potential, and even greater production, near the pinnacle of its craft. More teasing than cathartic, Inception is the cinematic equivalent of a scientific theory, admirably crafted, and sufficient for the present, if needing a touch of refinement in due course.

* * * *

Please note: This article is an update of an earlier “stub” review.

Rated 14A (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

148 minutes

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