Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
It took me a while, but I finally realized what Christopher Nolan’s Inception is all about. Simply put, it’s about how it got to be itself. Or, to be less gnomic, Nolan has undertaken to advertise his own moviemaking skills in a two-and-a-half-hour compendium of every popular film that has ever influenced him—beginning, it seems, with Buster Keaton’s 1924 comic investigation into the nature of film itself, Sherlock Jr. What’s more, he had Warner Bros. foot the bill at $160 million. Nolan’s audacity is riveting; unfortunately, his film is not. It is a series of dazzling cinematic demonstrations that never add up to a compelling whole. Keaton did a better job of integrating effects and story at the merest fraction of the cost and with nary a computer generated image in sight.
Nolan’s title signals what’s wrong. In British usage, as the London-bred Nolan doubtlessly knows, inception means earning a university degree, particularly the doctorate. Watching Nolan’s film is more than a little like witnessing an apt pupil take his oral exam in cinematics. The professors pose questions, and he aces one after another with recourse to his most recent project.
“What, in your opinion, Mr. Nolan, defines film noir?”
“Well in my latest work, I essayed noir with this scene of a dank, ochre-walled hotel room littered with wounded bodies à la David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.”
“If you would, give us your idea of a suitable climax to an action adventure.”
“My answer is this sequence featuring a snowbound mountaintop redoubt guarded by skiers equipped with rattling AK-47s. Its locus classicus is in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
“What about the musical, Mr. Nolan?”
“I’ve got Edith Piaf on the soundtrack singing ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ with a reprise of Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room in Royal Wedding. Pretty nifty, no?”
“What of sci-fi out-of-body exploits?”
“Well, I went to The Matrix, of course, but I took its visuals further. I’ve got six characters caught up in a three-tiered collective dream outfitted with an elevator that occasionally descends into the protagonist’s guilt-ridden subconscious.”
“And what of surrealism?”
“I went right to Luis Buñuel’s ambiguous indoor/outdoor setting from Un Chien Andalou, of course, but I wanted something showier. So I had this Parisian neighborhood yaw up until one avenue turns perpendicular to another one. I then had my actors walk to the vertical seam, where they continue on their way defying gravity as they stroll effortlessly onto the upended pavement. Crazy, huh?”
In Inception, Nolan has bits of film noir jostle with peppy musicals. Hitchcock bumps into Vincente Minnelli; Billy Wilder shakes hands with James Bond. Even Mission Impossible puts in a face-changing appearance. Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige was about magical illusions that confounded his protagonist and, perversely enough, his audience. Similarly, his 2000 breakthrough film, Memento, was interested more in mystifying its audience than in enlightening them. It’s not entirely a surprise, then, that with Inception Nolan isn’t telling a story so much as flourishing his magical gifts. It’s as though he’s not content with the unprecedented commercial success of his Batman films. He is serving notice of his intent to become imperial wizard of commercial filmmaking, the ultimate arbiter of our dreams. And he’s well on his way. He is already making a new Batman movie, with a new Superman installment to follow in 2012, and he has announced he would like to make a James Bond film.
The story line of Inception parallels Nolan’s designs on his audiences, both the general public and his industry’s decisionmakers. He seems compelled to prove he can do it all. This is both this film’s glory and its nemesis.
The plot concerns idea thieves led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who earn their keep by breaking into the dreams of high-level executives and extracting secrets their competitors are willing to buy at extravagant fees. (If only Richard Nixon had had such a service! Had his plumbers plumbed the minds of the DNC members instead of their hotel rooms, Watergate would never have happened, Jimmy Carter would have stayed on his peanut farm, and we’d all be better off.)
The film opens with Cobb discovering he has been detected by his latest mark, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese energy mogul. In reality, Saito is auditioning Cobb’s team. He has a mission of his own in mind. This clever fellow doesn’t want to extract information; he wants to plant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of his major rival, the dying Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite). (Why would Robert be junior to Maurice? Another mystification?) Saito wants the son to come to the conclusion that it would be best to break up his father’s corporation rather than running it as a global monopoly that would crush all rivals, including Saito’s firm, and threaten the world with . . . what? We never learn, nor do we learn what energy sources are at stake. It’s all a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.
