In 1975, Steven Spielberg terrorized movie-goers with a giant man-eating shark haunting the waters off the coast of Amityville. Jaws became the first true blockbuster film, and set the stage for generations of high-action, adrenaline pumping fare that have dominated the box office from that day to this. An unexpected consequence of Spielberg’s fish tale success was the delineation of films into the blockbuster category and the “serious drama” category.
Serious drama, art house films, Oscar bait, whatever you choose to call them, remained relatively low budget as blockbuster production prices soared into astronomic territory. A cursory glance over the all-time top grossing films finds that blockbusters dominate, with a few “serious” films sprinkled here and there. What is largely missing is the “serious” action film. A few extraordinary attempts, such as the superb Children of Men, blended the two genres beautifully, but failed to capture audience numbers.
Then came Christopher Nolan. From his early films, like the marvelously mind-warping Memento, to his reboot of the Batman franchise in 2005, Nolan set himself apart as a daring auteur who loved to mix sharp, intelligent, thought-provoking drama with hair raising action. In 2008, he utterly rewrote the book with the box office sensation The Dark Knight. The Batman sequel smashed all preconceived notions of what a comic book film should look like, eschewing the over wrought production values that had gone before for gritty realism. Nolan’s script, and the unforgettable performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker, turned a cartoonish heavy into a frightening psychopath. To date, The Dark Knight stands as the seventh highest grossing movie of all time. Not only is it the most successful comic book inspired movie of all time, but also the most beloved by the critics.
The release of Inception cemented Nolan’s position as the most daring and creative action writer and director in Hollywood. In every capacity, Inception delivers. Drawing from the mind-bending structure of Memento, Nolan fearlessly introduces a complex, interwoven, and, in the final moment, inexplicable story.
The movie deals in the worlds of dreams. In an effort to not spoil the topsy-turvy narrative, I will keep the synopsis brief. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of highly skilled, if shady, characters that use the dreams of the unconscious against them. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Cobb’s partner in crime. Eames (Tom Hardy) is the forger. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is the chemist. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the architect, and Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) is the mark.
Inception is a maze running on numerous levels at one time. From the off, the film leaves the viewer pondering “is this real?” A question that remains from beginning to end. The brilliance of the movie is that regardless of how you answer that core question, the plot still works beautifully. All of the performances are superb, and DiCaprio is compelling as the haunted, driven Cobb. After 125 years of motion pictures, it isn’t often that we see something utterly original. The central show piece of this film is a conflict playing out in (at minimum) four different realities. Simultaneously.
In the hands of a lesser writer or director, this entire film would have been an indecipherable mess. Yet, even as I watched, waiting for the first misstep that would lead to the disintegration of the whole thing, it never came. Instead, every frame amps up the tension and the action. The special effects are among the finest put on film and used solely to advance the story. The heavy, unsettling score by Hans Zimmer, despite the occasional basso blast, blends so seamlessly and perfectly into the visuals, it almost becomes another member of the cast.
This is a beautiful film. Many directors would focus solely on trying to effectively convey the byzantine plot to devote much time to the aesthetics of each frame. Nolan and his production team lavish on gorgeous sets, lighting, and tiny details that are surely missed in the first viewing. And make no mistake. You will want to see this many times.
Now that the film has received eight Academy Award nominations and a recent Blu-Ray DVD release, this jewel of the summer is back in the spotlight, and deservedly so. Unfortunately, The Social Network and The King’s Speech are the heavy favorites for best picture. However, The Dark Knight and now Inception have been nominated for eight Academy Awards each in their respective years. For action blockbusters, and their writer/director, those are no small achievements.