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I was really enjoy­ing Inception until I woke up. Actually, that’s not true. Unlike my com­pan­ion, the Sandman didn’t come to res­cue me from Christopher Nolan’s bom­bast­ic block­buster and I had to sit through all two and a half hours of it, won­der­ing what all the fuss was about.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cor­por­ate spy who spe­cial­ises in enter­ing people’s dreams and dis­cov­er­ing their secrets. This is evid­ently a com­plex tech­no­logy that requires one dream­er to design the loc­a­tion (it has to be fake because not know­ing wheth­er you are awake or dream­ing car­ries massive risks to one’s san­ity), one dream­er to lead the sub­ject, the sub­ject them­selves and (some­times) a for­ger who can take on the shapes and char­ac­ter­ist­ics of oth­er people.

There’s a lot of fight­ing in these dreams as the subject’s sub­con­scious sees the inva­sion and tries to fight it off like white blood cells. But, you know when in your own dreams you try and hit someone and they end up being really weak marsh­mal­low punches? That’s how the anti­bod­ies shoot so it takes quite a lot of bul­lets before one will actu­ally hit you. And when one hits you and you die, in the real world you wake up so it’s really like a video game with mul­tiple lives.

Where things get com­plic­ated for DiCaprio’s crew (and for us, the audi­ence) is when they cre­ate dreams with­in dreams to fur­ther bam­boozle the sub­ject and his defences. The risk is that you nev­er know wheth­er you are in the real world or not, except that I always know when I’m dream­ing as I usu­ally have no trousers on.

DiCaprio has anoth­er prob­lem. His own sub­con­scious is haunted by his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) who jumped out a hotel room win­dow pre­cisely because she couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. So, in a small way, then, Inception is like a pre­quel to Scorsese’s Shutter Island and it allows DiCaprio to pro­duce much the same per­form­ance, com­posed mostly of sweat­ing and frowning.

Japanese tycoon Ken Watanabe offers DiCaprio a deal – if he can plant an idea in anoth­er man’s head as opposed to tak­ing one out, he can go home to the chil­dren he aban­doned when he was accused of killing his wife. Inception, as they call it, is hard and requires a com­pletely unstable third level of dream-within-a-dream.

There are some cool moments in the film but it nev­er tran­scends them. The storytelling is so unsat­is­fy­ing and the char­ac­ter­isa­tion so non-existent that I can’t recom­mend Inception to any­one who actu­ally knows and likes good films. If you were to remove the huge digit­al “because-we-can” set-pieces and the long scenes of poorly writ­ten expos­i­tion, in which Nolan tries to explain to us all what the hell is going on, you don’t really have much left and he remains a com­pletely inco­her­ent dir­ect­or of action.

There are six people in DiCaprio’s under­cov­er team and I would defy any­one to actu­ally describe them in any­thing oth­er purely phys­ic­al terms. I can’t. They are not char­ac­ters – they are video game avatars. Only the great young English act­or Tom Hardy, who ate up the screen in Bronson earli­er this year, makes an impres­sion and even he can’t be described as any­thing oth­er than ‘smart-arse’. Who is Ariadne the archi­tect (Ellen Page)? Why is she in Paris? What is she study­ing with Michael Caine? Why is she dressed like a lead­er of the Australian Labor Party when she’s only 21 years old?

Rushed into cinemas only sev­en months after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo broke box office records, The Girl Who Played with Fire will sat­is­fy all fans of the ori­gin­al and will prob­ably win over doubters like me, too. I had some prob­lems with the gra­tu­it­ous nas­ti­ness of the ori­gin­al but that has been toned down a bit and what we have left is a per­fectly accept­able mys­tery thrill­er with some effect­ive dir­ec­tion from Daniel Alfredson, who wasn’t respons­ible for the first film but will be for the next – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – which has already been made and is due here on Boxing Day.

After the pre­vi­ous film Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) did her OE on the plen­ti­ful pro­ceeds of her hack­ing but now she’s back in Stockholm just in time for someone to want her dead. Not just dead, in fact, but dead and bur­ied along with her sor­did fam­ily past. Investigative report­er Nyqvist (Michael Blomqvist in this film and due to be played by Daniel Craig in the impend­ing Hollywood remake) is two steps behind try­ing, and fail­ing, to keep Salander out of trouble.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 July, 2010. And, in a blatant attempt to pick up some of that Inception traffic I’ve jumped it up the queue of reviews to be posted.

One Comment

  • Robyn says:

    You know, Inception actu­ally reminded me of a video game, and I mean that in a good way. It felt like a puzzle that was mov­ing through dif­fer­ent levels to achieve, but then I was replay­ing Monkey Island 2 at the time I watched it. 

    But as for the char­ac­ters feel­ing a bit vague and not prop­erly explained, per­haps that’s anoth­er sign that the top level of exper­i­ence is actu­ally someone’s dream…