Inception is a pretty easy film to review. It’s like a madlib of ridiculous hyperbole. Think of whatever outlandish praise you can heap on it and fill in the blanks. The greatest con film since The Sting. The most visually compelling film since… well I guess people would expect me to say The Matrix, but Inception doesn’t rely on visual bombast and quickly dated camera tricks to drive a big, loud, and ultimately stupid action vehicle so I’d reach back to something like The Shining where the camera work doesn’t define the film, it pulls you into a haunting and utterly engrossing world.

It’s certainly a marked difference from The Dark Knight, which I praised for the concept behind the title and the arcs of the three main characters but largely panned the directing and script as being heavily derivative of Michael Mann’s Heat. I’m not going to say that I disliked either of Nolan’s Batman films. That would be a massive lie, but at the same time I’m also going to say that Nolan is unmistakably at his strongest when he’s working from original ideas and writing his own script. There’s not an inch of slack in Inception, while there were very clear peaks and valleys in The Dark Knight. The pacing is as breathless and masterful as Star Trek XI was, teasing out only as much information as the audience needs and never daring to slow down long enough for them to even consider looking at their watches. But at the same time, it doesn’t take advantage of that pace to pave over plot holes with fridge logic, which was something that plagued The Dark Knight on re-watches.

There’s no question that Nolan feels far more confident on Inception than he did on The Dark Knight and I’m not sure if that’s due to the runaway success of the latter, the lack of pressure by producers to steer the property in the direction they wanted, or even the anxiety of “classing up” the superhero genre that was writ large across The Dark Knight. I was irked with the trailers for Inception that said “From the director of The Dark Knight” for the same reason that I was irked by Steven Soderbergh being defined as the director of the Ocean Trilogy in the promotional materials for The Informant!. It’s not that I somehow harbor any kind of resentment for the less personal projects of my favourite directors, it just seems ridiculous in the context of their wider work. The Informant! for instance is much more thematically and conceptually linked to Che and The Girlfriend Experience than any of his other work, so referring to anything else is just going to be misleading. I know it’s just a cynical ploy by Hollywood marketers to point to a given director’s most financially lucrative films, but you’ve got to respect the integrity of their body of work. Sure Inception is huge in scale and will go down in history as the blockbuster event of Summer 2010 (an ironic and nigh accidental in and of itself), but it shares little more than cast and crew credits with The Dark Knight which was all about grounding the genre and clipping it’s wings while Inception was pure imagination splashed across the screen in the most daring and engrossing attempt since The Cell. In a perfect world, the Inception trailer would have said “From the director of Memento,” or “From the director who is about to wipe The Matrix out of film history.”

I’m talking a lot of shit about The Matrix again, which is something I do now and again. At first it was a fit of pique regarding the obvious plagiarism of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and then later on it became a little bit more mature when I got some distance from it and realized that despite all the hype, the visual effects of the film were a very dissonant experience. When things like the 180 degree pan around Trinity or the infamous bullet dodging sequence happen, they don’t enhance the story or pull you deeper into the fictional world. They kick you out of it and demand that you look at the spiffy camera work, which is a complete failure of the point of visual effects. District 9 is probably the best example of a recent film to use complex visual effects the way that they should be. The Prawns looked astonishingly real, they meshed with the environment and added to the believability of the experience. Perhaps Forrest Gump was even better and the best usage of computer generated special effects in film history because it was done completely in service to the narrative and enhanced the plausibility of the scenarios beyond what was thought possible.

The most visually stunning and tense moments of Inception occur in the second tier of a three tier dream, a kind of perceptual nesting egg where the events of the layers of reality closest to the physical ripple downwards. In the first level of the dream, everyone is asleep in a van engaged in a high speed chase. In the next level down, they’re in a hotel. Every shake, shudder, and eventual roll of the van translates into a constant change in the direction of gravity. Those clips you saw in the trailer of Jason Gordon Levitt being thrown around a hallway at strange angles. It’s fucking incredible. There’s a couple moments where you think you maybe saw some digital interpolation thrown in to smooth out the movements, but for the vast majority of it you’re watching an incredibly desperate hand to hand fight up walls, onto the ceiling, and back down to the floor. It really defies explanation and will leave you in complete awe.

There’s a lot more than just directorial chops and progressive, back to basics integration of visual effects on display in Inception. It takes a lot more than just that to wow me, or say that my ridiculous suggestions leading up to the film’s release such as it being the defining film of the year and head and shoulders better than The Dark Knight are, in light of actually having seen the film, correct. There are inescapable comparisons to be made between DiCaprio’s character arcs in Shutter Island and Inception based on the shared mutability of reality and haunted past but it would be a grievous mistake to confuse the two. Shutter Island is the more emotionally arresting performance and what will likely garner him an Oscar nomination this year. However, Inception dares to embrace something beyond reality while Shutter Island was about the imposition of reality on fantasy and brain death as the only redemption. I prefer Inception not only because of the hope of redemption that it offers but it’s willingness to embrace the power of the human imagination and it’s ability to circumvent cyberpunk to deliver us back to notions of perception and reality that predate William Gibson and Philip K Dick.

I highly respect and count both of those authors as personal inspirations, but it’s about time that someone went back to the well to give us a different, more organic vision of non normative reality. Inception isn’t simply a film about imagination. It’s about the power and resiliency of the human mind and the spirit behind it. I’m sure it’s impossible, but I’m hoping against hope that Inception will surpass The Dark Knight‘s box office receipts, forever and completely vindicating Nolan’s status as a true visionary who stands tall with the likes of Stanley Kubrick, not just a competent caretaker who can drive a popular intellectual property. It’s the difference between inception and extraction.

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