Inception - a borrowed dream

Inception (Music From The Motion Picture)Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is a highly engaging, if derivative film that adds to Nolan's list of tortured heros desperately fighting with their past for a simple future in a present that is anything but. While it is easily one of his weakest (leaving aside the two Batman blips, that really aren't his in the true sense of the word) films, it is as good as pretty much anything that has come out in recent past but that unfortunately is not heavy praise, not for Nolan anyway.

I guess I expect a lot of Nolan. Because he gave us Memento and I've struggled ever since to find a more compelling modern film. Original Matrix came close but not enough. And then Prestige -- another underrated but brilliant film that almost wrote anew the chapter on the excess of human competitiveness. Insomania wasn't quite up there but it gave Robin Williams another  reason to exist (but that might not be all good) as an actor. While I am no fan of The Dark Knight, I know it was Nolan who made it more than a fairy tale. It was he who made the Joker and not just of Health Ledger.

All great fantasy worlds have rules that control the behavior of characters. It is the confines of these rules that give the stories gravity, a sense of believability even in their often absurd flights of fancy. Nolan's movies, above, are even tighter, almost claustrophobic in their pursuit of closed universes. This made me specially interested in Inception - a dream-themed subject. I, as a rule, hate dream-themed subjects precisely for the reason that dreams are unconfined and I was interested in knowing how Nolan would handle this. And, yes, Nolan's dreams are almost clinical. Precisely confined with explicit rules about time, depths, space, shape and memory. Nolan's dream world isn't much of a dream world at all or it is a Matrix-like dream that isn't a dream at all but a computer-generated alternate reality.

But of course, Inception's seeming novel theme of entering and manipulating dreams is a lift almost straight out of the book of Matrix and  Gaslight (1944) even. It employs every hackneyed crime-caper plot device you can think of -- from the 'team-of-experts', to the cocky sidekicks (Hardy, Gordon-Levitt) to its troubled, flawed, fallen hero - a man on his proverbial 'last-job' - who is making that one last ditch attempt to fix his fate and sadly enough - he needs to confront the very demons that destroyed him in the past. Old-as-the-hills all of this.

There is novelty, of course, and not all of it is to the point or worthwhile. Some are side-shows that are set pieces meant to amaze and have nothing to do with the story (the folding street trick for one or the talk of impossible shapes - cool but beside the point - I'd have loved to see the sky fold later on when the characters could've used it during the whirlwind chases.)

Yes, still, Inception is extremely entertaining and fun to watch. The long, 150-minute film almost feels too short. Nolan keeps the script tight and full of movement. He defines rules and explains them at every moment. We get it, we are with him. Take the intriguing aspect of folks being trained to protect themselves in their dreams with big giant mercenary armies, no less. While this device propels the film forward it is also one that blows its artistic merit apart. It creates a rush of random, unhinged violence that is especially pointless as it is in a dream. More importantly though, it is noise, that wakes you from your reverie. You suddenly realize that you are not in this dream-like fantastical experience but in a Hollywood summer blockbuster. An experience that has its roots in Jaws and not in what propels them.

But there are amazing little tidbits - the Edith Piaf song as the 'kick' that drives you out of your dream in a Marion Cotillard film! Now that is a touch to cherish. A texture that not too many will know to add and sadly, not too many to appreciate. Speaking of Marion Cotillard, this might be the first Hollywood film where she actually has been used properly. Directors put her in their films and have no idea how to use her other than as your usual visual set piece - Public Enemies is a glaring example. Here, Nolan knows how to use her perfectly.  All close-ups. Angled gait, angular glares. A perfect pair of eyes, perfectly sad, brimming with tears so, almost making up for Leonardo DiCaprio's lack of any real depth. DiCaprio continues to immerse himself in these oversize roles that look only as good as a suit on a stick figure. You need to praise him for trying but you have to stop there.

Nolan also has fun with casting. Apart from his usual team, Michael Cane, Watanabe, Murphy, he brings back Tom Berenger (was that a fat suit?) and oh yeah...Kobayashi the dying father, no less!

(Hats off to the New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott whose's brilliant review I initially found frustrating but ended up enjoying after watching the film).