#8 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
Christopher Nolan’s first James Bond movie that’s not a James Bond movie is an entertaining and sustained heist film. I feel a little distant from its main character, never really investing in his emotional journey and I feel like the intricately explained rules of the world end up getting a bit broken by the end, but none of that diminishes the movie’s fun and spectacle which buoy the whole experience.
Technology has found a way to allow people to enter the dreams of a particular subject. Less than ethical types have started using this technology to steal secrets from powerful men in elaborate acts of corporate espionage. The movie begins in the middle of such a heist as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb leads his team to try and find the hidden vault inside the mind of Ken Watanabe’s Saito’s. Everything seems to be going to plan until Cobb’s wife Mal shows up and messes with things, revealing the true nature of Cobb and his team to Saito directly which ends up waking him up. Cobb got what he needed, and after a switch where Saito discovers that he awoke into another dream, Cobb and his team get away safely.
Now, Mal, I think, is part of this movie’s emotional distance. Marion Cotillard is an attractive woman, but her status as Cobb’s dead wife who haunts him because of his guilt around her suicide some time before never feels like much more than an intellectual element of the story, a cog in the machine, even with Cobb revealing the moment of his wife’s death to Ariadne, the young woman he brings in as an architect of the dreams. That scene where Cobb relives Mal’s jump to the ground several stories up out of a hotel window, even with DiCaprio’s committed performance, always feels more like a diorama rather than an emotional moment. In short, Mal feels like a mechanical element of the story, not something driven by the main character’s emotions.
Cobb’s overall motive, though, is to be able to return to America from his life on the run around the rest of the world in order to be with his two children again. This, again, is little more than an idea as Cobb doesn’t get a single scene with his children, keeping the motive intellectual in nature rather than emotional. So, I feel like the emotional throughline of the film ends up a bit muted as I’m unable to engage with Cobb’s journey at that level, but the rest of the movie around that is the kind of high concept spectacle that Nolan has become so expert at.
Saito had hired Cobb’s team as a tryout, and he brings them on again for a new job, to incept a new idea into the son of his largest competitor to break up his father’s company after his impending death. Implanting a new idea in someone’s head is difficult and dangerous, needing to be simple enough to take root, but it also needs to come from the subject himself, or at least seem to. Cobb understands the dangers of it, having performed the action before, but Saito promises him an end to all of his legal troubles so he agrees.
Assembling his team is where most of the exposition happens. Nolan has this tendency to have large data dumps of information in huge blocks of his scripts. What his characters ends up describing is usually some high concept thing, so it becomes easier to take as we’re learning about something new to our own experiences. Yes, we all dream, but the whole concept of building a dream, populating it with our subconscious, and then having it fall apart into violence is new, and Nolan throws actions out at the same time that can demonstrate what’s being explained. As set up to the following action, this is fine. It’s not great because I think there’s a more elegant way to explain this and some of it doesn’t need explication (like the concept of the Penrose stairs which could have been trusted to the audience to figure it out), but it ends up creating a very firm foundation for the second half of the film which is the heist itself.
Taking Robert Fischer, the son of the now dead energy magnate Maurice Fischer, into a descending series of dreams three levels deep to implant the idea is the movie’s bulk and purpose, and it’s a fun time. Nolan’s cogs work best in this movie at this point as everything begins spinning at once, each influencing everything else in perfect timing. The changing gravity in the van that they sleep in inside the first dream level influences the second and then the third. There are objects at all three levels that need to be met simultaneously, and the editing brings them all together cleanly. The music incorporates their signal across the dreams, Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, and is propulsively complex at the same time.
However, some of the logic does seem to break down. The kick, the sudden drop in one level up that wakes up the next level down, becomes inconsistent when Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur is awake during a kick one level up and stays awake in order to keep the movie going. I guess it could have been fixed with some line of dialogue about how his specific circumstance is an exception to the rule, but for a movie that spends so much time and effort around its rules, to have one ignored just to keep the movie going feels kind of cheap. However, we also get that awesome sequence of Arthur fighting in the rotating hallway, so worth it.
The movie’s overexplained and emotionally inert, but gosh darn it do I have a fun time with it anyway. That, I think, is a testament to Nolan’s filmmaking acumen as he overcomes a problematic script and makes it solidly entertaining from beginning to end. Its individual sequences are often great, but the connective tissue is weak. However since so much of the film is made up of the individual sequences the issues with the connective tissue become less important. It’s a solid time at the movies.