‘Inception’: As eye-catching, and as profound, as an Usher concert

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Scene from Inception. (Warner Bros.)
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Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was the film of the shock decade, a summation, in style and content, of an age of techno-savvy, criminal conspiracies and terror. His follow-up, Inception, could be the film of this as-yet untitled decade. If Dark Knight was about criminals and lawmen trading hats, Inception is about a post-law world, where master thieves and mercenaries go about their business without much hassle from the authorities.

In fact, the only real authorities here are billionaires. A Japanese tycoon (Ken Watanabe) brags that one phone call to his contacts in the U.S. can grant a fugitive the right to return to his children without fear of prosecution. In order to expedite a caper that relies upon procuring an airplane, the same bigwig buys an entire airline instead, just to be safe.

Keep in mind, the crooks, and the corporate overlords who hire them, are the "good" guys here. Wait, you're probably saying, I heard Inception is about dreams and reality colliding. What's all this about crooks? Yes, Nolan set out to make a film grappling with the layers and countours of our dreams, via a Dickian sci-fi plot in which a machine jacks people into the subconscious of VIPs to conduct corporate espionage.

But, as detailed as his dreamscapes are here, Nolan is more enamored of vehicles, architecture, tailored suits, $100 haircuts, marbled surfaces and automatic weapons than he is with the stuff dreams are really made of. As critic Jordan Hoffman elegantly points out,"...no boobs? We're inside six guys's subconscious for a long period of time and no one, ever, gets naked?"

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Maybe it's the woozy Hans Zimmer Wall of Sound in Nolan's movies that makes it hard to see that this guy was never a sensualist, just a smooth operator. Nolan's a shrewd showroom capitalist, not a seducer. His best films (Following, Memento, The Prestige) are clever card tricks. His worst (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) strive to be something more, epic statements about the uneasy heads that wear the crowns in big city law enforcement.

In those Batman movies, Nolan got ambitious in the style of the graphic novelists who pushed comic book flicks to be pretentious in the first place, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Trouble is, like Miller, his manner of adapting comic book style to the moving picture has been to not really adapt it at all. Characters talk out everything they're thinking or feeling, in flatly composed close-ups cut together with the patience of an arcade-button masher.

After so much punishing exposition, the action sequences come as a relief, not a crescendo. Batman turned Nolan the nimble trickster into a lumbering bully. As with The Dark Knight, Inception works from interesting material that a director with a real sense of the characters as something other than props, mouthpieces and totems could have made sing. Stuffing the film with visual references from all over his filmography and cinema history, Nolan is after his own 8 1/2.

Instead, he's made his Trapped in the Closet. Like R. Kelly's R&B video opera, it is a monumentally awkward labor of love that ventures so far into its creator's fixations for so long that we can't help but admire the dogged commitment after a while.

I was grinning my face off by the time the film started cross-cutting endlessly between various dream plunderers on their missions, at different levels of one man's subconscious. The dreamer apparently filters all his stray thoughts through James Bond, Bourne and Jason Statham movies: faceless henchmen on jet skis, hotel hallway brawls (albeit in zero-gravity), a mountainside stronghold, a gargantuan vault. And the dense dialogue becomes incomprehensible even to one of the protagonists: "Wait, whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?"

I take this as Nolan's mischievous taunt in response to those who found The Dark Knight just as impenetrable, like Michael Jackson following up the already-mystifying "Dangerous" with the defiantly self-absorbed "HIStory."

The closest thing to real enjoyment in Inception is in watching Nolan serenely turn his back to his critics and play with his Rubik's Cube.

Of the legion of acclaimed actors in the movie, wraith-like Cillian Murphy gets the best direction. He plays an obnoxious heir to a multinational that Leonardo DiCaprio's team of idea thieves hope to implant with an idea. He is an overgrown trust-fund kid who turns out to have been tormented and starved for affection from his recently deceased father (Pete Postelthwaite). When he confronts his dad in the climactic crosscutting dream sequence, he's astonished to learn that... Well, that would be a spoiler, so I'll hold off. But let's just say that you'll be astonished, not at the plot twist, but at the fact that it emerges, my God, VISUALLY, through a simple insert shot and a beautiful closeup of Murphy's humbled, haunted face streaming real tears.

Poor Leonardo DiCaprio gets only one good moment like that, at the end of the movie. Otherwise, he's stuck announcing his predicaments while emoting—actions that cancel each other out.

His character, Dom Cobb, is a dream-world designer and hacker who lost his touch after his wife died. He uses the dream machine to visit memories of her the way other grieving husbands might hit the bottle. It's a horrible thing, losing someone so close to you. The person who cleaned up your vomit and cradled your feeble head when when you were sick; whose soul you could feel mingling with yours in the moment you conceived your first child; with whom you've weathered the hell of fights, breakups and misunderstandings on the way to downright miraculous reconciliations; who knows your shame, your fear; who took so many shared experiences to the grave with them, a part of you, gone forever.

So when Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect hired to assist Cobb, starts nosing around in his dreams, she's clearly unnerved at what she might come across. No need. Cobb's memories of his lost love and shattered family are the kind of stock images you find in a brand new wallet: pretty wife strolling a sunny beach; adorable kids frolicking in a backyard, hair backlit with a Miller Time glow. Even the "traumatic" stuff is familiar from daytime soap opera cliffhangers. If you want some idea of how timid and businesslike Inception is in its human concerns (while very bold as a feat of engineering), see a film I suspect was on Nolan's list of homages here, Satoshi Kon's Paprika.

That anime also involves a dream machine project run amok. But Kon, a true sensualist and surrealist, isn't afraid to imagine that people's minds contain something more than just chaste, greeting-card love, movie violence and conceptual chatter. Paprika is bursting at the seams with Japan's barely repressed pathologies, in the form of an insecure scientist who runs his hand under the elastic skin of the woman he can never seduce, then pops her like a balloon; or a parade of salarymen whose heads morph into cameras to take upskirt pictures of high school girls; or a giant naked toddler who feasts on a towering, soot-black demon—the avatar of a tyrannical patriarch character—until she grows into a bodacious giantess the size of Godzilla.

In Paprika, Kon confronts his tormented society with visual poetry, not just a remix of tropes and set pieces. He goes deep, where Inception just talks of depth and darkness but, as a screen experience, sticks with glib pyrotechnics fit for a Superbowl commercial or an Usher concert. Like I said, film of the decade.