Early on in the summer blockbuster Inception the main character, Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is looking to hire a dream “architect” and he gives Ariadne (Ellen Page) a test: Can she create, in less than 60 seconds, a two-dimensional maze which takes more than 60 seconds to solve? I feel this scene perfectly captures the spirit of the screenplay which Christopher Nolan has supposedly been working on since he was 16 years old. The film is basically a thriller, an action film, albiet one with a few more plot twists than spoon-fed modern audiences are used to. What makes it special is that, for most viewers (including myself) sorting out all the twists and turns of the plot takes a little longer than the 148 minutes it takes to watch the film. It is a film that keeps you thinking after you leave the theater, but not for much longer than that. By the time you’ve finished your after-movie dinner all the pieces have fallen into place and you can forget the film much as you would forget any summer blockbuster.
I don’t say this to dismiss the film, which I would gladly watch again in sheer admiration for the story-making craft exhibited by the writer-director, but because I think it explains the confusion critics have faced in trying to determine where the film stands in the pantheon. AO Scott tries to be cute by splitting the difference: saying the film “was totally overrated. Unless it was a masterpiece.” (AO Scott always seems more concerned about having the “right” opinion on a film than actually trying to say anything interesting about the film.) The problem is that this film doesn’t aim for greatness – it just aims to be good enough to keep you glued to your seat for 148 minutes, and maybe a little more than that.
Just for succeeding at its self-assigned task, the film deserves to be called a masterpiece — especially when compared to similar films in the genre: Shutter Island, Fight Club, Dark City, the Matrix, etc. Most of these films let you out of the maze a little too early, and then bore you with some overwrought final dialog (The Matrix), or end with a boring, but predictable feat of heroism (The Matrix), or both (The Matrix). Inception could arguably be accused of all these things as well, but you probably won’t notice till after your 148 minutes are up.