The “dream team”
It’s dark and pouring with rain outside the cinema. It’s ten past eight and we’re twenty minutes in to Inception. I’m on my own and I’ve arranged to meet someone afterwards at ten-twenty. It’s a hard call. Go to a café and sit there for two hours twiddling with a pathetic game on the iPhone, or stay and watch the rest of Inception. I narrowly decided to stay. The first twenty minutes of the film are total guff. There’s nothing to engage with, just a series of seemingly unrelated incidents. The SFX fireball appears a few times (it will appear many, many more times before ten-twenty). You know the cheap SFX fireball. You go on the Catastrophe Canyon ride at Disneyworld and they create it before your very eyes every three minutes. So at ten past eight this film is appalling. Had I been watching a rented DVD the EJECT button would already have been pushed and it would be back in its box. The same even if I’d bought it. It’s just that it’s warm and dry in the cinema and it beats watching the rain from a dank café or pub.
Then at last, and oh so creakingly, the complex plot begins to engage. I can’t say it makes sense yet, but at least people stop jumping off buildings, falling into baths or watching fireballs long enough to explain a little plot. It begins to makes sense when Di Caprio meets his dad, Michael Caine … sorry, the character names are all mumbled so I’ll use the actors’ names … and gets introduced to Ellen Page. I’d better flick to Internet Movie DataBase. Ah. Di Caprio is called Cobb. I’d thought it was Dom.I had picked up Ellen Page’s name which is Ariadne.
OK, deep breath. Cobb (Di Caprio) is an expert at Extraction, that is extracting useful information from people’s subconciousness while they’re in a dream state. This is supposedly criminal, but I’m not sure what’s on the statute book to prevent it. But Di Caprio can make the next leap in mental manipulation technology to Inception. That is planting an idea deep in someone’s unconscious so that the person will think they thought of it. This involves taking them into deeper layers of dream, i.e, getting them into a guided dream (the manipulator and dreamer are both hooked up to a magic electronic box), then putting them into a dream within a dream. The dream within a dream is easy-peasy, but then you have to put them into a dream within the dream within the dream. Ariadne is to be the dream landscape designer or architect. This is where it gets interesting as Di Caprio demonstrates to her and mentally manipulates Paris to turn in on itself.
OK, the film buffs say, this is an extremely complex way to do what the Chinese did in The Manchurian Candidate with a little touch of lo-tech brainwashing.
OK, what next? Saito (Ken Watanebe) wants to implant an idea in the mind of Fischer, who is heir to his rival’s business empire. Fischer’s dad, played by Pete Postelthwaite, who I last saw a few feet away from me as King Lear, gets to lie in bed dying for his brief appearances. And very well he does it too. Excellent dying. Locations are somewhat complex as we flick from Kyoto to Mombasa to Paris for no apparent reason, but it no doubt swelled the budget.
A team of five or six is needed to enter the dream with the target and pull off the inception. So then we’re off into the main film, most of which is the dream that the team (the dream team) manipulate Fischer into. Then the dream within that dream, then the dream within … well, you can guess, at least five levels of dream. Fischer has had every luxury that an old tycoon can lavish on his heir, so he has been trained in anti-Extraction techniques which he can use while dreaming. This means he can produce “protangonists” (as they’re called in the film) to protect him by attacking his dream abductors. The protagonists use up 20 to 30 minutes of film time appearing suddenly and shooting guns and crashing stuff. As they’re all constructs of the mind, they fail to excite.
The complicating factor throughout is Di Caprio’s wife, the allegorically named Mal, for Malevolent. No plot spoilers, but she’s dead. But not in the dream worlds. Di Caprio was to blame. So Di Caprio e-mails in all his facial expressions about a loved but lost wife directly from Shutter Island. Perhaps they took Di Caprio’s bits from Shutter Island and digitally manipulated his clothes and stubble a bit to match. Di Caprio was extremely ill-advised to follow Shutter Island with such a similar role, particularly as (a) he was better in Shutter Island (b) Shutter Island is in a class leagues above Inception.
This is an alternate reality film, so there is a whole cluster of confusion built-in about alternate realities. One alternate reality is a massive cement fortification in a snowy Alpine setting. Everyone is dressed in white military snow gear. There’s interminable skiing, sledding, shooting and yellow fireballs. You have no idea who’s shooting who or why. You don’t care.
On the other hand, much is made of two seconds of real time being twenty minutes in dream time, and a whole sequence in a hotel takes place while a bus (the bus is one step higher in the dream levels) is falling off a bridge, meaning spells of zero gravity in the hotel, which are brilliantly realized.
Inception desperately needs the sort of severe … or should I say “vicious” editing that 40s and 50s Hollywood imposed on directors who attempted to stretch a psychological thriller way beyond its length. A 40s Hollywood mogul would have had this sliced to a taut 100 minutes, leaving 48 minutes on the cutting room floor. Then the mogul would have gone ballistic because most of those 48 minutes would have been the most expensive live stuff to film. The post-production dream worlds would have stayed. 90% of the shoot-em-ups would be destined to the trash can. You only need a couple of shots and one crash to make each point unless you’re doing the car chase movie.