Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Inception Early Review: Nolan Delivers Kubrickian Masterpiece with Heart

by Anne Thompson
July 5, 2010 9:55 AM
31 Comments
  • |
Thompson on Hollywood

No movie this year comes freighted with greater expectations than Inception, Chris Nolan's follow-up to the global blockbuster The Dark Knight. Happily, the movie delivers and then some--thanks to clever original screenwriting and exhilarating mise-en-scene--in 2D.

When it opens July 16, this eye-popping film will wow moviegoers all over the world--its complexities will only encourage debate and repeat viewings--and should also score well with critics and year-end awards groups. Oscar nominations in technical categories are a certainty, but Inception is also a strong contender for multiple nominations, including Best Picture.

Thompson on Hollywood

The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, focused intently on what's happening. Otherwise, it would be easy to get lost. Structured like an intricate maze, Inception takes the viewer through interlocking sets of dream realities. (Ellen Page's character, The Architect, who designs mazes for dream worlds, is named after Greek mythology's Ariadne.) At the beginning, the movie messes with you, throws you off balance until all the rules are laid bare. They are soon made clear. (Nolan's recent citation of Last Year at Marienbad is misleading; the cuts from space to space are linear, in their own way.)

Pay attention, and you can keep track of the complex machinations of Nolan's Dream Team, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, The Extractor, with able support from Marion Cotillard as his wife Mal, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as The Point Man and Tom Hardy as The Forger, as well as Nolan regulars Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Ken Watanabe.

Thompson on Hollywood

Cobb creates dreamscapes that can be shared--with the help of psychotropic drugs and sedatives--by groups of subjects who fill in their own experiences, images, and secrets. Cobb is an expert at extracting those secrets, usually in pursuit of industrial espionage. His problem, soon sussed out by brilliant newcomer Ariadne, is that he has buried things deep in his subconscious--mainly his wife Mal-- that keep intruding on his ability to pull off this last job, which requires not extraction but inception: planting the seed of an idea. Not only his own safety but those of his team are at stake. Those arresting images of scenes flying apart involve a dream that is collapsing. Yes, getting killed in a dream wakes you up, but get lost in one of the deep-level dream slumbers and your mind may never emerge intact.

As intricate as the script is--Nolan worked on it for a decade--the movie is not just a feat of cinematic wizardry, even though it comes close to the level of technological derring-do carried off by the likes of Stanley Kubrick. (Indeed Nolan works in repeated homages to the late great auteur beyond the obvious use of moving sets on gimbles to allow athletic Gordon-Levitt to bounce weightless and walk on walls and ceilings.) The movie also has heart. So that even if you do get confused (as I did in the James Bond snow section, filmed in the Canadian Rockies), the emotional through-line pulls you along. It's as simple as The Wizard of Oz: The Extractor wants to go home.

This emotional motivation for Cobb--who much like his conflicted family man in Shutter Island, is haunted by images of his beloved Mal and two toddlers--helps to render him more sympathetic. Beyond a taut suspense thriller, Inception is also a moving love story. Composer Hans Zimmer effectively colors the score with varying emotional mood swings (although I question the Edith Piaf reference to Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance in La Vie En Rose).

Nolan and his production team traveled to exotic locations around the world, from Tokyo, where Watanabe's corporate executive is based, and Paris, to Tangiers and giant sound stages in England and Los Angeles. The scene when Cobb teaches protege Ariadne to bend reality is stunning, as are the reveals of each successive dreamscape, where anything can happen. Inception not only references the "levels" of complex video gameplay, but also functions as a metaphor for the creative process of moviemaking itself: as The Forger tells The Point Man, as he summons up a huge blaster, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."

That's the lesson that I pray Hollywood takes from this movie.

Here's the trailer:

31 Comments

  • desdemona | August 3, 2010 12:55 PMReply

    yes, louis, i understood before you began typing that we never get to see reality in Inception, stop your wheezing, you're embarrassing everyone in here. i prefer my spoilers to be much more complex than the ones issued in inception.

  • Innsmouth | July 27, 2010 7:10 AMReply

    hey wow check out this site, you can make a video of yourself and put you into a scene from the movie Inception. http://gs.protectyourthoughts.com

  • Brian | July 26, 2010 4:39 AMReply

    I was hoping Louis' post was a joke, satirizing the way everyone takes this movie so seriously, but no, I'm afraid it's for real.

