Friday, July 16, 2010

'Inception' is most unusual action film ever

Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, and Marion Cotillard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A corporate espionage expert, Dom (DiCaprio), specializing in stealing ideas straight from the minds of targets is hired to enter the dreams of the heir-apparent of a massive energy company (Murphy) and plant an idea that he should break it up and sell of the pieces. With a team of similarly talented experts, he enters the dreamscape... but the job is complicated by unexpected resistance generated both from the mind of the target and from dark secrets lurking within Dom's own subconscious.

I don't like to use absolutes when writing reviews, partly because I have not seen every movie ever made, and partly because too many reviewers look like morons when they declare multiple films in the same year as "the best movie ever" or even just "best movie of the year."

However, I am going to make an exception with "Inception." This is, without question, the most unusual and unexpected action movie ever made.

First, it is a near-perfect fusion of the standard Heist Movie with an almost Gibson-esque futuristic setting where mega-corporations operate almost as independent nations, and technology has broken down the barriers between mind and machine in almost unimaginable ways. Nolan wisely stayed away from "cyberware," but almost every other element is here, and he handles those elements with a level of skill and effectiveness that has rarely been seen. (Nolan also stays away from cliches like "evil corporations will always double-cross you" and "it was a simple job gone wrong," which elevates the movie even further.)

Second, the film asks viewers to follow the action and story threads through the "real world" and five different dreamscapes. Not only that, but while following the story lines, the viewers need to be introduced to the "physics" of existing within the dreamworlds and juggle almost as many complexities as the characters when they undertake their "grand heist" by creating and penetrating a dream within a dream within a dream. With completely different worlds interacting with and impacting upon each other--the team at one point is operating on four different dream-levels after the mission "goes bad"--this is a film that could easily have either collapsed into chaos or gotten bogged down in unnecessary exposition. Neither happens here, because the parts of the film are so specifically thought out and the plot so carefully constructed that it all turns and spins like the works in a perfectly made Swiss watch; and because Nolan trusts in the intelligence of his audience to understand the unusual setting with just one purely expository scene, and some dashes of additional explanation between characters as the film progresses. (Ellen Page plays a character who is new to the profession, so she functions in many ways as the "proxy" for the viewer, allowing for things to be explained without it appearing out of place and heavy-handed. And even so, Nolan chooses more often to "show, not tell," an approach that more filmmakers need to develop.)

Third, the film has some fantastic fight scenes and exceptionally well-staged chase scenes. It's actually astonishing to me that no element of a spectacular, extended Zero-Gravity action sequence in a hotel corridor was not used in any of the previews and television ads for the film. Believe, the scenes of Paris exploding around DiCaprio and Page, and the image of a city street and buildings folding up at a 90-degree angle are nothing compared to to the truly exciting visuals and action sequences in the film.

Along with the action is the fact that everything is perfectly timed, like that Swiss watch I mentioned above. There is not a single piece of padding anywhere, no unnecessary or redundant scenes, no establishing shots that go on for too long... everything here is timed perfectly for maximum suspense and maximum excitement. I often get impatient with a film when it hits the 85-minute mark, but this one runs almost two-and-a-half hours, and I barely noticed the time pass. There was always something going on, and it was all important and relevant. In fact, this is one of those very rare films in this genre that sets out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking than the average action film or crime drama where I never had the sense that the writer/director was trying to show me how clever he thought he was... then again, Nolan didn't have to, because "Inception" actually is as clever and well-wrought as he probably thinks it is.

Finally, the actors are all very good in their roles. I'm not saying that anyone up there gets to have a Marlon Brando "Stellaaaaaaa!" moment, but the entire cast gives performances that are believable and suitable for the roles they're playing. Every character comes across as extremely intelligent and creative, just like I would expect someone who engages in manipulating the dreams of others would have to be, but also cold enough that they would violate those very private places without compunction. Only Ellen Page's character doesn't have that cold edge to her, yet even her character is ultimately enamored with the chance to build worlds from scratch and not terribly concerned with the impact on the group's target. The characters are all likable--even Cillian Murphy has a chance to play a likable character, something I have never seen him do before--and they are all portrayed by actors whose performances all seem absolutely real and believable. Heck, this film even gives me cause to reconsider whether Leonardo DiCaprio has any talent or not... this is the first film I've seen him in where I didn't feel like he hired just for his pretty face.

Fourth, there's the nearly perfect score by Hans Zimmer. It's been a while since I've seen a film where the soundtrack music so perfectly complimented and heightened the action and suspense as it did here. The beginning of the third act, where the team has scant minutes to escape from three different dreamworlds, or be lost for what will seem like decades in a mental limbo, wouldn't have been nearly as exciting as it was with that music. And, most of the time, you won't even notice it's there, because it is so well done. Zimmer's contribution here in on the level of what Bernard Hermann did for Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest".

This is probably another hyperbole I should stay away from, but, with this being the fifth film in a row from Nolan that I have been able to find very few faults with, I think he may this generation's Alfred Hitchcock. He seems to have a perfect eye for pacing suspense films, for getting just the right performances out of the actors, and for bringing every tool at his disposal to bear in order to shape a fantastic movie. Of course, it's not a judgement that one can really make without the sort of hindsight that we have on the likes of Hitchcock, but there is no doubt in my mind that Nolan is an extremely talented filmmaker, and that someone will be writing long retrospectives about a grand career seventy years from.

I said last week in my review of "Predators" that it would be remembered as one of the best action films this summer. I think "Inception" will be counted among the best movies of the year, period. Hell, it may even end up being one of the best of the decade when it comes time to look back. At any rate, I don't think it's going to be successfully imitated any time soon, nor do I think it's going to be matched.

See it. You won't regret it.


Simon said...

Excellent review. I kind of loved it too, but there were some parts that bugged me.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Which parts? (I have some quibbles with the nature of the chase scene in Africa, but they're so minor that they're barely nitpicks.)

Tom said...

Hans Zimmer is one of my favorite composers; I didn't know he did the score for this. I've been on the fence about whether or not to see it, but just may give it a try.