★ ★ ★ 1/2
Christopher Nolan is a genius. Because of this, I hold him to a higher standard than the average director. Though Inception was intriguing, it was all but doomed from the beginning. Since I heard the initial concept, I have maintained that it would be nearly impossible to pull off. Though the architecture of the film was surprisingly coherent, the film was marred by weak dialogue, and unrealistic character relationships. This is one of the most beautiful failures ever to meet the big screen. But for curious flaws, it might have been great. Nevertheless, it is a failure.
I wanted to be captivated by Inception--I really did. I have loved every Nolan feature, and was hoping he would keep his streak alive. The first time I saw Inception, I was enmeshed in the architecture of the film (yes, I'm using Nolan's vocabulary). The logic of the film was reasonable. There were no Matix-esque inconsistencies to ruin the film. Still, I didn't feel any connection to the film. The lack of major logical inconsistencies was trumped by a failure to connect on any emotional level.
Through the multiple interviews I have read, I've gleaned that Nolan views this primarily as a classical heist film. On that metric, it is better than average. As a film about the the life of the mind, it fares poorly. Several commentators have pointed out the similarities with L'Annee Derniere En Marianbad, and Solyaris, not to mention his own Memento. All were far superior. Other films about dreams, such as Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were also much better.
The weakest link of Inception was the relationships amongst the characters. Ariadne (Ellen Page) seemed to exist for little other than to explain the logic of the film to the audience. Her conversations with Cobb (DiCaprio) about his relationship with his wife were often redundant, bordering on annoying. I'm also confused as to why she was given an obviously French name when it is clear that she isn't French. I'd have forgiven Nolan for working with the assumption that she's an American foreign exchange student.
Weaker still was the relationship between Cobb and Saito (Ken Wantanabe). They start out as enemies, though develop a curiously emotional relationship. There didn't appear to be anything in their relationship that would suggest a flourishing bromance. I could have seen the relationship between Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) evolving to this degree, but there would have been a basis for this--they're partners.
As far as DiCaprio performances go, this was certainly at the low end. Though the role was similar to his own in Shutter Island, he seemed unable to muster up the same level of emotion. Even the conversations with his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) fell flat. This is a shame, since Cottillard was strong, as always. She is arguably the most talented actrice around, and deserves a best supporting nod. Cillian Murphy put in a strong performance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrated that he's capable of filling a major role. I'm left wondering if Levitt's role wasn't an audition for Nolan's Dark Knight sequel. Tom Hardy's role was fairly limited, but he was solid as expected. From what I hear, he's also in the running for a spot in Nolan's next Batman film. I can't think of a better Riddler. Watch Bronson, and you'll see what I mean.
For all of it's faults, the film was a model of technical perfection. The cinematography was excellent, and the film editing was masterful. Hans Zimmer's score was masterful, and was supplemented by the best leitmotif I've ever encountered. Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was used as a cue to wake Arthur during extractions. This worked on many levels, especially given that Cotillard played Piaf in her Oscar winning role (La Vie En Rose).
The reality is that the film was hampered by it's subject matter. When you stray into the realm of dreams, you risk cutting off any connection to reality. This is why the 'train scene', for instance (you know what I mean if you've seen the film) didn't do anything for me. There was at least one way that this could have been pulled off, but Nolan would have had to rethink much of the DiCaprio/Cotillard plotline.
Most of the flaws in Inception are a result of making a complicated subject accessible to a mass audience that is accustomed to simplistic plotlines. This is why it is nearly impossible to make a great film with more than $100 million dollars. Superhero movies have proven to be the lone exception to this rule. With that in mind, I'm glad that Nolan is returning to comic books for his next two features. It's what he does best, and he does it better than anyone else. The third part of the Dark Knight series can't come soon enough.