Jared Pahl’s review published on Letterboxd:
Few phenomena are more fascinating than dreams. The untamed subconscious liberated from societal barriers, images of distorted reality filtered through personal fears and hopes, dreams are rich with cinematic and storytelling potential. And yet very few movies have been able to actualize their power on film. By their nature, dreams, their images and feeling, are nearly impossible to replicate in a place outside our own minds. Some geniuses have done it. Fritz Lang did it with Metropolis. Stanley Kubrick did it with Eyes Wide Shut. Alex Proyas did it with Dark City. David Lynch did it with Blue Velvet. None of those films are consciously about dreams, and yet they give, through mood and twisted imagination, the impression of experiencing a dream. Enter Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a movie 100% about dreams, that is woefully inept at imagining them. Nolan takes the nebulous psycho-analytical concept of dreams in his usual literal way, presenting a vision of the untamed subconscious as boring as an international action movie.
The hook of Inception is too juicy to ignore. A group of mind thieves, led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, infiltrate the subconscious of a C.E.O in order to implant an idea, in an act of corporate espionage. The story is original and high-concept, two welcome adjectives for a big-budget blockbuster. A journey into dreams structured like a heist movie. It’s cool. Sadly, the fabulous premise of Inception is almost completely wasted in what amounts to an unflavored Bourne-style diversion.
A filmmaker with imagination could have a field day with the skeleton of Nolan’s screenplay. More to the point actually, Nolan’s screenplay needs a filmmaker with imagination. Christopher Nolan, for all his stellar skills as a director of giant, prestigious, filmic blockbusters, is hopelessly devoid of imagination. To promise us an entirely new cinematic world, only to end up showing the same boring cityscapes, offices and ski resorts we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of times over, is unjustifiably lazy. Whatever “dream-like” sequences Nolan tosses out are so frivolous they might as well be ignored, because they do nothing to further the impression of experiencing a dream. So there’s a train going through a city. If this is as crazy as your dreams get, I pity you. With respect, the image of the folding city carries with it some power (Hans Zimmer’s “Bwwwaaah!” must get some of the credit for this) and the hotel sequence remains a clever and well-done special effects moment. But they are outliers in what is ostensibly a collection of grey shootouts. And I’m sorry if the gun nuts come for me, but scenes of two groups shooting machine guns at each other from behind cover are such boring ways to visualize action. Movement and surprise are the pillars of great action. A static shootout has neither. Take a risk for Christ’s sake. Do something new.
There is a clinical precision to everything in Inception. The movie is clenched tight, completely driven by plot and storytelling efficiency. There is not a second dedicated to artistic freedom. It is rigid, don’t-break-the-rules conformity to realism. Not even in a dream, where literally anything imaginable can happen, does Nolan allow himself to go a little nuts. To show us an image that might be taken as, I don’t know, weird. No, everything in Inception must be buttoned-up, dignified. No setting can be too extravagant. No performance can be too nutty. It’s bad enough that Nolan turned a place called Gotham City into a glass and concrete eyesore with the visual flair of a corporate stock photo, but to turn the infinite realm of the mindscape into the same turgid grey void is borderline unacceptable. Nolan has gotten better as an artist since The Dark Knight and Inception. And I won’t pretend that the films that made him a superstar are without their qualities (The Dark Knight is very good, I should mention). The left side of Christopher Nolan’s brain is like an F1 engine. He is a powerhouse when it comes to the mastery of intricacies in storytelling, the managing of time, science, and plot. The right side, however, is underdeveloped to an extreme for a man of his talent. Inception is the movie where that creative part is missed most. The opportunity for transcendence was too clear for us to have been saddled with an end product so generic. Inception is safe enough to not upset the legions of film bros who worship it, but that safety comes at the expense of a vision that could actually be considered "bold".