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Warner Bros. // PG-13 // December 7, 2010
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 4, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Remember that frustrating, vague hint of a tagline, "Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime"? Well, Inception delivers on that.

Christopher Nolan's films habitually focus on an edgy concept, what some might call a "hook", and then flesh out that germ of an idea into a full-fledged narrative. Following, his debut picture, concentrates on someone who gets life-meaning pleasure out of stalking people, while Memento zeroes in on a "detective" with short-term memory loss trying to solve the case of his wife's murder -- while using his tattooed body like a permanent Post-It note. After years of scurrying around a Chicago-inspired Gotham City with his Batman universe, Nolan has earned both the prestige and studio confidence to do what he's done with his cerebral independent thrillers, only on a much grander scale. In steps Inception, an idea he's had shoved in the oven of his mind for nearly ten years. Again, Nolan concentrates on an involved idea; this time, he uses the expanses of our dream space and subconscious as a physically accessible, malleable location, one pliable enough to build Escher-like mazes or vaults for secrets. And he builds from there.

With cinematic skill in full-force, rooted in a script Nolan constructed like the dreams in his picture and a fine cast populating the reality-bending expanses, Inception has only one opponent: its own ambitiousness, also its core strength. The story around it focuses on a somewhat traditional heist setup, with mind-bandit Don Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island) as the organizer and all-powerful "extractor". Along with his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer), Cobb specializes in a specific type of thievery that involves a more literal form of stealing "intellectual property", meaning he breaks into others' dreams via a briefcase-sized computer and boosts information. But Cobb's harboring secrets; along with not being allowed to see his children back home, his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose) -- a mere projection of her from Cobb's psyche -- invades the dreams and complicates his jobs. So when energy tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) arranges a dangerous, high-profile job that'll allow Cobb to return home as payment, he's not able to decline -- even if it involves inception, or the taboo "planting" of an idea, instead of theft.

It could be argued that Inception's ideas have been cobbled together from a slate of influences, from the idle-mind manipulation in The Matrix to the dream-traipsing in Dreamscape, but the way Christopher Nolan uses them in a pragmatic space takes it all to a completely different level. The film's structure is both mechanical and deft as a result, much like Nolan's directorial talent, mirroring the heist movie framework with a science-fiction keel. That feels like a purposeful decision, since the rhythm essentially guides itself while technical downloading of information backdrops the momentum. If you've seen movies like Rififi and Heat, you know what's coming -- Cobb accepts the job, he and his crew will design an elaborate, absorbing heist studded with trepidation and character development, and then the heist itself will play out before our eyes. It's what they're set out to do, and the space in which they orchestrate their caper, that renders Inception into a compelling piece of work.

The clock's running against Christopher Nolan, allotting him two-and-a-half hours to assemble a cohesive, reasonable environment where dream intrusion and manipulation actually makes sense. He's got to formulate rules and boundaries, or the brainstorming he executes around the heist will be for naught without an anchor to latch onto. Alas, there aren't many other ways for Nolan to do this outside of explanation, the dialogue between characters -- especially among Cobb and protégé dream "architect", Ariadne (Ellen Page) -- sketching out this intricacy. This results in a copious amount of captivating yet seemingly endless detail-hammering that does a great deal of "telling", without much of a break. As a director, Nolan could've either extended the film into a massive, character-driven sci-fi marathon in the vein of Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris to break up the expounding, or stay concise, mechanical, and verbose while he sprints to the heist. He opts for the latter, and Inception's more accessible and brisker-paced because of it. Nolan sacrifices deeper emotional connection with his periphery characters though, leaving them as shallow chess pieces maneuvering around the board of Nolan's design.

However, it's unjust to deem Inception expressively cold or inert because of this, since it's such a concept-driven film that does, in fact, have an affective core -- in the form of Cobb's tormented psyche. Powered by a charisma-driven performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Cobb does turn into the sole emotional anchor in the film, using his distressed relationship with his wife and children as an emotional thrust. There are secrets to be discovered in Inception that revolve around this, ones that are peppered throughout the flow of technobabble and mounting anticipation, and it'd be unfair to reveal any of these. However, the process of him trying to hold onto encouraging memories of his wife and kids, as well as growing agitated when she invades his dream space, taps into a deeper meaning than it's likely going to receive credit for. Marion Cotillard stuns in this role, a scornful yet somehow affectionate shade of Cobb's wife.

