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Is Christopher Nolan's glorified caper film "Inception" a brain-teaser or a thumb-twiddler? For me it was something in between: a time-killer. It's less "a brainy blockbuster" than an action-and-effects blow-out with airs -- a Michael Bay film in Stanley Kubrick clothing.

In the relatively straightforward scenario, Leonardo DiCaprio and his team, including Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, use futuristic dream technology to implant the idea in a Big Energy heir (Cillian Murphy) that he should break up the industrial empire of his just-deceased father.

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DiCaprio and friends navigate several levels of the subconscious, and time expands the deeper they go. Sounds nifty.

But the action that unfolds at each level doesn't expand your brain or heart or elucidate the nature of dreams. Nolan mostly sets up games of Beat the Clock in different time frames (and at varying camera speeds) and cuts among them for maximum cliffhanging jolts. The result is less a cinematic dream book than a show-off director's I-can-top-that compendium of chases, shoot-outs, and demolitions.

As an exploration of the subconscious, "Inception" contains nothing as freakily entertaining or as resonant as, say, the brainwashing scenes in John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate," and nothing as potent as Angie Dickinson's sexual reveries in Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill." And parts of this film are downright clunky. In the fifth half-hour DiCaprio is still explaining things to Page that she should have learned an hour before. It's as if Nolan didn't trust the audience to keep up with him.

The characters are more like place-holders. Nolan tries to implant emotions in his drama the way DiCaprio's team implants an idea in their target: any feelings that invade this story have to be as simple and primal as possible. So Nolan makes DiCaprio a guilt-wracked widower who must pull off this job so he can be reunited with his children. Nolan tries to force-feed operatic ardor into a chilly environment. Luckily, Marion Cotillard plays DiCaprio's late wife. Cotillard (above, at the Los Angeles premiere) has the kind of talent that Nolan would sweat to have. She, unlike "Inception," is a hard-to-resist spellbinder.

Were you among the millions who paid to see "Inception" on its opening weekend? What did you think of it? Did you see it because of the reviews, the star, the subject, the director? And did it meet your expectations?

Photo by Chris Pizzello

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