    I find it funny how this movie's defenders think that they can get the non-believers (like me) to like it if only they can help me UNDERSTAND it! If only they can explain every bit of minutiae underlying Nolan's ludicrous fantasy world. Hello? Maybe I just don't care? And since I didn't care about the plot, the characters or the nonsensical dream "rules" laid out in Nolan's film, no amount of explanation is going to help.

    Other movies with fantasy worlds give me something at stake, something to care about, characters who involve me (THE MATRIX). This one gives me nothing. And all these people delving in great detail into INCEPTION's different dream levels and such merely remind me of all those lunatics who line up in costume before midnight at Barnes & Noble every time a Harry Potter book comes out. The Harry Potter fantasy is another one I don't care to participate in.

  • innsmouth | July 25, 2010 6:50 AMReply

    hey! no spoiler trolling please! i don't wanna know how it ends - although knowing doesn't really ruin the how or why of the journey.

    ok fine, Sharon Stone did it, with an ice pick.

  • Louis | July 21, 2010 7:57 AMReply

    Desdemona I am so sorry that you just didn't get it. Let me try and help:

    Normally when a movie spawns so many different interpretations of its content, it actually means that the director was incoherent, the movie was poorly executed, some studio executive cut out key scenes that were critical to the film to meet an arbitrary “run time”, or the story just plain sucked in the first place. I am happy to say that I don’t think ‘Inception’ suffers from any of that. In fact I would dare say that the more you actually “get” this film, the more interpretations there are of the actual story, and that this was totally intentional on the part of Nolan and that’s why I say this movie is absolutely AMAZING. It is also amazing to me how many people, even professional movie reviewers, were simply unable to peel back even the first layer of this movie when Nolan is throwing clues at you in almost every scene of the film! A spinning top? A loaded dice? A chess piece? A mobius staircase? Come on! Most reviewers out there were trapped on level 1 with the whole mental espionage plot and mental bank heist being their central focus while seemingly ignoring the other 50% of the movie! If you stop there, and think that this is all this movie is about, then it’s not a really good movie, is it? The characters are flat, there is little character development, yada yada yada, and so people come away thinking the movie wasn’t that great. Oh, for shame! No wonder you thought it wasn’t a good movie. You were snowed from the word go and you just flat out ignored everything else in the movie. Nolan pulled the wool over your eyes and you fell for it. So, for those of you who really didn’t get it, I’ll give you some clues, and I want you to go back and see it again in light of what I am going to say. For those of you who HAVE NOT see ‘Inception’ CLOSE YOUR WEB BROWSER NOW. There will be ’spoilers’, but not really, because even if I did tell you what is really going on, we can debate the actual interpretation of that until the end of time and still not arrive at the same conclusion. First off, the mental bank heist does not take place on dream levels 1,2,3 and 4. It actually takes places on dream levels 2,3,4 and 5 with level 1 being the “reality” that we think that Cobb is living in with the other members of the dream hack team. Second, pay especially close attention to the age of Saito in the table meeting with Cobb in light of the dream state rules that Nolan is doling out. Pay especially close attention to what goes on between Cobb and Saito and Cobb and Cobb’s wife Mal. Also note that when Cobb washes up on the beach and gets taken to Saito that he is actually on level 5 of the dream “heist” where Cobb and his team are trying to crack into the mark’s mind, and where he and his wife created a vast landscape, and Cobb is causing the rest of the team to risk falling into limbo. Also pay attention to the rules of “limbo” and then define what Nolan is actually talking about when he says that Cobb is trying to get back home. If all that doesn’t yank the blinders off you and show you what “Inception” is really all about, then, well, maybe you’ll just have to sit out there continuing to think that it was just an “OK” film. ‘Inception’ is an absolutely incredible film and I feel lucky to live in the year 2010 to be able to see it. And even though I think I got 90% of it, I still have to go back and see it a second time to try and make sense of the other 10%. ‘Nuff said.

  • desdemona | July 18, 2010 1:59 AMReply

    how anyone could call this a masterpiece is pretty damn insane: AND it has a terrible ending, it was all a dream controlled by michael caine. what junk! the reality was all faked and pointless. and to think he tries to fool us by cutting early from the spinning. you should have your head examined, all of you Nolan lovers.

