“Inception” (2010). Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Pete Postlethwaite. Director: Christopher Nolan. Screenplay: Christopher Nolan. www.inceptionmovie.warnerbros.com
In my opinion, the most critical factor in a film’s success, from both a purely cinematic standpoint and in any of its associated metaphysical content, is the strength of its story. If a movie fails on this point, it lacks a suitable foundation upon which to build, regardless of its other attributes. This is especially true when a picture aspires to a sense of greatness, either in a strictly entertainment-related context or as a medium for imparting significant knowledge. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that one of this summer’s most ambitious, most anticipated releases, the sci-fi thriller “Inception,” comes up short.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at extraction—not the kind that dentists perform but the kind that corporate saboteurs engage in. Cobb works in the dream state to “extract” (i.e., steal) secrets from the minds of high-profile executives for the strategic benefit of their rivals. Having developed a reputation as the best, Cobb is hired to perform a task for Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), head of a major multinational who wants to rid himself of his only significant competitor. But this assignment is a little different; instead of extracting information, Cobb is charged with planting an idea in the mind of his target and to do so convincingly enough so that the target believes the idea is his own, an act of “inception.” Succeeding at inception is anything but guaranteed, however; few have tried it, and failure inevitably followed. But, being the expert that he is, Cobb has performed the procedure successfully and is thus tasked to do the job.
Cobb’s target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to the immense corporate empire built by his dying father, Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite). He’s assigned to implant an idea in Fischer’s mind that he should dissolve his father’s empire upon his inheritance (thereby eliminating Saito’s competition). As compensation for his efforts, Cobb is set to receive what he desires most—a cleared criminal record that will allow him to freely reenter the U.S. As a fugitive wanted for the murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb perpetually circles the globe to do jobs and stay ahead of the law. But the one thing he most wants—the ability to return home—has eluded him, at least until now.
With such a powerful incentive looming, Cobb undertakes his assigned task. He assembles a team to assist him, including Arthur, his trusty associate (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Ariadne, a gifted young architect charged with designing the structure of the dreamscape in which the mission is to be carried out (Ellen Page); Eames, a con artist par excellence who’s capable of materializing effective deceptions on demand (Tom Hardy); and Yusuf, a chemist whose potent concoctions keep everyone sufficiently sedated long enough to complete the task (Dileep Rao). The big question for the team, of course, is, will they succeed in a netherworld as ethereal as the dream state?
While the foregoing summary probably makes the film sound like an otherworldly crime caper, its emphasis on exploring the character of the dream state provides the main focus of the movie’s narrative, an aspect of the picture that, arguably, would seem to elevate its intentions to something more substantial than a mere crime drama. If a movie aspires to something that profound, though, the story and script have to deliver the goods, and this is where “Inception” misses the mark in several significant ways.
As conscious creation/law of attraction practitioners know, alternate realities (like the dream state) provide venues for trying out new ideas and exploring uncharted scenarios, environments where essentially anything is possible. However, this film’s depiction of the dream state is riddled with rules, regulations and limitations that undermine that basic premise. Granted, many of these alleged restrictions are based on Cobb’s own beliefs, but they’re frequently presented as metaphysical absolutes, thereby seriously mischaracterizing the nature of the dream state (and all because their inclusion is necessary to make the story line work). Not only does this make for an often-confusing plot, but it also does a disservice to viewers by presenting a skewed depiction of this material. (Missed Opportunity No. 1.)
In a similar vein, there are a number of discussions among characters regarding what’s “real” and what isn’t. Such discussions are painfully frustrating to sit through; again, as conscious creation/law of attraction practitioners know, just because a reality operates according to a different set of rules doesn’t mean that it’s any less “real” than the waking consciousness state with which we’re most familiar. All realities, including the dream state, are real and equally valid, regardless of the basis on which they function, a notion frequently disregarded by this film and thus doing viewers another disservice. (Missed Opportunity No. 2.)
Finally, I find it somewhat hard to accept that someone like Cobb, who’s proficient at working in the dream state, would choose to apply his considerable expertise for the purposes that he ultimately does. Given his extensive experience in this area (told through flashbacks), we’re shown a character who has come face to face with this reality’s power—and the inherent responsibility and respect that come from working with it. In view of his subsequent choices, then, one can’t help but wonder whether he learned anything from his own difficult experiences, especially since he’s elected to apply his skills for such singularly self-serving aims (and ones that purposely inflict significant harm on others, no less). It would seem that someone with his level of awareness would be more amenable to using his capabilities for something more worthwhile than engaging in acts of corporate espionage. What’s more, the trials and tribulations he experiences while partaking in such exploits leave me with little empathy for him when the going gets tough, despite the film’s attempts at generating sympathy for him. Perhaps this reflects a personal prejudice on my part, but employing characters to demonstrate the potential of the dream state through the kinds of acts depicted on screen seems like yet another viewer disservice. (Missed Opportunity No. 3.)
To be sure, all possibilities are equally valid according to conscious creation/law of attraction principles, and the story line presented here is no exception. However, for a film that seeks to aspire to something enlightening and instructive, this picture’s story falls short of that mark. Some might contend I’m holding the movie to an unattainably high standard, but I’d argue that, considering what the film appeared to be aiming for, I don’t believe I’m being unfair.
In light of this failing, then, I’d recommend that anyone who seriously wants to learn more about the nature of the dream state would be better served by reading one of the many excellent books on the subject. A few that I’d recommend are Robert Waggoner’s Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self (Moment Point Press, www.momentpoint.com) or any of the writings of author and dream researcher Robert Moss.
Nevertheless, with all that said, “Inception” does have its strong points. Its special effects are dazzling, and the performances are all quite capable. It also effectively presents some valuable information about the nature of the dream state, such as showing how dreams often occur in levels and how they can be used for beneficial purposes like healing. Moreover, the picture poses some intriguing ambiguities, a quality often characteristic of the dream state; in fact, this is an aspect of the film that, if developed further, could have made the story more compelling (but that may have been difficult to implement in view of all the self-imposed story line restrictions noted earlier). These attributes, as good as they are, however, aren’t enough to rescue the film from all of its other inherent pitfalls.
While “Inception” may be living up to its hype, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t live up to its potential. Director Christopher Nolan has made some terrific films over the years (“Memento,” “The Dark Knight”), but he may have tried reaching too far (or perhaps not far enough?) with this offering. It may have provided an opportunity to entertain, but it missed one to enlighten.
Copyright © 2010, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.