Most will want to see this for its riveting action and uncanny special effects and they likely won’t be disappointed. And many will be impressed by the score, courtesy of Hans Zimmer, led by the single tone of a throbbing horn that imbues menace and simulates the urgent, ominous ticking of a clock. Most impressive to these eyes was its editing. I didn’t find the various setpieces as riveting as, say, The Matrix, but Nolan has finally gone back to the days of Memento when he was splicing and fusing film stock in masturbatory glee, achieving a thrilling pace through scene interposition alone. Here, he giddily sets events in motion, spinning yarns of oneiric fancy on top of ostensibly real heist tropes, leaving action frozen, slowing it to a snail’s pace, walking it underneath the immediate demands of an action plot like gears interlocked, but of differing size, attuned to unequal oscillations. As a result, Inception is a rare screen epic that aims to thrill for two-plus hours and agitate for weeks to follow. It can be frustratingly ponderous and uncinematic, but for once a film requires more of its audience than bringing their eyes, ears and social baggage into the theater. One may become lost in its labyrinthine artifice, or in its sheer spectacle, but perhaps that’s the point. The film itself warns us early and often to pay attention.
Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is an architect in shared dreamspace for hire, working for various corporations to tap in to the subconscious of competitors to uncover their secrets. He is approached by a man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offering him return to his family in America (he’s a fugitive) in exchange for the impossible: Cobb is to assemble a team of specialists to perform inception, a hitherto impossible feat that involves planting an idea in someone’s mind rather than extracting it. With his point-man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who turns in a very steely performance), apprentice dream-builder Ariadne (Ellen Page), forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), Cobb sets about orchestrating an incredibly complex, matryoshka doll dreamscape comprised of three levels (or two dreams within dreams), in order to incept Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to an electrical power monopoly and Saito’s competitor, with an idea so contrived that Fischer cannot trace its genesis. The setting is contemporary, though the dream machine is the stuff of science-fiction; the most oft repeated image is that of Cobb and his squad reclined in chairs, doped on the machine with tubes dangling from their arms like junkies. The crux of the physical action occurs in these dream states, but we also learn something of Cobb’s dark past.
Already Inception has inspired judicious debate1 and perhaps this fact speaks to the power of a film structured as a constellation of referents, with multiple layers, each open to analysis and interpretation and sophistry. Amazing that a film like this was financed in the first place; for a directorial talent of Nolan’s caliber to be afforded such freedom working within the studio system is rare indeed. Clearly Warner Brothers appreciated the golden egg he laid in the form of The Dark Knight. Say what you will about Chris Nolan. He’s no Bergman or Fellini—in fact, such comparisons are moot for Nolan isn’t neatly comparable nor indebted to those visionaries per se—and his films are not without their flaws, but still he possesses the ability to realize cinematic worlds like no other with consistency (stillborn as they may look compared to their written source). It says something about the miserable state of affairs in Hollywood that a film like this must be lauded on the face of it simply for being original. Amidst the endless adaptations, remakes and sequels populating our cinemas Inception is deserving of praise for being Nolan’s personal vision alone.
A great deal of critical grief has been aimed at the film’s verbose second act, during which Nolan attempts to explain to the audience the rules of the game. At the very least this is the right kind of exposition—mechanics that are key to the film’s structure—and not literal pablum for simple minds who need to have motivation and pathos spelled out. It may be easy to feel insulted by Ariadne’s simplistic analogies to Dom’s descriptions of dream architecture, but it’s easier still to ignore them. While its verbiage may be disorienting, and certainly flawed, much of it is absolutely necessary to our understanding. Imagine the kind of delusional debates that would rage had Nolan not tried so hard to make us understand the import of ‘kicks’ and ‘sedatives’ and ‘totems’ and the impact of time logistics in different levels of the dream. In a film that is predicated on exploring, reconfiguring and reifying the dynamics of space-time, a logician’s approach to its elements is warranted.
Nolan does, however, take the easy way out when it comes to his characters. There are some genuine cinematic moments for Cillian Murphy to take advantage of: the great revelation to his character in the final act is already known and expected by the audience, and yet Nolan cements it unexpectedly with visible tears, a photograph and a childhood memento. Not only that, but Fischer Jr.‘s labored discovery is layered with the irony that he willed it himself. However, other characters with far greater screen time are given less flesh. Dom, our ostensible hero, is granted pathos through dream flashbacks that may or may not have happened as he remembers them. And, as others have pointed out, Nolan is sophomoric when it comes to rendering male-female relationships. The only saving grace for him here is that this is an action movie with an elegant structure, one that Nolan clearly does not wish to compromise with lyrical asides, even if they might bring an audience closer to his characters.
