Christopher Nolan’s epic Hollywood gamble, Inception, was oversaturated with exposure during every phase of its production, and now six months after the theatrical release people are still arguing over the film’s twisty nooks and crannies. So the last thing the world needs is another rave (or dismissive) review trying to decode and transcribe the film’s dreamscape plot and structure. Instead, multiple viewings and some distance from the hype machine reveal how Nolan brilliantly connects a singular emotional principle (betrayal) with the endless possibilities of visual wonderment and audible blasts, all in relation to competing genres. Nolan uses heist-film conventions to highjack the core themes of the melodrama, making the relationship between the two genres almost symbiotic. This creates a striking dichotomy between dream thief Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) professional disintegration and the fallibility of his romantic relationship with deceased wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). These evolving, confounding patterns affirm Inception as the most aesthetically ambitious, impressive, and wildly strange mainstream effort of the year.
The contrast between stealing mental information and healing traumatic memories, basically the difference between guilt and inspiration, rests firmly at the center of Inception, and Nolan constructs his entire aesthetic approach around a revolving door of tonal shifts. Cobb’s fractured relationship with Mol, be it in the dream world or as flashbacks to a perceived past, is intrinsically linked to the daring heist he and his crew must execute. So Nolan gives the viewer a round robin of collective action sequences that segue into hypnotic personal flashes of regret, or specifically multidimensional staging of groups then sudden luminescent two shots of Cobb and Mol. Inception lives within this push-pull even more so than The Dark Knight, incorporating its themes about human fragility within the crumbling infrastructures of each set piece. This makes for a film dedicated to relentless narrative bursts forward and sometimes even downward, overwhelming each faction of the viewing experience. Ironically, as Inception grows more linear, Cobb’s dimensionality as a character becomes more enigmatic.
The dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure provides a perfect façade for Nolan and DiCaprio to tap into this relationship, highlighting the connections between Cobb’s restlessness as a professional, a father, and a husband. Multiple layers of existence merely act as fluid chessboards for Cobb, as he and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), and Eames (Tom Hardy) and their crew traverse a minefield of hidden projections. While the group consistently plots, plans, and debates the rules/regulations of this dream playground, Cobb is often cast to the fringe of the frame, conflicted deep in thought and burning with stress. For a film so consumed by exposition, Inception works best when Cobb’s silent suffering is allowed direct visual references. Nolan gives Ariadne a window into this approach in one of the film’s best scenes, a slideshow of repressed anguish seen while descending an elevator of fortified memories. It’s here that we finally understand the melodramatic undertones of Cobb’s motivations, the customized “closed loop” that he’s battling to repair by committing “one last job.”
If Inception becomes a maze of maneuvering landscapes and perspectives, Nolan justifies all the bells and whistles of big budget spectacle with some deeply felt moments of hesitation. The “half remembered dreams” speech between Saito (Ken Watanabe) and Cobb that bookends the film might be the best example of Nolan’s attention to his character’s view on sacrifice. While Cobb’s reasons for descending into limbo are overtly selfish (Saito has promised him a pardon for previous sins), the end result is something akin to a western, a bond between “young men” who respect rather than need each other. This is where Cobb’s relationship to every character transcends the film’s shiny surface-level gloss and delves into the core themes like betrayal, devotion, and redemption. Every interaction Cobb has, be it with his father (Michael Caine), wife, or children, becomes a different composed cell in a sort of self-imposed prison, and Inception charts his dynamic escape from these shackles.
Throughout Inception, one man’s romantic dream is another’s unflinching nightmare, but for Cobb these two form one compounding point of view. The heartache of losing his wife has permanently melded with his work as a professional thief, and Nolan’s elemental blocking of actors within confined spaces, Wally Pfister’s textural imagery, and Hans Zimmer’s booming score all compliment this tension. While Inception is certainly a house of games on one level, Cobb’s characterization becomes about so much more than simple theatrics. His journey is not one of realization or understanding, but of validation. To concentrate the pain so effortlessly transposed through melodramatic tropes, Cobb must descend into the depths of the Heist film and replant an idea of rebirth in his own head. Does he succeed? Well, part of the joy of Inception is its continuing ambiguity. But it’s clear the densely layered journey has more than one reading, so whether you’re a love-stricken romantic or a grouchy cynic, Inception lingers in the deep end of both emotional responses and lets you decide.
Nothing will top viewing Inception on the big screen, but Warner Home Video's 1080p transfer hauntingly captures the film's impressive levels of texture, scope, and depth. The film looks nearly as good as it did on IMAX, with pristine gradations of color popping from every angle and each frame ripe with clear detail. Whether it's a rain-drenched urban street being dissected by a locomotive or the dusty yellow haze of Mombassa, the color palette is true to the original projection. The incredible action sequence with Arthur battling henchman in a no-gravity hotel corridor manages to maintain all of its power even for home viewing. Shadow delineation is nicely balanced, making the diverse number of locations pop with the same potency. Sound is almost more important to Inception than it's gigantic visual approach, and while the 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound track nicely conveys the film's epic audible design and Hans Zimmer's resounding score, it doesn't immerse you in the same way a theatrical experience would.
The absence of an audio commentary by Christopher Nolan and any member of the filmmaking team is a glaring one. Instead, Warner Home Video has included an array of vaguely interesting supplemental material, like the middling featurette "Dreams: Cinema of the Unconscious" hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and featuring a plethora of doctors and psychologists commenting on the layers of dreams. "Inception: The Cobol Job" is a lame animated prequel that examines the previous job before Cobb and his team meet Saito. Also included are excerpts from Hans Zimmer's excellent soundtrack, conceptual and promotional art, and theatrical and television spots for the film. All in all, a very disappointing showing for one of the year's most anticipated holiday Blu-ray releases.
Rent the visually stunning and audibly engaging Inception on Blu-ray and revel in the mash up of competing genres and themes so unique to the Hollywood landscape. Just don't waste your time buying the disc for the lacking, inconsequential extras.