When asked how to play, Watterson states, "It's pretty simple: you make up the rules as you go." Calvinball is a nomic or self-modifying game, a contest of wits and creativity rather than stamina or athletic skill....Inception, the new film by Christopher Nolan, is a two-and-a-half hour game of Calvinball. Remarkably high concept for a film (a summer film, no less), it requires the viewer to keep in mind a parade of rules, right up to its final moments. It's a demanding film, though never impenetrable. But given its running time, and its dizzying action-heavy heist movie format, this film about dreams becomes soporific.
Visually, Inception is arresting, in the vein of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, where reality is malleable, and metaphysics is thrown out the window. In one striking sequence, a city bends perpendicularly, becoming an M.C. Escher lithograph. If you're unfamiliar with The Matrix, Synecdoche, New York, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, these surrealistic visual tropes may thrill. But at this point, seeing a locomotive rush down a city street, or a skyscraper crumble like the edge of a glacier, seems more clichéd than visually daring.
The twisty mobius strip plot of Inception is all about its clever construction, but like a mobius strip, its center is empty. It's also nearly impossible to describe in fewer than five paragraphs. The (very) short of it: humans have discovered a new method of espionage, to enter a person's dreams with the purpose of stealing secrets. That's easy enough. But it's also possible, albeit highly dangerous, to implant an idea into person's mind during sleep. This act, called inception, is our characters' goal. Have I mentioned Inception involves one or two rules?
I almost hated Inception, yet it lingers on. Nolan's execution of his frustrating material is elegant, especially in the film's latter half. The performances are mostly excellent (Ellen Page, I love you), with the sole exception of Leonardo DiCaprio, whose furrowed brow should have gotten top billing, beside its host. Speaking of DiCaprio, Inception invites comparisons to Shutter Island, a less sophisticated high concept film that has an equally ambiguous denouement. And like Nolan's own Memento, most of the fun here is in reuniting the puzzle pieces.
Maddening, yet oddly satisfying, Inception requires at least one viewing. If only to give you a reason to debate it, or if you're like me, to kind of hate it.