A decade ago, “Inception” premiered at London’s world-famous cinema Odeon Leicester Square. It was no secret that “Inception” was going to be a big money-maker, with the world-class and world-famous faces of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page gracing the forefront of the picture and, not to mention, it was hotshot director Christopher Nolan’s first film after the box-office smash and critical darling “The Dark Knight” reinvigorated the comic book film genre (even more so than “Batman Begins”). Yet, nobody could have predicted the frenzy and the fascination—even ten years later—that the film touched off, sparking endless internet discussion and theories about the movie’s complex plot and the infamous cut-to-black cliffhanger ending. One only needs to look at the past few months for evidence of the film’s enduring popularity and appeal; its super-high streaming numbers on Netflix, and the upcoming rerelease in theaters coming up later this month. A decade has passed, and “Inception” still dominates the small and big screen.
But is this legacy justified? Although many rabid fans proclaiming it is a masterpiece, an equal number call it “overrated.” There are those who claim it is the most technically ambitious and uniquely challenging film of the century, while others maintain it is an above-average blockbuster that thinks it is a lot smarter than it actually is.
Yet, before touching on that discussion, it is imperative to establish the basics. For the uninitiated, “Inception” follows Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a hijacker specializing in corporate espionage, who uses state-of-the-art military technology to infiltrate the dreams of his victims with the aim of “extracting” secrets from their subconscious. Eventually, he is approached by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, who employs him not for the sake of extraction, but for inception: to plant an idea in his business competitor’s mind (the ultimate goal is to have the rival dissolve his corporation by exploiting his troubled relationship with his father)—if Cobb is able to do this, Saito will clear his criminal record, allowing Cobb to see his children once again. Rounding out the crew is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is in charge of researching the missions, Ariadne (Ellen Page), the “architect” tasked with creating the maze-like world of the dreams (absurdly obvious Greek mythology reference alert: Ariadne was a princess who gave Theseus a ball of yarn and a sword to make his way through the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur), Eames (Tom Hardy), who impersonates other people within the dreams, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist who creates the sedatives. Marion Cotillard also stars as Mal, Cobb’s deceased wife who plagues his subconscious, creating significant problems down the road.
Judging from the length of what was supposed to be a brief summary, one might already ascertain why the film was heralded as such a blockbuster revelation. The sheer complexity and originality on display, the attention-to-detail regarding the machinations of how the dream technology works (the compounding of time between layers of consciousness, the synchronization of the “kicks” (i.e., the jolts to wake one up)), and the added intricacies necessary for the difficulties of achieving “inception”: the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream layout all going simultaneously at different speeds of time, and the added confusion between what is reality and what is a dream that permeates the entire movie.
As a result, this is not merely a mindless action flick, a collection of vaguely related set-pieces with no form of higher thinking involved. On first viewing, the story is potentially headache-inducing; Nolan does his best to disseminate the rules and procedures of the dream world, but it admittedly takes a lot of mindpower to comprehend. And that is a key reason why the movie is so well-received: it demands attention rather than dulling it, unlike so many summer action blockbusters. In a legitimate gamble, it assumes the audience is intelligent, and thus demands some mental fortitude by daring to be complex.
Yet, in the central (and, in this reviewer’s opinion, valid) piece of criticism that can be levelled at this movie, the film’s flavor of complexity is akin to Sudoku or a crossword, not the type found in Tolstoy or even other sci-fi movies like “2001” or “Blade Runner.” It is purely mental gymnastics, not at all reaching the depths of, say, “Blade Runner”, which probes the human condition with questions of what constitutes consciousness and what elements of personality are essential to be considered human. These are unsolvable and resonant themes that deign to uncover the inner core of humanity and, as such, linger far after the credits roll. Comparatively, “Inception” is a jigsaw puzzle: once it’s put together, one forgets all about it. It is a technically well-filmed gimmick.
Indeed, for a movie that spends most of its time in the literal subconsciousness of numerous characters, it is surprisingly reticent and one-dimensional in its expression of the fears and desires that lurk in peoples’ minds. Even the main character of Cobb (who, it must be said, is played excellently by Leonardo DiCaprio—his hidden melancholy and borderline instability stemming from grief is palpable), during the deepest excavation into his mind, is only bestowed with elementary and surface-level depictions of grief and guilt. There is none of the contradictory and mysterious emotional complexes one would expect to find in the hidden recesses of the human mind; all of the mental conflicts in the story are reductive and superficial. For the complicated nature of its plot and world-building, “Inception” is disappointedly pedestrian in its refusal to tackle unconventional themes and its simplistic and flimsy characterizations.
Perhaps that is a bit harsh, though. There are additional bright spots in the movie: the stunt work and visual effects are a marvel to behold, even today (highlights include the zero-gravity fight scene in the hotel and the famous sequence of the city folding in on itself), the performances are all great, and the script is well-paced in spite of necessary expositional dumps. And it is important to remember that the film is not a dramatic masterpiece because it was never meant to be a dramatic masterpiece. It is a summer blockbuster with technical gusto that sprinkles in some brain teasing mind puzzles to set it apart from the rest of the pack. Keep that in mind, and “Inception” is still a dizzyingly good time all these years later.