  • ohm | July 15, 2010 3:29 AMReply

    i've discovered the meaning of inception
    http://www.mstrmnd.com/log/1818

  • Anne Thompson | July 13, 2010 5:15 AMReply

    The ways that Inception strikes me as "Kubrickian" are visual and technological, not thematic. It's Kubrickian in style. I do think Nolan keeps his distance from his characters. His films tend to be cold, not warm and fuzzy--although in this case Leonardo DiCaprio helps to bring the viewer into his emotions more than most Nolan protagonists.

  • la_russe | July 13, 2010 3:55 AMReply

    Writers equating or comparing Nolan (and Inception) to Kubrick are revealing how tragically inept their reviewing skills are. Nolan is a product of the age of criminal science, his films are primarily tales of crime and guilt. Their overlap is minimal at best: he employs only rarely similar symbols of Kubrick, they share neither themes, nor archetypes and certainly not storytelling or visual styles. While both may be missidentified as pessimists, equating them is like saying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are similar because they both wrote in Russian during the 19th century. On very basic levels they are in complete opposition: Nolan gravitates programmatically towards 'gotcha' plots, stories that reveal twists in mechanics forced into the camera's foreground to shock an audience, Kubrick kept a steady distance from his characters and arcs to allow the audience to find his numerous mode-jerks on their own, if they even really wanted or needed them, and in most cases they were entirely unecessary, his films could succeed without an audience detecting any of them. To label Nolan as "Kubrick with a heart" is the final paradox, Nolan might properly be argued is "Kubrick without a heart," but audiences seem to be seduced by Nolan's orgiastic suffering that stands in for soul. Nolan is really "James Bond with a heart" but reviewers probably feel dumb expressing that cold reality. Strange culture we inhabit now.

  • Sergio | July 13, 2010 3:54 AMReply

    Now after seeing too not only what you say is true but also how much the last third of the film is basically the big climax from the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In fact, Hans Zimmer's score sounds like a John Barry score for a 60's Bond film during that entire sequence. But it's a mind bending game changer that's for sure

  • Dan | July 9, 2010 11:09 AMReply

    Actually pretty much every review site has Memento and The Dark Knight ranked rated higher than Eyes Wide Shut. Even Batman Begins is rated higher on some sites.

  • Anne Thompson | July 9, 2010 3:10 AMReply

    To say that a movie is Kubrickian (David Poland weighs in on this topic http://www.mcnblogs.com/thehotblog/archives/2010/07/spoilerfree_rev.html) is to honor one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema. Inception indeed pays direct homage to Kubrick in its choice of shots, especially Watanabe's office in Tokyo, the way the camera creeps up from behind the old man's head. And Spielberg's A.I. was Kubrickian in more ways than one. It's about using technology inventively, expanding the mind, creating believable new worlds. It's also about the crisp, precise, look of the film; camera placement, design, lighting.

    Am I throwing Nolan's oeuvre up against Kubrick's? No. (And I am not an unabashed fan of Eyes Wide Shut, which was far from perfect, but better than most movies you'll see in any given year.) But Nolan belongs in the pantheon of Hollywood's greatest living directors. And he's a young man. His best is yet to come.

  • JRM | July 8, 2010 6:31 AMReply

    Anne couldn't have been more wrong about "The Dark Knight."

    Looking forward to "Inception" but I'm trying to temper my expectations especially with the heady comparions to Kubrick.

  • Hugo | July 8, 2010 4:36 AMReply

    It's a stretch to compare it to Kubrick. Inception can get viewers to dream bigger, but it's nothing as profound as Kubrick. That, and we've seen most of this kind of stuff before, and seen many of these proclamations for big movies that flopped. The only thing original is the concept. But then again, that might be the make-it factor to Inception. I certainly like their Facebook pages created for the film though: http://bit.ly/saitofb and http://bit.ly/inceptn

  • Mark | July 7, 2010 8:05 AMReply

    Anne was quite right to have issues with the structure of The Dark Knight, it's a mess.

    DRM: Do you really think that Eyes Wide Shut is a piece of crap? I mean, really? It may not be to your taste but it's a beautiful piece of filmmaking, certainly far superior to Memento (which I also love).

