Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/14/10 18:10:50

"Eyes Wide Shut"
5 stars (Awesome)

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” arrives in theaters with a higher degree of anticipation from critics and audiences alike than any other film in recent memory. Some of that is because this is Nolan’s first film since “The Dark Knight” and any follow-up to an artistic and commercial hit of that size is going to get an extra level of scrutiny from viewers keen to see if he can possibly top himself. Some of that is because this has been, save for “Toy Story 3,” one of the weakest cinematic summers to come along in a long, long time and every time a would-be blockbuster has cratered in the last few weeks, it has only but additional pressure on the film to help save the moviegoing season. That said, I think that the biggest reason for the intense curiosity surrounding the film is that until the first reviews began trickling out a couple of weeks ago, very few people knew much of anything regarding what the film was about. As odd as it may sound, there used to be a time when films arrived in theaters without having their productions and test screenings obsessively reported on through movie-related websites and without trailers that cheerfully gave away every twist, turn and good joke contained in the film proper in an effort to get people into theaters. And yet, Nolan managed to shepherd this project through the Hollywood machine under a cloak of secrecy not seen since the days when Stanley Kubrick was doing “Eyes Wide Shut“ and no one was certain about what they were in for. (Can it be just a coincidence that “Inception” was not only produced by the same studio as “Eyes Wide Shut” but is actually being released on the same date on which it was released 11 years earlier?)

As a result, audiences going to see “Inception”--especially the early crowds--are going to be able to experience something increasingly rare for contemporary moviegoers; a big-budget state-of-the-art blockbuster that is a genuinely new experience and not just another sequel, remake or rehash of stuff they have seen a dozen times before. Actually, viewers will be seeing something even rarer than that--they will also be getting a big-budget, state of the art blockbuster that is also a full-blown cinematic masterpiece to boot. No matter how high your personal expectations for “Inception” may be, the film not only meets but wildly exceeds them. A film like this is an enormous gamble for all concerned--the studio is risking millions and millions of dollars on a property that isn’t already familiar to the mass audience, the actors are taking a chance that what was presumably a trippy screenplay would somehow translate from the page to the screen and Nolan is betting all the industry goodwill that he acquired from doing the Batman films because if it should fail, it would fall entirely on him. This time around, the gamble paid off in spade because “Inception” is by far the movie of the summer by a long shot (it pretty much makes up for all the crap that has come out up to this point) and quite possibly the movie of the year. Hell, I will go so far as to suggest that when people start talking about the films of the decade a few years from now, this one will be at the top of many a list. (Since the best way to experience “Inception” is to go into it knowing as little about it as possible, you might want to set the rest of this review aside until you get a chance to see it. Don’t worry-it’ll keep.)

The basic conceit of the film is that the world of high-tech corporate espionage has developed to such a degree that it is now possible for business tycoons to hire people known as “extractors” to enter the dreams of their rivals in order to steal their most valuable secrets to use against them. The best extractor in the business is Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and with his longtime team of associates--planner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), man-of-a-thousand faces Eames (Tom Hardy) and sedation expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao)--he is able to enter the dreamscapes of his victims and retrieve whatever he is looking for with the skill and precision of a master thief knocking over a bank. Although an ace in his professional life, the job has wreaked havoc on his personal life by causing him to lose his beloved wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and to be separated from his two young children. To make things even more difficult for him, he is still haunted by the memory of Mal to such a degree that she continues to linger in his subconscious by popping up in the middle of his raids to wreak havoc, as she does in the spectacular opening set-piece involving Cobb and his men attempting to raid the mind of wealthy Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe) only to find their well-laid plans falling apart as the result of her presence.

As it turns out, the raid on Saito was actually arranged by the man himself to serve as a sort of audition for an even more complex job offer for Cobb and his team. Saito wants them to invade the mind of Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the imminent heir of the billion-dollar corporation run by his dying business rival (Pete Postelthwaite), but not to steal any secrets. Instead, he wants them to plant an idea in Robert’s head that will eventually inspire him to dissolve his father’s company for good and leave Saito with no competition. As anyone who has struggled to create anything no doubt knows, trying to create an idea is infinitely more complex and complicated than simply pilfering the ideas of others and that is no different here--to pull off such a job, known as “inception” is an extraordinarily tricky process involving multiple levels of dreams and the like--but the potential payoff for Cobb, being able to leave the world of extracting for good and reunite with his kids, is enough to convince him to take the job. During the planning stages, he recruits a young architecture student, Ariadne (Ellen Page) and shows her how to mentally design the world of the dream that he is going to put Fischer into--to do it himself would run the risk of blurring the line between dreams and reality and as the constant presence of Mal suggests, there has been far too much of that already. Finally, everything is ready and Cobb and his team take the journey into Fischer’s mind and it is at that point that things get really complicated.

From this point on, I don’t plan on divulging any more details of the plot of “Inception.” Face it. this is not the kind of film that benefits from a mere summary of the plot, no matter how well-written it may be. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures to be had in experiencing the film is to observe how Nolan elegantly unspools his decidedly twisty story for audiences. During the raid on Saito‘s mind that opens the film, he pretty much plunges viewers into the proceedings and forces them to pay attention and get their own bearings as the action rages around them as a way of immersing them in the world he has created without stopping things dead to explain what is going on--an enormously risky gambit that could have alienated audiences right from the start if handled improperly but which plays beautifully here. Having set up both the concept of the film and the world that it takes place in, Nolan then brings in the outsider Ellen Page character to serve as our surrogate as the details and rules of extraction and inception are explained to her and us in a natural-sounding manner that doesn’t come across merely as boring exposition. Of course, Nolan never quite explains everything and even at the end, there are some questions and concepts that remain slightly out of reach (though these may be answered by repeat viewings) but he doles out just enough to keep things humming along and to keep viewers interested in what is coming next provided that they are willing to put in the effort to keep up with what is going on. (In other words, go to the bathroom and gets your snacks before the movie starts because there is no point during its 150-minute running time where a break for the lobby is advisable.)

