Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

A thief, who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology, is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO.

I knew Inception was a complex film (and it’s a Christopher Nolan creation) so I was a bit apprehensive I might not understand anything. I was soon reassured, however, by a constant flow of archetypes. It’s as Umberto Eco says about Casablanca: ‘…we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.’

I’ve only seen the film once, and already forgotten most of it, so I won’t embarrass myself by making any attempt at an exhaustive list, but here are a few items that spring to mind. Assembling a team for a job/heist: The Italian Job, The Dirty DozenSeven SamuraiOcean’s Eleven, and hundreds of other such films. Entering the mind to mess about in there: The Matrix. The city rearranging itself: Proyas’s Dark City (tho this instance owes more to Escher’s drawings than to another film). Changing which way is up: 2001 A Space Odyssey is the first film I can remember that did that as strikingly as here. Sitting outside a cafe waiting for something to explode – Welles’s Touch of Evil. Action-adventure: The Terminator and hundreds of others, but especially including the James Bond film with the pursuit on snow. There are probably antecedents for the spinning ‘token’. And so on: others prolly have much longer lists. It was a reassuring filmic experience. I guess if you’re going to invest $160mill in an entertainment, it had better have something familiar about it.


I have two reservations on a second viewing of Nolan's film. One is the lack of interest - which I felt for a second time - due to the unnecessary complexity of the plot. I could deal with a dream presented as reality, and maybe even a dream within a dream, but not with a third level - with a dream within that one again. And especially not when the three narratives are occurring in different time frames, at different rates. It was necessary for the editing to cut between the three different dreams and also the non-dream frame story outside of all of them - and I found that I was incapable, even on this second viewing, of recognising - or, for that matter, caring, which might be more important - which level I was looking at in any given moment. About three-quarters of the way through the film, when the bus was still falling imperceptibly towards the water, I was ready to shout at the screen that it should get on with it and fall in. (I did, however, watch to the end both times.)

I haven't yet mentioned, adding to the complexity, the secondary plot - the one to do with the reason why Leonardo DiCaprio's character should not enter one of these dreams - tho of course he does. That leads to the famously ambiguous ending - which was created in the cutting room, not in the script, by the way. But tho I could see this was setting up an openness, I failed to be able to explain the alternatives to myself.

My second reservation as to the quality of the film is a moral one, and goes to another generic characteristic - the film as a heist movie (assuming the primary genre is fantasy/scifi). On this level of meaning, there is a goal to be achieved, something to be acquired. It turns out to be a will (as in last testament) which is in a locked safe. Nothing more valuable than that, and it contains merely a father's opinion of a son. It's an amazingly trivial object to be the object of a quest so elaborate.

This reminded me of Nolan's first film, Memento, in which there is an apparatus of mind-boggling complexity, again having something to do with the manipulation of time. In the earlier film, the motivation is nothing more than ... revenge.

There's nothing much more here. It's clear that Nolan's intention is to make a striking film rather than to investigate some question of morality. And that's all right. It's just to note that this moves his work towards the entertainment end of the spectrum, and away from art.

... Nolan stays true to the rules of his own brain-teasing game. The film’s demonstration of the three levels of dreaming is certain to inspire deep-dish discourse to rival the Lost finale. But anyone who’s ever been lost in the layers of a video game will have no trouble rising to Nolan’s invigorating challenge to dig out. ... In this wildly ingenious chess game, grandmaster Nolan plants ideas in our heads that disturb and dazzle. The result is a knockout. But be warned: Inception dreams big. How cool is that? Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 28 February, 2017 | Now: 9 March, 2021