It occurs, in the wake of this movie and the reaction to it, that Christopher Nolan is likely the biggest director on the planet right now. His films, be they personal projects (scale excluded) like this one or franchise builders such as his Batman outings, seem to unite mass film audiences and critics alike in praise. Although he’s never really united the mass media cinema market and the more esoteric “art” world his films have always boasted a level of intelligence and careful craft that suggests he someday might. In that sense Inception is undoubtedly another strong link in the growing chain of his career.
It’s perhaps disappointing then that, with intricate plotting developed with Nolan’s customary flair, Inception can’t help but highlight that the man’s films, as works of art, haven’t moved on the slightest bit since he made his first major mark with Memento or perhaps even before that with the dark and brooding Following. As he adds to his repertoire it’s hard not to look fondly back on the rough edges of his debut films and wish he had made more out of them. Instead the master craftsman has simply honed his techniques to perfection in making entirely closed worlds into which viewers can escape for a short while. That’s perhaps not a complaint so much as an observation. Even if Inception can only boast escape it at least fulfills that promise quite fully.
Outlining the plot, in any detail beyond the most formative, would be a fool’s game. The film quite simply is the plot and its various revelations, turns and conclusions basically represent the sum total of its worth. We are brought into a world that seems to be the present day. The only real difference is that here there exists a cutting edge form of theft termed ‘extraction.’ This process refers to delving into people’s dreams, tricking their subconscious and stealing their deepest held secrets. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), is known as the best in the ‘extraction’ field. Alongside his righthand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he reckons he can break into anyone’s mind, even those trained specifically to fight against it. So it comes as a true test when Saito (Ken Watanabe) asks him to attempt the very opposite, the act of ‘inception;’ of planting rather than removing an idea. The target is a young businessman by the name of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who stands to inherit a vast business empire upon the imminent demise of his father (Pete Postletwaithe, in a small role). The idea they must implant is that Fischer break up his father’s empire rather than simply take over control and the prize for Cobb is a ticket back to the U.S. and to his two young children; a place he is currently exiled from because he is suspected of murder.
Knowing they’ll need the very best for what many regard as an impossible task, Cobb and Arthur acquire the services of Ariadne (Ellen Page), a dream architect, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a specialist in sedatives for extended dreaming and the inscrutable Eames (Tom Hardy), a seeming master of dream navigation and subterfuge. The problem in all this, aside from the sheer difficulty of the implanting process, is that Cobb’s subconscious is dogged by memories of his own which unbalance the dream world he must occupy. These memories concern his late wife, Mal (Marion Coltillard), whose death he has been charged with causing, the crime that prevents his return to his family in the USA. So the film develops along two primary routes, the process of implanting an idea in one man’s subconscious and the attempt by Cobb to resolve his feelings towards his wife, who lives and breathes in his dreams.
Dealing with the film’s strengths, there’s little doubt that this is an involving and entertaining ride. It has its problems, even within its own structure, but all in all it’s certainly more satisfying than many other recent Hollywood features. Although it suffers at times due to extended bouts of exposition, primarily as Cobb discusses dream architecture with the prodigious but inexperienced Ariadne, once Nolan dispenses all the necessary information to follow his text we are allowed to embark on a rollicking good action ride. To that end we effectively have a film that provides an unlikely bridging point across the vast span between The Matrix and Tarkovsky’s Solyaris. It’s arguable how fully effective this film is on either count.
It certainly lacks the majesty of Tarkovsky’s film but it perhaps also lacks, because of the tightness and specificity of its narrative, the pleasant universality of the Wachowskis’ film. In the end it’s probably more akin to The Matrix than anything else. After the somewhat slow middle section, a rather heavy course of exposition, the film settles into a series of action scenarios as the group invade and manipulate the dreams of their subject. That being the case it has to be said that the action dynamics on display here represent a new high for Nolan as a director. Admittedly, for action aficionados, that’s not saying a whole lot seeing as his previous ventures into the genre, primarily the two Batman films, were marked by epileptic editing, evasive visuals and a generally piecemeal structure. Here Nolan allows things to breath more freely with the speed of edits being reduced and the amount of information per shot greater than ever before. The result is a more natural, convincing and enjoyable sense of kineticism as we move from car chases to fist fights to the final storming of a wintry mountain fortress, a sequence that could easily be slotted into a James Bond film. These are mostly very serviceable with one sequence, Gordon-Levitt battling an adversary in a tumbling world, standing out as a genuinely impressive mixture of idea and craft.
As is central to the film’s success, the actors all play their parts with a fairly convincing sway. DiCaprio takes centre stage and admittedly it’s still a little hard to warm to him. Partial blame surely has to go to his role, just earlier this year, in Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which again pitted him against marital ghosts. Taking its cues from the sumptuous melodramas of Powell and Pressburger, Scorsese’s film seemed somewhat better adapted to really succeed on that front although perhaps neither film here represents a shining example of the form. Beyond that it may simply be the problem that his acting always seems predicated on gesticulation and dialogue rather than more nuanced, naturalistic methods. A small complaint to be sure and perhaps an all too individual one as well.