When you see exactly how Inception snaps together into a reality-bending, brilliantly airtight union of dreams, physics, self-assuring totems, and the principles behind planting ideas, all encapsulated within an exhilarating heist, the sheer potency behind Nolan's orchestration will hit you like a sledgehammer. It transforms into a huge, gyrating puzzle that's both mentally-challenging and easy to follow, orchestrated with layer upon layer (upon layer) of the science-fiction design interconnecting before our eyes, ratcheting up the tension incrementally as more details cascade over the situation. More importantly, all the complexities within Nolan's construction feel sinuous and levelheaded, quite a feat for a film that exists in a place where buildings can fold atop each other like a map and skilled counterfeiters (Tom Hardy) can take on the visage of other people. This is modern science-fiction at its more skilled and spellbinding, one that blurs the reality-fantasy line in a way that's both believable and not to be believed. When a haphazard train destructively barrels through Cobb's dream world, you understand -- and feel -- why.

Inception concocts a robust aesthetic marriage between whimsy and metropolitan practicality that's ceiling-to-floor stunning, captured by cinematographer Wally Pfister's brisk, industrial eye and fueled by Hans Zimmer's momentum-driven score. Nolan and editor Lee Smith have grown extensively in the editing room since their first foray in the Batman series, allowing blistering car chases, trippy hand-to-hand upside-down brawls, and vigorous fire fights to linger -- though a few scenes, especially the grand snow-laden climax, still jerk around with reckless abandon. The music shifts right along with the momentum of the film, starting off similarly to Zimmer's work on The Dark Knight with some delicate, rhythmic notes and then ramping up into a "BRRAWWWMMM"-heavy fury of energy. Though Nolan's writing claims the lion's share of the responsibility for the polish, it wouldn't be possible without pitch-perfect visuals -- both photography and seamless CG -- and sound design powering it forward.

If anything, Christopher Nolan's skill in crafting mysteries has made him a master of the "red herring", that little detail -- or details -- that sends speculative puzzle-solvers in a tizzy trying to decipher a meaning to it all. Since the majority of Inception takes place in the space where dreams are built, it's safe to say that the setting's rife with possibilities. I've said it before about science-fiction works, and I'll say it again: the best of the genre works on two levels, one that's straightforward enough to digest on a surface level and another that puts out as much intellectual complexity as the viewer puts into it. The last, gasp-worthy moment in Inception does exactly that, causing its audience to question whatever answer they've arrived at when the credits roll. On its own, without the labyrinthine speculation, Christopher Nolan's film delivers an exhilarating science-fiction experience that manipulates our perception of our dreams; but with this added game-changer at the close, which lures the viewer into a web of uncertainty and beguiling guesswork, it transforms Inception into one of the year's best pictures.

The Blu-ray:

Inception arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers in a standard three-disc case, covered by a lenticular slipcover that reveals a row of buildings collapsing onto the cast. The film itself and the Extraction Mode feature can be found on Disc One, while Disc Two is dedicated strictly to special features. Disc Three, topped with the familiar maze-like artwork, contains the DVD/Digital Copy data. All the discs, however, come with WB's seemingly now-standard black-and-white disc artwork.

Video and Audio:

Inception's budget looms right around the $180 million mark, so it's expected for a newly-minted Blu-ray of Christopher Nolan's film to boast excellent audiovisual properties. It certainly delivers. Encapsulated in a 2.4:1 1080p VC-1 encode, every ounce of the stylish, urban-bound cinematography shot by Wally Pfistor looks ravishing in HD. The sharp lines of the buildings show nary a hint of aliasing, the cold blue-leaning palette displays clear gradation in both contrast and hue differential, and the preservation of movement -- vehicles zooming by, buildings folding onto one another, and random elements exploding during the cafe sequence -- all appear sharp and without a pixel out of place. Flesh tones are robust against the stony palette, though a few skin textures appear a bit smooth and lack the detail expected, while fine detail in location shots and some of the subtle costume work etch out splendid levels of detail. Naturally, it looks exquisite, just as I remembered it from the handful of theatrical screenings I attended.