  • Nomaic | July 7, 2010 2:59 AMReply

    Daring to draw comparisons between the soulless husk that is Avatar with something constructed by Chris Nolan - I'm no worshiper, but definitely a strong supporter - deconstructs any validity your arguments have and ever will maintain, TravisB.

    Pack it up.

  • DRM | July 7, 2010 2:42 AMReply

    Mark, yes I truly believe it is a piece of crap. Kubrick was an awesome filmmaker, but he wasn't perfect. Neither is Nolan. And yes, Anne was correct about TDK.

  • Kubrick | July 6, 2010 12:40 PMReply

    Kubrick is spinning in his grave after reading this review. Nolan has yet to make a single film as good as Kubrick's worst.

  • TravisB | July 6, 2010 4:49 AMReply

    Eyes Wide Shut is great and would have been edited properly had Kubrick not died. Memento is a run of the mill thriller with chronology distortion that, though as daring as Kubrick's Killing, isn't as stylish or philosophical.

    Dark Knight hype looks to be infecting Inception too, the media machine preparing us for another Avatar-like piece of corporate junk.

  • DRM | July 6, 2010 4:04 AMReply

    john,

    Pretty sure Rolling Stone wouldn't have printed Travers' review without permission from Warner. The NY Post is the one that posted a quote from Travers' review a few days before it was officially released. NY Post somehow got their hands on an early copy of the magazine, possibly due to the controversial interview with General McChrystal.

    Kubrick, your pro-Kubrick hyperbole is no better than the hyperbole from various bloggers and critics about Nolan's latest film. Eyes Wide Shut is a piece of crap. Memento is a masterpiece.

  • john | July 6, 2010 3:22 AMReply

    you know I'm kidding. But Warners behavior on this thing has been atrocious. I love that Travers blew their embrago

  • Anne Thompson | July 6, 2010 2:09 AMReply

    Hey John,
    It was good to see you in Palm Springs. I was not allowed into the junket screening and at first held back to July 7, but later was invited to screening Friday July 2 attended by trades and Oscar bloggers. We were given embargo of Monday 3 PM Pacific, which I promised not to break. That was all.

  • harrylime100 | July 6, 2010 1:58 AMReply

    something to look forward to-

    however kubrick evolved as a style with his first movies on a straghtforward plane using his experience as a still photographer.

    It doesnt have to fill those shoes

    hopefully it is not style for style whch it doesnt seem to be but memento always seemed to me

  • john | July 6, 2010 1:46 AMReply

    again, since Warners said they were screening in LA the 7th, supposedly, and it's not screening in NY till the 13th (supposedly) how did you see it? And did they demand that you like it?

  • Anne Thompson | July 6, 2010 1:19 AMReply

    Todd McCarthy knew about the screening but was out of town; he'll review it when he sees it. As for The Dark Knight, I did have some issues with the structure and length. I can't wait to see Inception a second time and see how it holds up under further scrutiny.

  • Dom Cobb | July 5, 2010 11:49 AMReply

    Roger Ebert approves !

  • luise | July 5, 2010 11:20 AMReply

    In regards to the Piaf reference, Nolan stated that was already going to be in the film even before Cotillard was cast - so it was just a coincidence in the end.

  • paul_r | July 5, 2010 11:01 AMReply

    I thought Todd McCarthy was reviewing movies for Indie Wire???

  • stephanie | July 5, 2010 11:00 AMReply

    thanks anne but you didn't like the Dark Knight (initially) so I'm a little skeptical reading this...

  • arena | July 5, 2010 10:42 AMReply

    Awesome review, thanks!

  • john | July 5, 2010 10:12 AMReply

    how did you see it?

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Sony Counters Bad Press with 'Spider-Man' ...
  • PBS Preview: Six New 'Makers' Documentaries ...
  • Toronto Film Festival Global Summit ...
  • Distribution Maestro Jeff Blake Exits ...
  • Trailers From Hell Opens 'The Doors ...
  • Trailers From Hell Loves 'All That ...
  • FIRST LOOK: Toronto Best Actress Candidate ...
  • Which World Premieres Did Venice La ...
  • Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley Will ...
  • Get Tied Down With First Trailer for ...