Does Inception salvage what's been a decidedly subpar summer movie season? That's a big load for any movie to carry, even one as smart as Inception, especially one as seemingly obscurantist as Inception.
Incidentally, I'm going to avoid major spoilers here, though, having said that, it occurs to me that the trick about Inception, which so many seek to understand, may just be that there is no trick at all. Which would be quite the trick for this mind-bender movie about purposeful invaders of the unconscious who use a mysterious biotechnology to hack into one's mind in order to extract and implant very consequential information. It's a spy flick, it's a heist flick, it's an action flick, it's a scifi flick, it's a love story, it's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma... Wait, no, that last is what Churchill said about Russia.
Lord knows we need a really good, really popular big movie for grown-ups this summer. By which I don't mean an animated flick like Toy Story 3, which is terrific and all, but more of a family picture.
Iron Man 2 was my other great hope, and I liked it, but I didn't like it nearly as much as I expected to. Robert Downey, Jr. was terrific again as Tony Stark, and the movie was a lot of fun. But though it promised to build on the great beginning the character had in 2008's surprise mega-hit, Iron Man, Iron Man 2 didn't really deliver the goods.
Instead of following through in depth on the prospect of a great showdown between Downey's Tony Stark and the hardcase Russian technologist, Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko -- whose chance for Tony's life was ripped from his grasp through a fateful geopolitical history and the underhanded machinations of Tony's dad -- the picture loses its narrative momentum as it wanders through a thicket of secondary characters, most of them in the movie to set up other Marvel franchise movies.
Here's a thought: Why not make a truly excellent Iron Man movie, the Empire Strikes Back or Dark Knight of Iron Man movies, one that goes through the roof, instead of playing franchise promotion? As it was, Iron Man 2 is still an extremely big hit. It's just not as big as the first one, which came as a surprise since most expected its opening weekend to challenge The Dark Knight's opening weekend box office record, which it did not.
So now we have Inception, director Christopher Nolan's wholly unrelated follow-up to the key movie of the past decade, The Dark Knight. And it's clearly a serious hit, touching $100 million in domestic box office before its second weekend began.
It's doing especially well considering that it's not a franchise title with a built-in audience. And it's science fiction, real science fiction, whether the science exists yet or not, which frequently spells too out there for most moviegoers. With a $63 million opening weekend, Inception garnered the second highest opener for any original sci-fi flick, only trailing Avatar's $77 million last December.
It's getting a very strong critical response as well. The great majority of critics like it, with many simply rapturous with praise. The notable exception being critics from New York City, who mostly trash the movie. Perhaps they wanted a more Freudian take on their own dreams...
As for the activist fan base, Inception is currently rated number 3 on the Top 250 Films of all-time list on IMDb (Internet Movie Database), behind The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather. (Don't ask me why The Shawshank Redemption is rated so high.)
And what do I think? I think it's very good, though how good I haven't decided yet after only one viewing. Nolan assembled an excellent cast, from Leonardo DiCaprio, who's never been a favorite before, on through the roster, most of which makes up a crack dreamscape heist team. Their seeming task? To fulfill the assignment of a hyper-power Japanese industrialist to manipulate a rival mega-corporation on the verge of becoming a global superpower through its control of energy.
That's quite a task, requiring quite a team. Only Ellen Page seems woefully miscast. Playing a very gifted grad student who's recruited by DiCaprio's cool but troubled team leader -- think Frank Sinatra's or George Clooney's Danny Ocean, only updated to be an ultra-tech hacker -- Page looks about 17 playing a character who should be in her mid to late 20s.
Still, Page turns in a game and credible performance, especially when I further suspend my disbelief to account for the studio's desire to appeal to a key demographic. Besides, maybe she's a super-genius. But if she's that precocious super-genius, why does she keep asking the obvious questions as the audience stand-in? Oh, well, you know how it works.
There are many influences on Inception, as Nolan acknowledges, not the least of which are the James Bond movies he says he loves. That's especially true with regard to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, often devalued by general moviegoers because it stars the only one-off Bond of the entire series, George Lazenby, which I will get into later.
In many ways, I think of Inception as a great William Gibson movie not written by William Gibson.
DiCaprio's Cobb is very much like the protagonists of Gibson's first two cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer and Count Zero. In the first novel, Case is a damaged hacker of virtual reality who must penetrate an artificial intelligence and try to manipulate it.
This may be why I began to think of Cobb as Case while watching Inception.
In the second Gibson novel, Turner is a top mercenary operative working for Japanese multinationals in the corporate wars, out to "extract" their opposition's big brains, the top research scientists with the "Edge" needed to come up with paradigm-shattering innovations.
Again, he's a lot like Inception's lead character.
