I purposefully waited a couple of days to review Inception; I needed time to separate the movie from both the hype and the idiosyncrasies of my theater experience.  Note: Don’t take your annoying, talkative uncle to this film.  It demands your complete attention, so when the guy next to you is making snide comments or texting his friends during key moments, the emotional and intellectual impact of your viewing will be compromised.  Bitterness aside, I can finally consider the merits of the film outside of my preconceived expectations for it, and the verdict is almost uncompromisingly positive.

Director Christopher Nolan may be best known these days for his Batman outings, but Nolan’s original output has always been more interesting.  Few films can match Memento for raw originality and tight, intricate plotting.  The Prestige, though based on a novel, flies high on gorgeous visuals and fits with Nolan’s obvious adoration of the cinematic puzzle.  Inception follows in this vein, though it deviates from his previous work in a potentially game-changing way.  After The Dark Knight, Nolan’s political credit in Tinseltown rivals that of any other major director; he has carte blanche to make any projects that fit his fancy with minimal oversight.  The result?  A cerebral action-thriller with a production budget of 160 million.

Not since The Matrix Reloaded has an enormous budget been paired with a conceptually demanding, puzzle-oriented script.  The comparison is all the more apt because Inception shares a number of stylistic similarities with the Matrix films.  Both focus on rule-based world building and care more about story than character.  This latter feature is characteristic of Nolan’s non-Batman films.  Characters serve the story; the reverse does not hold up to scrutiny.  Whether you feel that all films require deep, distinctive characters may well determine your overall opinion of Inception.  Reeves’ Neo feels like a more nuanced character than Dicaprio’s Dom Cobb, and the fault can largely be laid at the feet of the writing.

The inchoate characters, however, do little to detract from the film because Nolan’s directing and writing are otherwise entrancing.  The explication of labyrinthine mechanisms eats up a great deal of the 148 minute runtime, and these absorbing segments prove every bit as engrossing as the set pieces that put them to the test.  There is enough complication here to fuel repeated viewings, even if the material isn’t quite as fresh as Memento.  Canvassing the IMDB boards reveals a variety of theories and interpretations of the film, and to the film’s credit, a number of them are tenable.  People will be debating the meaning of the movie for some time, and I’ve been rolling it over in my mind for the last 72 hours; this haunting of the mind is one hallmark of a well-crafted film.

Nolan accompanies the heady material with flawless cinematography and seamless special effects.  I’m not one of those obnoxious critics predisposed to railing against films that employ large quantities of CG (quite the opposite), but Nolan, as an evangelist for old-fashioned effects, makes a strong case with Inception that ingenuity can produce moments as awe-inspiring as anything spawned from CG.  His crew physically constructed some of the non-conventional structures in the film.  Again, comparisons to Reloaded abound; the Wachowskis, unconvinced that any existing highway effective captured the gloomy atmosphere they sought, built their own mile-long stretch of concrete and black-top.

I’ve already pointed out the paucity of character development; while some argue that the film should have been shorter, I think an extra half an hour might have propelled it into absolute classic territory.  The cast still makes the best of a number of anemic roles.  Joseph Gordon Levitt and Tom Hardy both charm audiences on a lean economy of lines.  Ellen Paige inhabits a role far less annoying than her Juno persona.  Marion Cotillard and Leonardo Dicaprio benefit from a large portion of screen time, but their performances are overshadowed by some of the bit actors.  Cillian Murphy gets some of the meatier material and handles it like a champ; it’s a minor mystery to me why he isn’t a household name.  Ken Watanabe turns in another fine performance, though his accent can be difficult to break through.  Michael Caine is also in the film, but you could blink and miss him.

One aspect of the film completely beyond reproach is the score.  Hans Zimmer, an old hat in the composing industry, compliments important scenes with insistent strings and satisfyingly discordant horns.  The instrumentation, again, reminds me of the Matrix films, but Zimmer’s score has the infectious, killer theme that Don Davis’ scores lack.  Listening to the theme on its own makes me want to see the movie again- a sure sign that the composer has successfully embodied the urgency of the film in his melodies.

That Nolan has struck gold again cannot be easily disputed.  Engaging puzzles and astonishing visuals eclipse any need for memorable characters.  The subject matter has been broached many times, but Nolan breathes new life into a crowded sub-genre.  An opening weekend of 60 million and positive word-of-mouth should ensure that Inception’s worldwide haul climbs into many hundreds of millions.  This is a win for all movie lovers that wish action movies didn’t all have to be mind-numbingly stupid; perhaps Nolan’s gamble will encourage other filmmakers to trust their audiences more.

The Round-Up
Nolan constructs an austere edifice of logic and mind games. You may not remember the characters, but you will remember the ideas.
Watch out for Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, and Murphy. All three have bright futures ahead.
Nolan's characteristically low-tech visuals are particularly arresting here and avoid the gratuitous excess less discerning films engage in.
Zimmer went through a repetitive phase, but scores like Inception and The Last Samurai showcase his versatility and ability to write superlative themes.
The rare blockbuster with vittles for your eyes and your brain. See it now. Then, see it again.

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