Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Theaters: "Inception"

With Inception, Christopher Nolan has taken the resources and budget of a major studio summer blockbuster, and utilized them to make a complex, challenging, thoughtful, thrilling, and ultimately rewarding film—to basically do everything you’re not supposed to do in a big-budget summer movie. But he did it, and in response, audiences have come out in droves. It’s a massive hit. There ought to be dancing in the streets when this happens.

In fact, audiences appear to be cottoning to the picture for exactly the reasons that most audience-testing, 80s-movie-remaking studio execs would fear it—because of its intricacy. Inception is brainy and breathlessly complicated; it requires attention and engagement, unlike most big summer movies, which might as well be background.

I went into it knowing next to nothing about the story, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you do the same. Suffice it to say that it is about dreams, and the penetration of them, and that’s about all you need to know. It’s aesthetically pristine—handsome, moody, and slick—and filled with jaw-dropping special effects. But they’re always at the service of the story, while simultaneously imbued with a prankster’s sense of play. “Look what I can do,” Nolan seems to be giggling, as he creates worlds and rewrites the rules of physics before our very eyes (and even personifies that thrill, in the person of the Ellen Page character).

It’s an intellectual movie, but it’s no airless exercise—the kinetic foot-chase and shoot-out after Leonardo DiCaprio first meets Tom Hardy (unrecognizable from Bronson) is a bruiser, and Nolan sustains, throughout the entire second act, the kind of jagged, hard-boiled tension that made that opening scene of The Dark Knight so memorable. There’s not a weak performance in the movie (though some of the actors are certainly underutilized—why even bother getting Michael Caine for a role this insubstantial?) but it’s not really an actor’s movie anyway. It is a director’s film, and Nolan’s beginning to amass the kind of filmography that Scorsese or even Hitchcock did—his pictures are simultaneously smart, enjoyable, and impeccably assembled.

Inception opens with a dizzying series of interlocking and unfolding dreams and realities; it knocks the viewer off-balance in full preparation for what’s to come. That sequence is child’s play compared to the intertwining levels of dreams in the knockout climax. There’s an honest-to-God “wow” factor in Inception, not at the tilting streets or the zero-gravity fistfights, but at the sheer ingeniousness of the narrative. Christ, I thought to myself. They’re really doing this. “Downwards is the only way forwards,” one character notes. Indeed.

"Inception" is now playing in wide release, as if you didn't know.

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