Chris Nolan's Inception (2.5/4 stars)
Christopher Nolan's career was built on his mind-bending thriller Memento, a film that was a near-perfect blend of atmosphere, pacing, character evolution and time-twisting. His latest film, Inception hearkens back to many of the same elements. In this reality, dreams are a place that can be controlled by the dreamer, and others can come into the dream and interact with it as if it was the real world.
Nolan's cast includes Academy Award winners Leo diCaprio (as the lead character Cobb) and Ken Watanabe, and Academy Award nominee Ellen Page. Sadly, the film's structure and the ensemble nature of the roles end up diluting any character work that the three heavyweights attempt. (You can tell they were trying tho.) The film's focus is on keeping the audience aboard the barreling freight train that is the second half of the film.
The second half of the film involves layering four different timeframes/realities on top of each other, trying to give all the characters some gravitas while advancing the increasingly complex plot events. The weak link in the storytelling is a key subplot involving Cobb and his wife. The subplot is the cog that explains the whole Inception mechanism that's driving the film, but it's also the squeaky gear that's throwing the pacing off-tangent. The lulls that allow for Cobb's explanatory dialogue with Page's disingenuously-named character Ariadne downshift the movie at inopportune times. Ironically, Ariadne's role in Cobb's team is that of an "architect" which is the namesake of the character that brought The Matrix Reloaded to a screeching, soul-crushingly laughable halt.
This approach is far more audience-friendly than Memento's figure-it-out-yourself philosophy. That's not necessarily bad since your average filmgoer will probably be hard-pressed to explain exactly what's going on despite the decision to maintain a mostly-linear progression to the movie's events. People might be more likely to appreciate the effects, which are mostly comparable to the old Matrix mainstays (shattering cities and slow-mo low-gravity melee combat). I suppose that Nolan wanted it to be more Dark Knight than Memento, but I would argue that this did the film a disservice from an artistic standpoint while trying to give it more commercial oomph.
To those who are raving about the ending: get a grip. It's not really relevant whether the bronze top focus stopped spinning or not.
Bottom Line: Inception isn't Nolan's best work, and it wastes DiCaprio, Watanabe and Page. However it's still an intelligent film that is diminished by decisions to make it more commercial appeal. That doesn't make it bad, and it's still well worth the time to go see.