Meanwhile Cotillard has never looked more fetching since she first caught international eyes in the Taxi series. Unfortunately the space she has to work with is extremely limited and, the narrative being so stifling with its exactitude and structure, it’s hard to take her role too seriously. This becomes increasingly troublesome as we recognise the entire thing may well all be a dream anyway, a structural conceit that heavily undercuts any dramatic impetus held elsewhere. The supporting cast all hold up well too with Cillian Murphy managing a lot with very little and Joseph Gordon-Levitt widening his range further and suggesting he really could, and probably should, go all the way in Hollywood. Ellen Page keeps things on track with the somewhat basic role of Ariadne. Overcoming the slightly pompous connotations of her character’s name (the tale of the labyrinth from ancient Greek lore) she serves primarily as a sounding board for the plot’s intricacies and also a foil for extracting DiCaprio’s inner demons. In the role of Eames, Tom Hardy, if this film is anything to go by, could easily end up as the next James Bond.
On the production side, the special effects, which are casually employed throughout large sections of the film, although perhaps not as many as we might initially expect in a film largely set within a dream, also succeed; at least according to Nolan’s preferences. They may be open to the complaint of banality but they hang together satisfactorily and never seem so ostentatious as to distract. Hans Zimmer’s menacing score hits the mark more fully. Its tone and cadence fit the atmosphere of the film well even if sometimes, thanks to the different planes of time navigated within the film and the often almost interminable ‘cliff-hanger’ moments they allow, it comes across as overbearing. Moving away from Zimmer’s original score, the choice of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ as a key song in the film was apparently made way back when Nolan first started developing the script and thus it is simply a coincidence that it relates to Edith Piaf, a role Coltillard played in 2007’s La vie en rose. Of course that’s easy to believe, the song stands as a very natural choice within the context of the film. It makes perfect sense that it would be there. And that, perhaps, speaks to the film’s primary drawback. It all makes great sense. Probably more than could ever be advisable given the premise.
The open ending speaks to a director very much in love with the intellect of his own creation and either unsure or simply indifferent to any genuine human concerns. The intricacy and craft of everything effectively wounds the dramatic interplay between Cobb and his wife. Of course the most obvious interpretation of events suggests that Nolan is implying that cinema, or perhaps reality as a whole, is one grand dream. Unfortunately such a ‘revelation’ seems without merit or interest within the context of such a tightly wound film. As the screen fades to black so too do the characters of Cobb, Mal, Arthur and all the others. In Nolan’s case, as he apparently worked on this script for some eight years, perhaps the characters do live on and the ending seems portentous. For the rest of us the obvious construction behind every element of the piece leaves no real reason to investigate the ending any further. Cinema as a dream, the story as all dream or all reality—it just never seems important. What fundamentally holds Nolan’s film back from achieving genuine impact, unlike a similarly themed film such as Solyaris, is the concreteness of his fantasy.
One of the most potent strengths in Tarkovsky’s film was that, even with its budget and production limitations, the slowly unfolding camera movements held an almost unbearable weight of potentiality. Although Tarkovsky was wise enough to never even bother to cash in with a horrible revelation as the lens slowly unrolled the scene in the spaceship it always held, because of that grand nature of dreaming, the possibility of either attacking or sating us with each delicate pan or tilt. The same could be said for Stalker too, a film in which nothing was ever treated as it seemed and we could never know if that was folly or great wisdom. In contrast, Nolan’s Inception can’t help but fall into a very safe sense of literalism as it constructs its dream-space. Even with all the discussion of architects and obvious references to optical illusionists such as M.C. Escher, or perhaps specifically because of all that, there’s never any sense of the unknown. Instead, thanks chiefly to the copious stretches of exposition, we simply see an artist revelling in his own craft. The rules, loopholes and logic are so explicitly laid out and developed that it all seems rather glib and laboured—essentially everything that dreams should not be.
Which leaves us back where we began. As an action film, an escape or indeed even a dream away from reality, Nolan’s film is surely a hit. Once you pick up on his designs and intentions it’s easy to slip into place and enjoy the journey. As anything more than that we run into some major problems. These don’t undercut the film but rather limit its overall reach. It hasn’t the vision of Tarkovsky’s work nor does the relationship between Cobb and his wife possess the vibrant, almost infectious, air of physicality and irrepressible earthly romance that propels something like Shinya Tsukamoto’s gorgeous Vital. If it had managed the latter then we might have been in the presence of a masterpiece. However, Nolan’s film divides its focus and generally plays things very safe.
The themes often feel compromised by the setting, a problem that also impinged on The Dark Knight; its outlandish cartoon characters working within, well, present-day Chicago. It’s not a real problem, unless you’re hellbent on witnessing a revelation. Such a mindset probably won’t help you even if the film truly is a marvel. It’ll be interesting to see where Nolan goes from here. This may have been his best work had The Prestige, for all its problems, not already better twinned an examination of Nolan’s own constructions into the very story of the film. It hardly matters much either way. In the kingdom of Hollywood Inception surely only screws Nolan’s crown on all the more tightly.