Cobb agrees to the mission and establishes a team to carry it out, including a prize architectural student, the elfin Ellen Page in the role of Ariadne, who, curiously, never seems to spin much thread. Cobb needs her to design convincing buildings and interiors for the dreamscapes he will be using. In no time at all, they manage to enter Fischer’s dreaming mind by means of drugs and what seems to be communal blood tubing—Nolan never bothers to explain how this might work—during a ten-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, a rather airy contrivance. Dream time, of course, ticks by much more slowly than what clocks measure in the waking world, so the dream team has more than enough time to plant Saito’s idea. But there are hitches. First, as Cobb foresees, Fischer’s subconscious detects the presence of his team as the body would an infection and begins sending out the mental equivalent of white blood cells to attack the intruders. These white-cell equivalents look oddly like the standard-issue thugs who populate standard-issue action films, and they chase Cobb’s team in gear-grinding vehicles, firing endless rounds of ammunition at them. There’s also hand-to-hand combat, for those who appreciate action in softer decibels. Not to worry, though. It seems bullets and knives cannot harm you during a dream, although they do hurt as much as when you’re awake. Who knew?
To keep things interesting, Cobb decides he must take Fischer from one subconscious level to another by means of smuggling him into dreams within dreams. Soon Nolan is juggling three—no, four—parallel narratives. Well, maybe five if you count actual reality, if it’s not also a dream. Each narrative proceeds at its own pace, either contracting or expanding time. In a bravura display of montage, Nolan coordinates them so that they weirdly echo one another. Thus, at one just-so phase of the first-level dream, Cobb’s agents sleep in a van that hangs perilously from a bridge, twisting and jerking over a river far below. Accordingly, in the next level, Arthur is in a hotel corridor that, despite its apparent stability, is actually gyrating in sync with the van, forcing him to recreate Astaire’s aforementioned stunt, walking up its walls and across its ceiling.
All of this elaborately orchestrated interplay of epistemological levels is carried off with the cold, self-satisfied calculation you would expect to witness in a magician mystifying his awed audience. This, I suspect, is why some have complained of the film’s chilly intellectualism, but there is yet another element, and it’s quite emotional. Cobb has hidden something from his cohorts. His dreams are haunted by his wife, Mal, who, in Cobb’s imagination, is determined to disrupt his professional life. It seems she’s quite peeved with him. A few years before, they had used Cobb’s professional instruments to create a controlled dream idyll. Under its oneiric spell, they had constructed a private world for themselves founded upon their perfect love for each another. In their dreaming minds, this sojourn had lasted what seemed to be 50 years and became more real to Mal than what had been her waking life.
Cobb knew better. Determined to come back to the world of time and its responsibilities, he prevailed upon Mal to resume their waking lives. For Mal, however, reality had become a dreary illusion, sparking her continuing efforts to force Cobb to return with her to their former romantic felicity.
So, amid its thunderous explosions, aerial fistfights, and throbbing car chases, Nolan’s film takes time to meditate on the most traditional of literary themes, the one that turns up famously and repeatedly in Shakespeare’s sonnets and in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” to name but two instances: the longing for permanence in the midst of change and decay. Like Keats’ urn that heralds the perfection of romantic pursuit by freezing it in its painting of youths pursuing one another—“For ever panting, and for ever young; / All breathing human passion far above”—Mal wants nothing less than to use the offices of art to rescue the dream of mortal love from the inevitable ravages of time. Her wish centers on a perennial temptation. Art’s ability to render the fleeting permanent is, as Keats testified, sublime. Yet, while art can prolong passion’s moment indefinitely, it does so only at the cost of ignoring reality. Mal seems not to have weighed this cost. Cobb did and found it prohibitive. Their different conclusions about the nature of art and life brought on their tragedy.
This is Nolan’s one concession to the poignancy of life as we experience it in the so-called real world. But it’s presented in such a fleeting, muffled manner that I suspect it will barely register with most viewers. Given the film’s preoccupation with displaying its maker’s varied talents, you can’t help wondering if he included this strand as a throwaway to demonstrate that he could, if need be, make a film about tragic romance.
Nolan is a gifted filmmaker, but if he is to make a great film he will have to put his gifts in the service of a genuine passion. Meanwhile, we will have to settle for his entertainments. They’re among the best available on our screens.