They all operate in what looks like an early Gibson-type world, one dominated by transnational corporations, with a heavy Japanese influence, a near-future economy shaped by shifting alliances, driven by ideas and secrets.
The plot actually turns on the notion of inception, of implanting a powerful idea in someone's mind. Which is exactly what happened in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which Nolan says was one of his favorite Bond films growing up.
Many movie reviewers are referencing the big Bondian alpine scenes in both Inception and OHMSS, but they are missing the main point. The inception concept is front and center in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, albeit in much more prosaic fashion.
Supervillain Blofeld -- played by Telly Savalas before he became so iconic, and ironic, as TV detective Kojak ("Who loves ya, baby?") -- achieves the inception of the idea central to his plot through psychological conditioning. His unwitting agents, a cadre of beautiful women from throughout Europe (naturally!) are drugged and seeded with the idea each night as they sleep through the evil count's instructions through the intercom. Which is picturesque, in its obvious way, but not nearly so dramatic as things are in Inception.
Yet there is a Bondian femme fatale in Inception, France's Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard. Somewhat incongruously named Mal, which one might take as a diminutive nickname connoting evil, she is the constant phantom haunting Cobb's subconscious and unconscious. His beloved wife, perhaps late, whom he is believed by the American authorities to have killed, thus leading him to his globe-trotting expatriate mercenary existence. And thus giving transnational Japanese power broker Saito, played by the always excellent Ken Watanabe, the hook he needs to draw Cobb into his scheme. If Cobb and his team succeed in manipulating the scion of a mega-rival, Saito will use his influence to get Cobb back to the U.S., and his beloved children.
Mal appears when least expected, or perhaps when she should be most expected, i.e., in times of maximum stress for Cobb in his excursions through the mind. She's become a part of his own consciousness, not infrequently wrecking his dreamscape scenarios like an iconic imp. Yet she is his lover, his wife, with both having vowed to grow old together.
Inception is like a matryoshka, a Russian nested doll, in its layers of perceptions and dreams. Deeper and deeper we go.
But does the final depth of perception, as is the case with the final doll, have the same countenance as the first depth of perception? Or is it even the final one at all?
Inception succeeds spectacularly where earlier films based on actual William Gibson stories, Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel, failed.
You can enjoy it in any number of ways, as action film with big brain, science fiction with multiple twists, spy flick, heist flick, love story, or simply a big budget spectacle.
There's plenty of cult scifi master Philip K. Dick in it as well, along with some Ocean's 11, The Matrix, and two famous sci-fi films rather loosely adapted from Dick's work, Blade Runner and Total Recall.
Is DiCaprio's Cobb actually real, at least as he perceives himself? Was Harrison Ford's Deckard, the replicant-hunting assassin of Blade Runner, a replicant himself?
Director Ridley Scott did place that vision of the unicorn in the director's cut, which must symbolize, well, something. And Ford's blade runner does have an awful lot of old family photographs around, seemingly for constant reassurance.
Is Cobb actually trapped inside a dream, perhaps even a dream not of his own making? Was Arnold Schwarzenegger's Quaid/Hauser, the seeming construction worker-turned-invincible secret agent of Total Recall who frees Mars, really becoming the hero he wanted to be or was he the victim of a botched memory implantation of his dream vacation scenario, trapped of his own volition and on the verge of being lobotomized?
"I just had a terrible thought... What if this is a dream?," Schwarzenegger's Quaid/Hauser says at the end of the film. To which Rachel Ticotin's Melina replies: "Well, then, kiss me quick before you wake up!"
Director Paul Verhoeven has said he believes that Quaid was lobotomized in the end, whereas Schwarzenegger has said that Quaid won through as portrayed in the film.
Inception is already inspiring these sorts of debates, and more.
Along with the highly intelligent script, terrific cast (they're all quite good) and outstanding production elements, Hans Zimmer's musical score is quite noteworthy. The veteran German composer blends the sound of a small orchestra with electronica and the electric guitar of Johnny Marr to create a soundscape that melds the power of his terrific '90s score for Crimson Tide with more cerebral, contemplative, mysterious, and romantic elements. It's the score for a dark and surreal, yet rationalist, adventure.
So is Inception a great film? I'm not sure. It's certainly excellent, and almost certainly near great. I have to live with it some more, and see it again, to decide.
Does it salvage a disappointing summer? It might. Not in the sense of being one of the all-time mega-blockbusters. It's probably not accessible enough to the ultra-mass audience for that.
But perhaps in the sense of providing a critical mass of moviegoers and those who think about movies with a very big, cerebral, spectacle of a movie to enjoy and contemplate far beyond the time in which it takes to get to the parking lot.
I do know what happens to the spinning top.