But the big star here is the DTS HD Master Audio Track, and for one reason I'll mention quickly before fawning over its explosive power. At both of my previous screenings, which were done in a state-of-the-art digital projection theater, some of the vocal delivery wasn't as clear as it could've been. This has been greatly improved on WB's Blu-ray, as the crispness of every single voice remained incredibly clear. Since the front half of the film relies on explaining the intricacy of its framework, this is a very welcome and impressive boost. But, of course, there's a lot of other bombastic elements to discuss: the flush of water on a sea shore pushes against the lower-frequency channel with healthy bass tones and against the higher-level clarity with the trickling of water, while the shattering of glass and the pummeling pop of fruit and other elements around the cafe test both quadrants of the soundstage. Gun fire sounds crisp and throaty, the bass rumble of underwater elements comes across as controlled yet very aggressive, and a train crashing through cars blisters the sound stage with ferocity. This is a ridiculously active, demo-worthy aural presentation that can claim a few areas where it bests its theatrical presentation. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Extraction Mode (3:10:22 w/ film, 44:13 total supplemental material):
This feature, or set of features, can be accessed in two ways: the Extraction Mode can be selected to play along with the film in its entirety, or the pieces themselves can be individually accessed via the "Jump to the Action" option. I actually recommend to watch the pieces -- fourteen (14) of them altogether -- on their own, which totals nearly forty-five (45) minutes of material. When watched in Extraction Mode, the gaps in between the material is vast, so it's not very conducive as a "commentary"-type experience. The material, however, is excellent, and it reveals that a hell of a lot more core, real movie-making magic occurred during Inception's creation than I had anticipated. It covers how next-to-no computer effects were implemented during the hotel restaurant sequence, exactly what a runaway train was made of, and how Nolan and company achieved a rainy-day sequence in L.A. amid sunlight. It also shows how the rigs were assembled for the gravity-bending sequences, as well as how Wally Pfistor and Hans Zimmer contributed hands-on with Nolan's cinematic ideas. These pieces are extraordinary on their own. And, as an aside, how awesome would it be to have the job title "Professional Avalanche Maker"?

The chapter listings and runtimes for the supplements are as follows: The Inception of Inception (3:23), The Japanese Castle: The Dream is Collapsing (3:32), Disintegration of the Paris Cafe (3:09), Constructing Paradoxical Architecture (2:30), The Freight Train (3:04), Ambush in the City Streets (2:54), The Tilting Bar (2:17), The Rotating Corridor (5:01), The Mountain Fortress (3:03), Simulating Zero G (1:36), Limbo: The Design of Unconstructed Dream Space (1:36), The Fortress Explosion (2:07), The Music of Dreams (4:05), and The Dream-Share (3:43).

Disc 2:

Behind the Story (HD VC-1):
This section branches off into two drastically different fragments. The first is a documentary featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt that circles the power of dreams, entitled Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious (44:29). At first it covers the fabric of dreams, gathering together interviews with psychological scientists and dream experts, spiced together with some random blasts of trippy, peaceful free-form imagery, often featuring Gordon-Levitt. It also jerks over into interviews with DiCaprio and Nolan, while also incorporating footage of George Melies silents, variants on Waking Life-style illustrations, and other nifty ephemera. It's a compelling discussion about dreams, fairly laid back and earnest in its conversational tone. The second piece is an in-motion comic entitled Inception: The Cobol Job (14:33), an entertaining look at why Cobb's hunted by Cobol Engineering in the film.

Also included are the Project Somnacin: Confidential Files that's accessible only over BD-Live, the entirety of Inception's soundtrack in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio sound (not an isolated score, but track-by-track), which sounds phenomenal, two excellent galleries under the Extras tab -- a Conceptual Art Gallery and a Promotional Art Archive -- that access sketches and conceptualizations in static menus, and a series of three Trailers (1:03, 1:22, 2:24; HD VC-1) and a slew of TV Spots (11:28, VC-1).

Final Thoughts:

If you've done the math in this review, you'll pick up on the fact that I've seen Christopher Nolan's Inception three times now. And each time, it's left me exhilarated, mentally stimulated, and wanting more. The big-budget execution of its intricate concept -- which circles the idea of accessing and manipulating our dreams, memories, and psyches -- comes together in a thrilling reality-bending experience, one that's only hampered by a one-dimensional focus on its supporting characters and a necessity to quickly force-feed the rules the film must abide by. The only thing more gripping than the actual experience of watching Nolan's penmanship play out on-screen is the ambiguity that follows when the credits roll, which transforms everything you've seen into an intricate, wholly fascinating puzzle of a film. To say the least, it's far from the typical fare seen at the cinemas during bright-'n-sunny summer days, instead planting itself in the fray of 2010's best films.

Warner Brothers have offered the high-grossing, high-dollar Inception in a smashing audiovisual presentation that's packed with a healthy number of supplements to enhance the after-viewing experience -- including a slate of features in the Extraction Mode that aren't to be missed (even if the actual mode itself can be overlooked), and a clever documentary on dreams spearheaded by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Therefore, this three-disc package of an exciting, challenging science-fiction achievement earns DVDTalk's Collector Series marker.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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