Another thing that makes “Inception” so special is the way that Nolan has taken an incredibly complex and sometimes confounding narrative and folded it within the parameters of an epic-sized summer blockbuster in such a way that the two approaches wind up complementing in beautiful and unexpected ways. The story is a heady blend that tells a story that is straightforward and exciting on its own and yet still works on any number of other levels--depending on how one approaches it, the film can be seen as a heist film done on a detailed level normally only seen in the works of Michael Mann, a thoughtful exploration of the thin line between illusion and reality and how some people are unwilling to recognize the difference until it is too late (a theme that Nolan also explored in his 2001 breakthrough “Memento”) or as Nolan’s cheeky metaphor on the difficulties of getting a complex and original idea planted in Hollywood, a place where most everyone else is merely content to raid the ideas of others and unhesitatingly reap the benefits--without ever getting too convoluted for its own good or dumbing things down too much in the hopes of attracting viewers who have to have every single detail spelled out for them. At the same time that he is blowing minds with his story, Nolan is also popping eyes with some of the most extraordinary visuals to appear on the screen in a long time. Every scene is crammed with fascinating little details and bits of trickery that help to more fully immerse viewers into the world Nolan has created and when he pulls out all the stops, such as the moment when a train goes hurtling down a city street or the streets of Paris do something that I will leave for you to discover, it brings back the giddy sense of excitement that you felt the first time you saw some jaw-dropping special effect in a movie and realized that anything was possible. And when the complex narrative and visuals fully combine as they do in the incredibly elaborate concluding half-hour--an editorial tour-de-force taking viewers effortlessly through multiple dream layers and the elaborate action sequences contained within them, most people will be too blown away to do much more than mumble some variation of “Whoa!” And without going into too many details, I can assure those of you who may be fearing that the film is nothing more than a cold piece of technical achievement that this finale also contains a couple of surprisingly powerful emotional payoffs that allow it to dazzle the heart as well as the eye and the mind.

Although “Inception” will primarily be looked upon as Christopher Nolan’s baby, practically everyone connected with the project has stepped up as well with superlative contributions of their own. Remember how I complained a couple of week ago about “The Last Airbender” by saying that I couldn’t think of a single element in that film that worked at all? In the case of “Inception,” I can’t think of a single element that doesn’t work wonderfully. The cast, which also includes welcome supporting turns from Nolan regular Michael Caine and none other than Tom Berenger, all do a uniformly excellent job of helping to establish the world of the film and keeping things grounded in some form of reality--while DiCaprio’s character (who may remind some of the one he played in “Shutter Island”) is the only one that is completely fleshed out (by necessity), the others, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt, invest their roles with enough personality so that they come across as people and not ciphers. The cinematography from longtime Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister, who shot the film across four continents, is a stunning piece of work that puts even his celebrated contributions to “The Dark Knight” to shame. For bringing the elaborate dream worlds of the film to life, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas may just as well begin clearing a place for the Oscar that he is almost assured of receiving next year. The nearly wall-to-wall score by Hans Zimmer is utterly unlike anything that one might expect to hear in a film of this type and it is all the better for it--this is one of the rare original scores that is so haunting and effective that I suspect many people will return home from seeing the film and immediately download it onto their iPods. The special effects, as I have pointed out, are destined to be the most talked-about visuals to appear in any film since the bullet-time stuff from “The Matrix.” In fact, if I had to lodge a complaint about anything in “Inception,” it would be that Nolan’s occasional deployment of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” on the soundtrack threatens to take viewers out of the world he has created due to the fact that Marion Cotillard, of course, won an Oscar a couple of years for playing Piaf. However, this is such a minor, minor point that I was eventually able to overlook it, especially since the song really does fit in beautifully with the rest of the proceedings.

“Inception” is a flat-out masterpiece from start to finish--like such classics of the genre as “Metropolis,” “2001” and “Blade Runner,” it is destined to be discussed and dissected by enthralled viewers for as long as they are still around to do such things. Of course, in the wake of so many reviews praising it to the rafters in general and going on and on about how smart and intellectual it is, especially in comparison to most other contemporary blockbusters, there may be some people out there hesitant about seeing it on the basis that a.) it can’t possibly be as good as the reviews have suggested and b.) it might be too complex and confusing for those who just want to have an entertaining night at the movies. In response to b.) all I can say is that any viewer who is actually willing to pay attention to the film instead of using the moviegoing experience to chug soda, answer texts and play grab-ass should have no problem following along with it and who knows, they may even gather a new appreciation for filmmakers who treat them as thinking people instead of as lumps who respond only to explosions and car crashes. As for a.) all I can do is assure you that the admiration for “Inception” is real and genuine. In fact, as the screening that I attended came to an end, I got into a conversation with several colleagues and we all immediately agreed that we were all going to see it again as soon as possible--not so much because we felt we needed to but because we genuinely wanted to experience it again. I can think of no higher praise to bestow upon a film than that and I can think of no other film in a while that deserves it as much as “Inception.”

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