Updated on July 16, 2010, 3:55 PM - Written by Tim Buttner
(Beware as spoilers follow)
From the opening shots of the movie the viewer is introduced to the vagueness of the dream world that for the next two and a half hours they will live in. The character of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is introduced as he sees two young kids with their backs to him playing on the beach, and an image that for the rest of the movie will come back is planted in the audience's mind. Cobb is brought to an old Saito (Ken Watanabe) who examines the two items that Cobb had on him: a gun and a spinning top. Christopher Nolan manages to introduce two very important pieces of the puzzle early on with the projection of the kids and the spinning top, and for the rest of the movie the audience debates what is real and what is dream because of the ambiguity these two objects possess.
The audience is taking back through a flashback, which introduces Cobb on a job with trusted friend and colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to steal information from Saito while he dreams. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come far from 3rd Rock From the Sun and his child actor days to become one of the most talented young performers working today, and he has great chemistry with DiCaprio, who also worked hard to be one of the top leading men in Hollywood. In this dream the audience is introduced to another important piece of the puzzle, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is the catalyst that sends the players out of the dream. The audience meets the architect, Nash (Lukas Haas), who gets little screen time but plays his purpose well. Instantly the concept of a dream within a dream is introduced, and the rules of the movie world begin to fall into place.
Cobb is presented with a predicament when Saito confronts him and Arthur with an offer that may lead to Cobb being able to finally return home, which the audience is itching to learn the secret that makes it that he can't. Can Cobb and his team hack into the mind of a business rival, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), and plant an idea as opposed to steal one? Cobb sets about building his team, which includes Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the new architect and Eames (Tom Hardy) as the forger. The audience meets Cobb's father, Miles (Micheal Caine), who introduces Cobb to Ariadne, and gather some farther information about Cobb. Ariadne's introduction to the dream world is a stunning sequence with some dazzling effects, which include implosions happening around the characters as they sit outside a Parisian café. Nolan is brilliant at building the mystery behind Cobb, and masterly weaves it throughout the rest of the story with little clues and tidbits of information here and there. Although a caper film, it is essentially a character driven drama that audiences love because they care so much about the characters, especially as Nolan raises the stakes with each second. The first act is enjoyable and flows extremely well, and as the film moves into the second act the audience is one the edge of their seat trying to anticipate the next move.
Nolan manages to stay a step ahead of his audience with every scene, and never does the movie feel dull or slow despite its length. The film feels Hitchcockian and has major influences from Stanley Kubrick, which greatly lend to its brilliance. Ariadne pokes into Cobb's mind and discovers part of his dark secret, which proves to be problematic for the team. It's great that Nolan found a way to make Ariadne's curiosity resemble the audience's, and as she learns information about Cobb so does the audience; a very clever device. The audience enters the major dream sequence that takes up a large portion of the movie, and delves deeper and deeper into the levels of the dream. Cobb's demons hinder the team, while Fischer's defenses fight them to protect his mind, and a major turn forces them to fight for their lives as if it were reality in order to avoid limbo. Nolan knows precisely how to raise the stakes in order for it to be challenging for the main characters even when they're in the dream world, and praise be with him for intelligently working around the challenges.
The first impressive surreal moment to happen in the dream world is when the main characters have entered into the second level, and so the world's properties are affected by the world that their bodies are in, and those bodies are in a moving van. It is Nolan's penchant for wanting to do as many of the effects in camera as possible that made the realism of this film so spot on, even in the dream world. And so for when the hotel bar changes its properties to gravity shifts and sudden, dramatic, weather changes Nolan and his crew built the entire set to tilt 30 degrees. This effect is not only for visceral purposes but it lends to the story, which is a rarity in big Hollywood movies these days. Director of Photography Wally Pfister, ASC, achieved the lighting change by having his crew wire all fixtures to a dimmer board, initially with Molebeams gelled with 21/2 CTS for the sunset feel, and as the light dimmed they raised 60'-long soft-boxes filled with Maxi-Brutes and covered with grid cloth for the overcast light. For the audience this seamlessly made the scene feel realer.
The next, and most impressive, surreal moment in the dream world is after the van takes its backward leap off a bridge down toward the river. While the van is suspended in the air, the dream level below is subjected to zero gravity conditions. These zero gravity scenes are awesome and very cool. Reminiscent of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan manages to take the effect to the next level by staging a fight in the zero gravity corridors of the hotel, and the effect is mesmerizing. The cinematography called for intricate shots in a rotating set, which went 360 degrees. One camera moved independently if the set, and the action became a fluid dance with the Technocrane, while the other camera set-up was mounted to the set. The mounted camera was designed with the set in such an indispensable way that the carpeting was designed to hide the tracks which the dolly moved, while the camera was gyroscopically stabilized in an elegant manner that the action was able to have another unique manner of dance. There was another set built that stood vertically on its end, which the camera pointed upward with a telescopic Towercam rig while the actors were raised and lowered on wires. There was also use of trolly rigs to cart the actors along the hallway; it was removed in post. The action is undeniably a brilliantly shot sequence.
