Inception’s laborious narrative bogs down visually ambitious journey into the subconscious
A van crashes through the guard rail on a bridge and plunges toward the river below. It’s a very slow plunge—about 30 minutes of Inception’s screen time goes by before the vehicle laden with a half-dozen of the movie’s characters reaches the water. And, to me, that is one of the more entertaining moments—extended and otherwise—in Christopher Nolan’s long, dreamy, and somewhat dreary foray into quasi-surreal time-warp science fiction.
The thing has Leonardo DiCaprio as a “dream thief” who infiltrates and alters other people’s dreams, and finds himself caught in a limbo of dream worlds, which the movie tries at considerable length to explain without ever doing much more than parroting the inbred logic of its relentlessly preposterous plot. It’s an elaborately pedantic scheme whose lone virtue is that it serves as a good excuse for some bizarre mixtures of action fantasy and special effects.
Nolan’s story mixes fictional dream science and a kind of inner-space espionage, but neither the science nor the espionage (which amounts mostly to a kind of brainwashing) matter much here. Mainly it posits a story world in which Leo and company are caught up in dreams within dreams—and eventually a dream within a dream within another dream. But even that aspect of it doesn’t really take off, action- and entertainment-wise, until the film is well into its protracted final phases.
Dreams within dreams are OK by me, and so much the better when Nolan and company finally do get around to delivering some good spacey multiple-dreamzone action. The sequence in which a Parisian neighborhood folds over on itself while Cobb (DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) are walking down the street is also an exhilarating bit of visual legerdemain, and it’s enough fun that you probably won’t mind too much that it’s little more than a movie-magic demo for 21st century FX.
Too much of the movie’s dialog is just so much expository narration, with the characters explaining to each other and to us what just happened or what’s going to happen next or why it might not. The standout lines—Cobb explaining why “downward is the only way forward” or Ariadne calling a time out for brief review (just which part of whose subconscious are we invading next?)—stand out mainly because there are so few of them.
DiCaprio’s Cobb is the Orpheus of Nolan’s innerworld underground, and Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is its Eurydice. But Page’s Ariadne is in some ways the real moral and emotional center of the story, even as Cobb’s dilemmas and dreads drive most of the action. Cotillard, playing the film’s most oddly conflicted character, comes closest of the group to doing some good character acting, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is intriguingly mercurial as the best of the film’s several sidekicks.