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What’s the big idea?

26/12/2010

I love my family. Apart from the obvious fact that they are my flesh and blood and so this is a sort of default position (not to be taken for granted – there are blood relatives I am far less affectionate towards, even downright apathetic towards) they never fail to prove themselves generous to a fault. It’s this generosity I have to thank for the shiny new Blu Ray player that has usurped my Xbox’s usual position underneath my telly, a christmas gift that I suspect will keep on giving for some time to come. I used it for the first time tonight, popping my Blu Ray cherry with a copy of Inception (courtesy of my brother, again for christmas).

I’d been swithering over Inception since it came out a few weeks ago. Hyped beyond all comprehension (like the ultimately underwhelming Dark Knight last year) I was very wary of the film. The clips I had seen certainly looked good and while his Batman films left me a little cold I did enjoy some of Christopher Nolan’s earlier works particularly Memento and The Prestige both of which showcase his obvious love of less than direct story telling. The crushing hype ruined Dark Knight for me completely, a reasonably competent action/adventure film made to feel grossly disappointing under the weight of over inflated expectations. Inception arrived under a barrage of similar hype so I prepared myself for the worst and told myself I’d leave it for a while and have a look when everyone else had stopped talking about it. It’s arrival under my christmas tree forced my hand a little bit. If nothing else, I thought, the film would be an excellent first run out for my new player, reknowned (and rightly so) as it is for it’s amazing photography and special effects.

If you, like me, had so far avoided the film the rest of this might give the game away. Consider yourselves suitably warned.

Ask most people about Inception and they will tell you its pretty good but you really need to pay attention. Its a bit complicated. Confusing. I’m not certain that this is necessarily the case. Admittedly there is a lot going on most of the time. The basic idea is this: Cobb (DiCaprio) is a specialist in “Extraction” a process of stealing secret information by invading a subject’s dreams and robbing information straight from their subconscious. For reasons that aren’t initially clear Cobb is in exile due to being wanted in the States and he is offered a chance at being cleared of his crimes if he completes the considerably more difficult task of “Inception” – a sort of reverse process whereby instead of stealing information, an idea is implanted deep in the subjects psyche in order to make them do or think something they wouldn’t otherwise do or think. Both lines of work are highly illegal and would appear to be largely the domain of high powered corporate espionage. As long as you are prepared to accept the premise of being able to mess around in people’s minds by insinuating yourself into their dreams then you should have little issue with it.

Thankfully they don’t attempt to explain exactly how this ability came about and it isn’t really necessary. There are plenty of slabs of exposition thrown into the proceedings to help us along in understanding the limits and idiosyncracies of the process. I think this might be where people start to feel it gets complicated. The Inception team do talk a lot and rather quickly about how they will achieve their goal and where the risks lie in their plan. As it all unfolds it does start to become a little bit irritating but it seems to me to be rather important if you want to have any clue about whats going on. The dream within a dream (within a dream, within a dream) plot is surprisingly straightforward but the mechanics of how the various levels of dreamstate work require some prior knowledge, so ignore these barrages of exposition at your peril.

Other than that the storyline has a rather conventional heist structure. Imagine if William Gibson had written Ocean’s 11 and you are probably part of the way there. Cobb is hired by the mysterious Saito. He puts together a crack team to pull off the job, a mix of seasoned veterans and enthusiastic new talent who all have skills key to the success of the operation. Once the job is underway, it goes a bit pear shaped and the gang have to complete the mission and evade capture. There’s some shooting and fighting along the way too.

Its in the action where the film comes into its own. Something I have to admire about Nolan is the effort he makes to ensure as much of the visual effects occur in camera as possible. It was the thing that stood out for me with Dark Knight and is the thing that stands out here. When you are dealing with a film that almost entirely (or perhaps entirely) occurs within dreams it would be easy to get out the ol’ super computer and just go to town computer generating everything. While there are moments of digital simulation and enhancement the truly spectacular moments are done for real and this goes a long way to convince you of the reality of the situation for the characters. A case in point is the fight scene in the hotel corridor when circumstances in one dream “level” impact on the physical reality of the current one. As Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) scraps with security men, the corridors of the hotel roll through 360 degrees like some sort of Lionel Richie video gone wrong. The fight goes from floor to wall to ceiling and back again, the combatants using their shifting environment as another weapon, taking advantage of the shifts in gravity to shift the balance of the fight in their own favour. It’s an excellent scene, all the better for the fact that they built the set inside a massive rotating rig and actually rolled the corridor with the actors fighting inside. There is not a single digitally created element in the entire fight, even when it carries on into a hotel room where the revolutions continue. It’s breathtaking as an effect and must have cost a bloody fortune, but it speaks to the integrity of Nolan and the confidence Warner Brothers have in him that they even considered such a thing. It’s worth it though.

The biggest question the film asks is where do the layers of dreams end and reality begin. The implication initially is that Cobb is originally hired in the real world and that all the dreams belong to other people, Cobb being the interloper. Over the course of the film the suggestion unfurls that perhaps all of it is occuring within one of his own dreams, that maybe the entire mission is a fiction of his own subconscious, concocted as a result of his own personal traumas and his addiction to living in the dream world to escape from reality. The ending is ambiguous, Bladerunner style, but the suggestion seems to me to be that he has clawed his way back to a dream level that suits him better than reality but without the instability that comes with deeper levels of his subconscious. I don’t know if it matters too much.

I was expecting a film that was trying to be too clever for its own good and that tied itself up in flawed logic, hiding behind set pieces and special effects in order to distract from its logical inadequacies. Instead what I got was a decent heist thriller with some of the most real looking special effects I’ve seen in a long time. Is it the best film ever made? No. Is it brilliant? Probably not. Is it enjoyable? Definitely.

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