Christopher Nolan’s little dream film had been a work in progress for 10 years before the rewrites and rethinks finally clicked, and what began as a small film project around the release of Insomnia (2002) was ready to be made into a mini sci-fi epic built on top of a caper movie in 2009.
The prologue and epilogue are set in the present time, but everything else (including flashbacks) are part of a brilliant little spin on the caper tale of a man named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), desperate to clear his name and return home to his family, agreeing to one more job when a target (named Saito (Letters from Iwo Jima’s ken Watanabe) turns the tables, and becomes his most important client.
Nolan may have noodled with different genres to deal with a story that moves through three increasingly deeper dream states, but he may also have realized that the only way his concept would be passingly coherent with audiences was to use a familiar (and popular) genre formula, and archetypes: Cobb, the hero; the eclectic troupe he assembles for the job, the client (Saito), and the new target. It’s like a Mission: Impossible that’s partly cerebral, counterbalanced with gunfire, chase scenes, and assassins.
Time travel films are tough because audiences have to figure out and keep track of specific temporal periods, the how and why certain new actions cause changes, and why certain events can never be altered. Dream films pose more unique issues for audiences because there’s discerning the true reality with the alternate or dream worlds, and what familiar things or people represent in the dream world.
Nolan triples the challenge because the characters travel through there different dream plains or levels, plus limbo. What occurs in 5 seconds on Level 1 might take 20 mins. on Level 2, and 6 months on Level 3; if you goof up on Level 3, you might be trapped in limbo for an eternity.
The caper plot, however, is simple: plant a suggestion that prompts the troupe’s new target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to an industrial fortune, to react in a manner that’s beneficial to corporate rival Saito. It’s ostensibly like kidnapping a target for a few hours and through intense hypnotism, implant suggestions that he’ll act out naturally.
To do so, both Fischer, the troupe, and Saito (who wants in on the caper to ensure nothing is fudged) must go into a deep sleep, share the dream world of the target, and work their way towards the moment where the suggestion can be made, and quickly return to reality as if nothing has happened.
Bloodless, no damage to the brain or personality, and the only violence occurs in the dream levels, and if that isn’t enough to absorb, there’s one aspect of the hero’s own subconscious that begins to foil the troupe: Cobb’s dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose ability to interfere with the caper strengthens.
Comparisons to The Matrix (1999) are fair insofar as Inception deals with desperate goals and battles occurring in different yet interlinked realities. The visuals are striking, but the dream levels are subconscious recreations of the real world, which allows Nolan to simplify surreal elements and isolate them in just a handful of memorable sequences.
Unlike most sci-fi films, most of the effects are practical, and the use of real water, actors, shrapnel, James Bondian mountain assault, car stunts, sets and explosions help the audience believe in Nolan’s mix of fantasy, theory, and philosophy. It’s a ballsy approach when most filmmakers would rely on CGI effects, and Inception offers a perfect, seamless balance of the two disciplines.
Hans Zimmer’s music also reflects each dream level, and it’s one of his best scores – modern, minimalist, impressionistic, and ferocious without the heavy bombast employed in his conventional action scores.
The only conceit people have trouble with is the method in which the troupe are able to share a common dream world. Nolan never details the process which seems to begin with a potent psychotropic drug to induce rapid immersion into REM state, and wristbands that either circulate another drug at even doses to the participants, or tap into their electromagnetic waves.
It’s the sci-fi detail we have to trust, and it works because we enter the dream worlds with fellow novices Saito and newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page), who takes on the role Cobb’s prior role as the team’s "architect" – the person who designs the dream world in which the target is needled dropped, so his own subconscious can’t recognize there’s some manipulation going on and retaliate.
Building architecture plays an important role in the film’s look, the occasional Escher imagery (such as the eternal staircase) as well as the landscape of Cobb’s own limbo, where he must eventually face his recreation of Mal that’s gone rogue.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray comes in a 3-disc set that’s typical for the time being: a BR filled with the movie and minor extras to ensure a robust HD picture and sound; a second disc of extras; and a third disc containing a standard DVD of the movie plus the access code for a Digital Copy.
The BR contains “Go Inside the Dream with Extraction Mode,” essentially a series of making-of featurettes that are playable while watching the film, or in one Play All option. (The separately sold SDVD release contains about 1/3 of the segments as standalone featurettes.)
The most impressive aspect is how many of the effects were in-camera, practical, miniatures, and CGI to smoothen things, and it’s no surprise to hear director Nolan describe the stuntmen who were ‘chomping at the bit’ to perform some old school stunts, such as the snow-capped mountain assault reminiscent of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), replete with timed avalanches; the car chase in a L.A. traffic jam (with an intrusive train); and the spinning and inverted hallways that were used for the rotating hallway fight between Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and one of the target’s ‘subconscious hit-men.’
Composer Zimmer also gets a small featurette where he describes his minimalist score and heavy synth and deep brass sound design, but more should’ve been detailed of the score’s make-up, including the large wall of electronic gear Zimmer used for the score’s heavy electronica.
Disc 2 (also in HD) contains an entertaining and occasionally intriguing documentary on dreams (“Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious”) which weaves together interviews with scientists, the cast, director, and (presumably) average people discussing common dreams, such as being chased, feeling embarrassed, and experiencing a dream-within-a-dream episode.
10 tracks of Zimmer’s score are archived in 5.1, but it makes little sense why the whole score, if not the 12-track album, couldn’t have been presented on the BR.
It’s still a solid 3-disc set, but studios should really maximize a BR’s storage capacity instead of spreading things piecemeal.
Christopher Nolan’s output is comparatively small, but each film consistently reveals a filmmaker bending the rules and whatever’s in vogue, reminding audiences what aspects of crafting an intelligent film matter when other major directors follow trends with little creative risk, and collect an easy paycheck.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan