Does Inception stand up to a second viewing?

Is Christopher Nolan’s Inception a film best enjoyed once, or does a repeat viewing reveal its flaws? Ryan heads back to the cinema to find out…

There are spoilers ahead if you’ve not seen Inception yet!

Irrespective of age, style or genre, most films fall neatly into one of three categories. There are films that are exciting, moving or devastating once, but you’d never feel inclined to watch again – admirable yet grim cinema such as Gaspar Noé’s thoroughly depressing Irreversible belong in this section, as do some twist-ending movies, such as Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game.

Then there are the films that, once watched, you wished you could erase from your viewing history – pretty much all the Police Academy movies, for example, or any of Eddie Murphy’s most recent output.

In the final and least crowded category reside the films you’d happily watch repeatedly – the sort of movies that reward each viewing by disclosing little details you’d never noticed before. While this category is a particularly subjective one, we’d suggest It’s A Wonderful Life, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Big Lebowski as examples of films with such charisma and endlessly quotable dialogue that they continue to entertain even after multiple viewings.

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Which brings me to Inception, a film that has had more written about it than any other blockbuster this summer. Having watched it just over two weeks ago, and awarded it four stars in our Den Of Geek review, the subject of how Inception would stand up to repeated viewings has become a common topic of conversation.

Having witnessed Christopher Nolan’s conjuring trick once, and fallen down through the layers of reality with his characters already, could the film retain its power to entertain? Seen a second time, would all the rapturous reviews and contextual theories prove to be so much hot air?

Viewed again – on a smaller screen, in a provincial cinema with a tinny sound system, I should point out – the movie’s flaws are, if anything, more strongly in evidence. The opening hour, in which Nolan quite necessarily lays out the rules of his dream worlds, feels even longer than it did the first time.

Then there are Inception’s shoot-outs, where antagonists fire round after round at Leonardo DiCaprio’s team of dream burglars without causing a single fatality. This A-Team-like ineptitude with firearms is most pronounced in a lengthy gun battle on a bridge, where an apparently bullet proof van is hit multiple times without striking the slumbering occupants within.

Later, there’s a seemingly interminable action sequence in the snowy wastes of Calgary, which incorporates plenty of skiing, tripwires, shootings and explosions to surprisingly little visceral effect. Seen a second time, one almost wishes that Nolan had edited the sequence down, allowing DiCaprio’s Cobb and his partners in crime to gain access to the concrete fortress of Fischer’s subconscious a few minutes earlier.

It’s possible, in theory, to pick away at the scruffy threads around Nolan’s work for hours, of course – and Inception’s the kind of film that will have people posting goofs, errors and perceived plot holes on IMDB for years to come – but even on a repeat viewing, the positive aspects of the movie more than outweigh the negatives.

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Freed from studying every character’s (often mumbled) utterance for clues as to just what’s going on, you’re able to appreciate Inception’s stunning visuals with greater appreciation. Cinematographer Walter Pfister’s use of colour, evident from the first frame, as an exhausted DiCaprio emerges from the foam of a raging tide, plays a subtle yet vital part in telling Nolan’s story.

Background details, which I’d foolishly missed the first time around, suddenly take centre stage. There’s a brief sequence where Cobb and Mal, alone on their beach in limbo, quietly knock down sandcastles, while in the background vast buildings collapse with each sweep of their hands. It’s a scene as stunning as any of Inception’s louder, more bombastic moments.

The jarring, perfectly realised scene where a freight train ploughs through the middle of a city, meanwhile, is given greater significance once understood in the context of the grim secret Cobb reveals at the film’s climax.

There are also tiny morsels of information regarding Inception’s dream infiltration technology that I’d missed the first time. While Nolan shows little interest in providing a scientific rationale for how his machine works, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Arthur mentions that the device was conceived by the military as a kind of virtual reality training simulator – a simple yet neat piece of background detail.

Watched just once, it’s also easy to overlook the uniformly excellent quality of Inception’s supporting cast. Tom Hardy deserves particular praise as the roguish, protean Eames, and provides an otherwise gravely serious film a rare sparkle of humour.

In terms sheer talent, however, Inception undoubtedly belongs to Marion Cotillard, whose role requires a huge emotional range to work – she’s by turns a femme fatale, a delusional depressive and a rage-filled woman scorned, and without her remarkable ability to express all these aspects and still remain vulnerable and sympathetic, the movie would surely have collapsed.

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Hans Zimmer’s commanding, distinctive score is another cornerstone of Inception’s success, building from the subtly mysterious to a deafening crescendo that, even in a smaller cinema, underlines Nolan’s moments of drama with shiver-inducing power, and it’s only while hearing Zimmer’s themes again that I realised just how memorable his compositions really are.

Having seen Inception a second time, I can safely say it deserves every one of the four stars we gave it just over two weeks ago. The movie’s uneven pace is admittedly more glaring upon a repeat viewing, but then again it’s fascinating to go back through its narrative to see all the little things that passed by unnoticed initially.

It’s also an opportunity to look for little clues that may correspond with Inception’s spinning top denouement – is the oddly disquieting moment where DiCaprio gets physically stuck between two walls in Mombassa meant to have a wider significance? And just why was Mal sitting on the window ledge of an entirely different building when she was contemplating suicide? These and other questions constantly arise, and Inception is sure to be the subject of numerous theories and drunken discussions for some time to come.

And while not every member of the audience appeared to be as rapt in the experience as I was – some responded to Inception with confused murmurs, repeated trips to the popcorn counter, or constant fidgeting – for this writer, returning to Christopher Nolan’s sinister, multi-layered dream world was no less entertaining, absorbing or downright dizzying the second time around.