The gaffer, Corey Geryak, was gifted with an interesting dilemma for this sequence and his outcome was genius. Geryack understood that Nolan wanted the corridor set to rotate freely without having to be reset, so his lighting had to be integrated into the design of the entire set along with the electrical that powered it. His team built the dimmer pack onboard the rig, and balanced all the cables and dimmers so that it wouldn't make the load uneven. They found a company that designed a slip-ring brush system to supply power, which allowed them to have the electricity come from the land power. Geryak had to deal with the fact that the actors were going to be banging into his lighting fixtures, so they had to be extra sturdy, and high-speed camerawork was going to come into play in the intensity needed from the light. The art department designed practical fixtures that each held 150-watt Photofloods, sconces, and a soffit built around the existing practicals that were fitted with nook lights with 1,000-watt globes behind mild glass.
Nolan's technical team worked hard to accomplish the hybrid between realism and surrealism for the film's dream sequences, and they succeeded with the highest esteem. In collaboration with the visuals were an exhilarating composition by Hans Zimmer and a wonderful sound mix by Richard King. King had previously worked with Nolan on The Dark Knight, for with he won an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, and his brilliance continued with Inception. Zimmer created a score that was both poetically beautiful, for the scenes emphasizing character development, and pulse pounding, for the action sequences. The sound mix and music both contained otherworldly properties to emphasize the dreamscape, and deepened the audience's connection to the story.
The editing, which involved intercutting three dream levels, was another astounding facet that leant to bringing Nolan's masterful story together. Beginning with Nolan's brilliant writing, where he found three distinct settings for each dream level, then Pfister's in camera color palette to give each dreamscape a unique look, and finally with Lee Smith's crafty cutting. If Smith doesn't win an Academy for his editing on this film it's a crime. Not only is it well paced, but also it managed to keep the viewer's attention in a way that feels like a dream. Smith also technically pulled off a difficult task by cutting together IMAX 65mm and 35mm film with high-speed HD cameras seamlessly to complete a singular vision.
The performers in the film were perfectly cast, and there wasn't a single character not needed. Each performance hinged on the chemistry between the actors, which was rich and fulfilling. Levitt's Arthur had great comic relief moments with Hardy's Eames, and also shared a wonderfully comic moment with Page's Ariadne when he asked her to kiss her in a ploy to convince Fischer's subconscious that he was not the dreamer. Page and Cotillard were both up for the Oscar for Best Actress in 2008 for the 2007-year, with Cotillard winning for her performance as Edith Piaf (notice the song played to rouse dreamers was performed by Piaf), and their shared screen time was a pleasure to watch. Leonardo DiCaprio was the quintessential leading man, and his collaborations with Martin Scorsese have lead to his mastery of his undeniable talent. He works with each of his fellow cast members magnificently and with such ease that it feels as though his relationships with them are genuine. Cillian Murphy also added a lot of dimension to the cast, and although he comes off cold at first, the audience grows to sympathize with his character.
Every one of these elements are part of the puzzle that is the reality of the film. Is it entirely a dream, or is there reality in there? Christopher Nolan weaves his story in such an intricate way that the audience needs to view the movie more than once to pick up all the subtle clues. Never does he give away the exact duration that Cobb has been on the run and away from his kids, nor does he ever specifically give away if the kids have aged significantly. Cobb has been hacking into people's dreams, and as the audience learns this makes it feel as though he's been away longer than he actually has. Naturally for kids two weeks, let alone a month, is a long time for their parents to be away, so it's not inconceivable that Cobb has only been on the run for a few months. The only ambiguous feature when Cobb finally sees his kids at the end is that they're wearing the same clothing as when he last saw them. This, however, is not something uncommon because kids often play favorites and will wear the same pair of clothes again and again. Nolan's other tip of ambiguity is whether the top continues spinning or tips over. This leads into another theory.
Was Cobb in limbo all along? Perhaps when Cobb entered limbo with his wife there was no escape, and he could never escape even through death. Maybe death pushed him deeper into limbo, and so all the characters are part of his subconscious. Maybe the inception performed in the movie is the idea that Cobb frees himself and is reunited with his kids, which is what he wanted all along. From the very beginning he wanted to let go of Mal and get back to his kids. Does he not achieve this at the end? Is it not possible that he needed to travel deep into his dream world to plant the idea that he succeeded at that? With a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan this isn't inconceivable.
This reviewer believes in the two possible scenarios. If he was in reality at some parts of the movie, and he succeeded in planting the idea in Fischer to disband his father's empire and freed Saito from limbo, then he made it out to his kids and was in reality. However, if he was in limbo the whole time, then the inception performed in the movie was on himself so that he would be comfortable with spending the rest of eternity in limbo with his children created from his subconscious.
It is because of the masterful filmmaking and these wonderfully ambiguous answers that this movie is a gem. Christopher Nolan has succeeded in creating a completely original property that is fresh, exhilarating, and reviewable. With many wishes that Nolan's next venture be as exciting and fulfilling as this one.
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