Although I have been on vacation this week, I went to a screening of "Inception" because -- well, I wanted to. Writer-director Christopher Nolan made "The Dark Knight," one of my favorite movies in recent years, and "Memento," which I had mixed feelings about when I first saw it but which has stuck in my head. I did not know a lot about "Inception," aside from the impressive-seeming cast and the cool poster/trailer images, but there was enough going on there to make me want to see it.
And what did I see? A movie that at points should have you going, "This is so COOL." Which is a rich homage to Hitchcock, at least to that part of Hitchcock where perception and identity are tangled up ("Psycho," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Frenzy" -- and now I am making myself want to spend the weekend watching Hitchcock) -- if, that is, Hitchcock had decided to make "The Matrix." It continues Leonardo DiCaprio's seeming fascination as well with perception and identity ("Shutter Island," "The Departed" and more). But it is also a movie which stumbles at key points, and where Nolan falls so in love with his multiple, overlapping dreamscapes that he loses the wisdom to scale back, so that the movie is far less satisfying at the end than it is at points along the way. . . .
"Inception" stars DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, an expert at extracting ideas and information from people -- trade secrets, for example -- by sending your conscious self into their subconscious, essentially becoming a character in their dreams and creating scenarios there which will lead to the revelations. Although he is supposed to be very good at this, the technique is full of pitfalls. And as tricky as it is, it is nothing compared to the notion of secretly inserting an idea INTO someone's subconscious so they will act on it when awake. For example: You go into a man's brain and plant the idea that he should eat a ham sandwich. When he awakes, he eats the sandwich, but thinks it was his idea to do so.
I know, I am offering a lot of explanation here. "Inception" is a movie that takes a lot of explanation if you have not seen it, and maybe even if you have. It reminds me of a very difficult press conference years ago when the makers of "Quantum Leap" were trying to explain it when no one in the room had seen it. And one of the places that "Inception" falters is that, at certain points, it more or less has to stop the action to explain something -- and those explanations can go on a very long time. (Ellen Page is the audience's surrogate in all this, demanding explanations at certain points, sometimes with an exasperation that will reflect that of some of the spectators. Unfortunately, that's about all she gets to do.)
Anyway, Dom is hired to insert an idea. But this is a far more complicated process than extraction. You have to go several layers into the subconscious, each layer containing its own dream and its own sense of time, and the deeper you are in someone else's subconscious, the more you are putting your own mental stability in play.
Needless to say, Nolan also plays -- with the audience's sense of what is reality and what is not, with the characters' abilities to cope with different dreams all going on simultaneously, with the way that Dom's own troubled life is not only in his subconscious but potentially part of the dreams he is entering.
As I said, it often dazzles. The visual effects are remarkable, the editing triumphant. For at least the first hour of its 2 1/2 I was delighted. (Maybe for even longer. I felt no urge to check my watch.) But as it becomes more complicated, the movie starts to drag. Nolan is moving between so many different narrative levels at once, even he cannot keep it from seeming that one or more has gone on too long.
The need to explain -- particularly in one revelatory scene -- overcomes the forward movement of the story. The sketchy quality of characters other than Dom becomes more evident. (The cast, with the possible exception of Marion Cotillard as Dom's wife, is largely wasted.) In fact, the movie takes on a certain failure of imagination generally: We are in dreams, after all, but they are dreams which suggest a prosaic quality in the collective dreamers, a sense that all they really dream about is being in a James Bond movie.
I don't want you to think I consider the movie a failure overall. I am still interested in anything Nolan comes up with. But I think he overindulged in "Inception," and in the end his ambition was greater than what he actually achieved.
One more thing: I hear often from people, especially older folks, about the difficulty in hearing dialogue over background noise or music in movies. Much of the time it appears that they are just not accustomed to the current love of elaborate audio mixes. But "Inception," at least at the screening I attended, had an audio mix which made it extremely difficult to sort out a lot of the dialogue. I know that Nolan was deliberately using some of the background audio to unsettle us, and to suggest different levels of awareness, but there were points when it would have helped to hear the lines more clearly. I don't know if this was a function of the theater audio or an iffy mix. But be advised.