To give Nolan a little more credit, the relationships here are expectedly canny, but something about the vagueness of love and pain, the brittleness of Cobb’s psyche which is held intact only by regret and fleeting memory, almost works here where it normally doesn’t. It’s a focus on the basics, on the shades of former feeling—it may not be terribly insightful, but it brims with feeling like an open wound. Dom Cobb one-ups Odysseus by tarrying in dream limbo for at least half a century, though with his loving wife for much of the subconscious sojourn. Nolan’s script repeatedly emphasizes the skewed sense of time one experiences while levels-deep in a dream, so the idea of someone living and aging a lifetime in their own minds, only to awake in a youthful body full of heartache is startling, yet beyond fathoming.
Part of the Latin root of ‘inception’ implies taking or seizing as from the air and Nolan demonstrates his understanding. His protagonists are attempting to make someone believe that a planted idea is self-conceived. This rather cynically says something about our culture’s assumptions of autonomy. Most seem convinced of their own autonomy without ever realizing that it is an abstraction that developed in their formative years and came to fruition among the dualities that family, religion and society both nurture and hold sacrosanct. As Jim Jarmusch once remarked, “authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” Nolan’s conception is Platonic, and his protagonists are unintentional agents of the air, linguistic angels. We feel compelled to wonder, “who are the architects of their insights?”
Fans of Nolan’s Memento will see many similarities with it, most notably the nascent narrative idea of inception which forms the crux of Lenny’s resolutions in that film. Lenny tricks himself into believing his wife is dead and, more importantly, that his friend is responsible; he leaves clues for himself that his psychosis will eventually resolve, and resolve again, seemingly ad infinitum. His inability to make new memories is Nolan’s generative idea, it’s the conceit that makes the script work and makes Lenny’s self-deception possible. Inception has perhaps too many conceits, and it similarly dwells on the ephemeral dimensions of dream and recollection. Dom Cobb is tortured by the feebleness of his memory. We can’t be sure whether he killed his wife or whether she killed herself to leave the dream and to what extent Cobb’s guilt clouds both interpretations.
Cobb explains to Ariadne that one must never design a dream from whole cloth (a rule he later breaks). I suspect this comment, coupled with widespread confusion over the dynamics of dreaming, has resulted in a lot of viewers assuming that the entire film takes place within a dream (and not of the metaphoric variety insinuated above). This is where Nolan has smartly broken with tradition; instead of depicting dreams as a series of discreet psychedelia, he has them reflect or refract the properties of the physical world. This clarity in both the dreams and non-dreams has many viewers thinking the whole thing is a dream. But really dreams are clear to us during the dream, and not simply the lucid ones. It’s our recollections that are hazy and punctured.
While this was reportedly a 10 year undertaking for Nolan and it seems as if every nuance was carefully crafted, a common fallacy is to presume that every aspect of your favorite film is intentional. What may ordinarily be called plot holes or bad editing can easily be incorporated into some auteurist theory or other; the it’s all a dream theory, while it resolves many inconsistencies, creates plenty of problems not neatly resolvable. And remember, what’s proposed is a shared dreamspace, designed and directed by dream architects. Dream specialists may consider Nolan’s suggestions of dream landscapes either inchoate or too logical, but they are accounted for by what is, lest we forget, a science-fiction story. This science-fiction is Dickian; it reminds one of “Ubik”, which similarly features faceless corporations vying for mastery over dreamspace by hiring psychic mercenaries to protect their secrets and uncover the other guy’s.
Nolan is an established winker. To cover his tracks he has the characters consciously and unconsciously breaking their own rules, particularly Cobb, just as he does. And he frames his film to match his characters’ frames of reference. The four (and maybe more) levels of the central dream reflect the infinity of folds that are already occurring between the audience, the projected film and its filmmaker. He makes us participants in real and multiple ways, particularly with the (apparently much-misunderstood) final shot. Without spelling it out, let’s just say it has to do with totems. Totems, as Nolan has confined their definition, tell the dreamer when he is in someone else’s dream, and hence in danger. Nolan wraps his film by hinting that the line between reality and projection is not simply confined to the theater. Memento ends similarly with Lenny closing his eyes and remarking: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind… that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there.” Here as elsewhere Nolan takes us beyond the Allegory of the Cave… by folding it.
I suspect critics will still have trouble digesting this one for a few years. And internet fanboys will masticate on it too much. Even as I write this I feel some massive insight is eluding me. Someone somewhere will survey this on home video and possibly find revelation. There are so many intertexts occurring here, especially literary, and simply so much to say about it that even the most thorough report will have to be glossed considerably. Some advice: ignore the theories, don’t think too hard about the film’s super-structure and enjoy getting lost in someone else’s mind for a few hours.
1 Read Roger Ebert’s article, The Myth of a Perfect Film here.