It's okay. Easily the best movie of the summer, though from what I've seen so far that's not saying much. Easily the best thing Nolan's ever done to date, though from what I've seen of his Batman movies that's not saying much either.
Plotline bears remarkable similarity to Scorsese's Shutter Island--both overwrought, both strain mightily, both hinge on Leonardo DiCaprio piercing the elaborate veil of illusion to come to terms with a private tragedy. Plotline also borrows heavily from Philip K. Dick's remarkable Ubik--down to an elaborate case of industrial espionage involving telepaths and anti-telepaths (Nolan calls them 'extractors') and of unsettling shifts in reality. Nolan borrows the device of using a commonplace object--in Ubik a coin, in Nolan's movie a spinning top--to suggest a meta-twist on top of all the other twists.
Nolan's reached a personal best here. Unlike in the Batman movies, his action sequences are actually coherent or at least semi-coherent (he still has trouble with car chases); perhaps the best bit involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing both Spiderman and Neo on the walls and ceilings of a hotel hallway--that showed some wit. I actually prefer this over The Matrix--the latter was almost all clunky CGI effects, while Nolan's puzzlebox picture features clean slow-motion footage and on-camera stunts that actually look dangerous.
That's about as far as this goes: it looks dangerous. Nolan's constructed a hundred and fifty minute house of cards built entirely on the premise of dreaming; for all that there's little in the picture that has the authentic feel and well solidity of real dreams. Vans may skitter off bridges and elevators drop down shafts and snowbound strongholds go up in flames, but one's sense of reality is never really threatened, not the way Dick constantly threatens to pull the rug out from under you.
In Ubik a gritty reality is convincingly presented, a fast-moving plot introduced to whip things along. Unsettling details show up--milk curdles quickly, devices regress to their equivalent in 1939 (technological devolution, you might say), and the face of one business associate suddenly starts appearing in coins and on television. It's a nightmarish situation and the explanation provided at the end of the book offers little comfort--if anything, only adds to the sense of paranoia and despair.
Paradoxically one needs utter realism to sell the fantastic, and Nolan betrays his hand early when he folds a city like a taco, then has the veteran extractor (DiCaprio) explain how things work to a neophyte dream architect (a slight and pretty Ellen Page). Dick doesn't work like that; he drops you straight into the situation to sink or swim as best you can, maybe tosses in the occasional Dickian quip as a flimsy lifebuoy.
The movie might have sold its ungainly package if it had style. Nolan manages a handful of striking moments (DiCaprio and Page stepping up a wall a la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding; DiCaprio recovering his luggage from the airport carrel looking around realizing that every other face is familiar) but compared to Scorsese he's strictly a rookie at surreal imagery (DiCaprio hugging his wife who crumbles into pile of hot coals; a mental patient pantomiming drinking from a water glass; a father carrying his children to a lakeside, the man moving backwards, the footage projected forwards) barely able to establish sense of menace (see DiCaprio's portentous arrival at Shutter's island dock).
But even Scorsese's intriguingly overdone little thriller pales in comparison to a truly Dickian work, David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Think Ubik crossed with Behind the Green Door--not easy to find examples of science-fiction pornography. Cronenberg's masterpiece is one transgressive image after another (a man kisses a pair of lips on a TV set, his face sinking into the screen; a vagina-like opening appears in the same man's abdomen, into which he inserts a videocassette--funny how, of the two primal subconscious drives (violence sex) Nolan's dream imagery contain so much of one so very little of the other). Compared to Scorsese, Cronenberg, Dick, Nolan's picture, which heavyweight critic Roger Ebert calls "wholly original, cut from whole cloth" starts to look threadbare, not to mention secondhand.
There's been criticism of the criticism that the film's too linear, too bound by logic. "Of course, it's literal, it's meant to be. Those are constructed worlds with rules to them that the heroes are meant to circumvent. Thrillers in general are films where the hero bends or breaks the rules to his peril--that's the very source of the thrill" Good point, though I'd mention Michel Gondry and Charles Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a perfectly valid thriller that doesn't rely on linear logic, and that Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.--easily the most beautiful comedy ever shot--is not only a first-rate thriller with little linear logic but funny to boot.
I think Eduardo Dayao of Piling Piling Pelikula nails it when he labels Nolan's latest a heist film. I'd consider it an excellent heist film that attempts an extra twist. Problem with Nolan I suppose is that he doesn't do twists well--his mind's too linear (even his breakthrough hit Memento goes backwards in a more or less straightforward fashion). At most, Inception manages a half-twist that lifts it above, say, Steven Soderbergh's Ocean movies, though Soderbergh is again much funnier.
Even redefining the picture as a heist flick--Jules Dassin's too great an artist in my opinion to simply do straight genre. His Rififi is the defining heist film with the crime committed in real time, using almost no dialogue. I submit that when things start to go wrong--when destiny (for which the crew's intricate plan makes few provisions) start to unravel the crew members' respective lives, Dassin for no apparent reason (a reaction maybe to all the grim realism that came before?) throws in a final drive from the countryside back to Paris that feels very much like a dream, more free floatingly nightmarish than anything in Nolan's movie.