"We create the world of a dream. We bring a subject into that dream and they fill it with their secrets." Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains this key plot point early in the film to newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page). It's an important description of the dream heists that Inception is based upon, but it's also a good basis for understanding how the film as a whole works, how the director/writer Christopher Nolan put it together, and even on a deeper level, how an audience interacts with a film. While Inception is about as intelligent, entertaining, and imaginative as summer blockbuster's get, its lasting contribution isn't really what someone is going to get out of it, but what someone is willing to put into it. However I think I may be getting ahead of myself here, so let me begin on the surface level.
These two threads (the act of inception and the emotional journey home to his wife and children) really drive the action and emotion of the entire film. From here we get to see Cobb assemble his team, hatch their plan, and then, for the last half of the film, execute the inception itself. Enough about the plot and surface level stuff, how does it all come together and work as a film?
From the very get go, the film hits the ground and keeps moving from one moment, one place, one idea to the next. It's a torrid pace of storytelling that can leave some behind, but more than likely, serves to wrap one up into the film and its ultimate trajectory. This is a film that starts out running, and picks up momentum as it hurls forward and digs deeper. However, the deeper it goes intellectually, the more distant I felt emotionally.
It's not as if Nolan doesn't spend time focusing on these relationships, there is actually a decent amount of screen time devoted to it, it's that it just doesn't work in the way that everything else does in this movie. Incredible visuals? In spades. Seamless art direction? Check. Ominous and pounding score with accompanying sound design? Best of the summer. Clever and brutal action? Will be remembered for years. Powerful and three dimensional emotional archs? Sort of.
As I began to think along that line of thought, I find it incredibly rich that the central idea of the film (that of building a dream and allowing others to fill it) are essentially what happens when an audience interacts with a film. Each film has all the same elements of a dream world created and sustained by architects (writers), point men (directors), and forgers (actors). Like dreams, movies just begin suddenly and move from scene to scene, and when they bend reality in a way that's unreal we react accordingly. What makes this idea interesting is that the audience then becomes the subject, and we fill these films, stories, and worlds with our secrets and our projections.
** For an interesting read using this line of thought, read below the end of the review. Warning, it contains some spoilers
In this way, Nolan has left several things open to the viewer, and really allows the viewer to fill in accordingly. In this regard, the film is a smashing success and works not only as entertainment, but as a journey of adventure, interaction and catharsis. Without giving away the ending, I will say that it's most not an artistic cop out, but is seated firmly within the ideas and intentions I've mentioned above.
**Continued from above: SPOILERS