In his heavily commercial, post- Memento stages, Christopher Nolan has proven a better con artist than filmmaker, seducing the American moviegoing populous with grand schemes while not rewarding it with much of anything emotionally, intellectually or aesthetically worthwhile. Sure, Nolan’s elaborate ruses – of which his latest Inception has to be considered at the head of the ranks – are complicated and thrilling enough, and they’re certainly capable of occupying a restless mind for about two hours, but I’ve yet to discover anything too distinguishable about them, no thematic continuity that would suggest he’s a filmmaker with something to say. The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight were all big, self-contained movies in bold that otherwise suffered from one or two fundamental flaws, and were always so filled with ideas that they threatened to collapse. Inception, for me, did collapse. And it did so relatively early. Despite the heap of critical praise that has so far been lobbed at it (sensational tag words like “visionary”, “groundbreaking”, and, worst of all, “Kubrickian” have been particularly common), the film I saw was a dull, daunting, emotionless flop.
Nolan has always been an enormously exacting, matter-of-fact director, one for whom rationality and a concrete sense of internal logic always supersedes any indications of the fantastic, the surreal, or the unpredictable. He goes at his films with tweezers, painstakingly arranging the ingredients, making sure not to nudge anything even slightly out of place. And yet he has now repeatedly gravitated towards extravagant, exotic material: magicians, sleazy criminal underworlds and costumed vigilantes (a subject previously given the Tim Burton treatment, Burton being a director who couldn’t have any less in common with Nolan), and now dreams, the most perplexing ability humans possess. There’s nothing inherently wrong about Nolan’s dichotomous approach – formal realism in the face of far-fetched, speculative fiction – and evidence can be found in Batman Begins, Nolan’s moodiest, most consistently effective work in this recent crop of films, but the elusive, complex nature of dreams has Nolan floundering in the dark, approaching their mysterious beauty the only way he knows how: with cold, analytical rule-making.
Dreams are not governed by the linearity and logic (both spatial and temporal) that Nolan applies to them here. They are just separate battle zones, new layers of reality onto which Nolan can stage ever craftier, more bombastic fight scenes. Thus, the possibility of exploring dream states as they pertain to actual human experience is squandered, while Nolan replaces erotic impulses, perpetually unstable landscapes and the wonderful superhuman powers one can obtain in the recesses of their own mind with a near replica of what already exists in the film’s ostensible “reality”. But alas, Nolan might be saying, after all (though it certainly wouldn’t be a particularly radical move), that this ontological disorientation is precisely the point. These questions, I’m afraid, are drowned out by the film’s primarily muscular, action-packed presentation.
The labyrinthine film world (as opposed to plot, for what it has of this is surprisingly straightforward) of Inception is so gratuitously multi-layered that it requires a hefty chunk of the film for dense expository dialogue alone. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) involves himself in a highly specialized, illegal performance called extraction, which entails the literal invasion of dreams to pluck out useful information from others. It’s a dangerously powerful act, capable of providing access to the subconscious states of important authority figures or of going horribly wrong if used for the wrong reasons. Of course, in a role not unlike his turn earlier this year in the much superior Shutter Island, DiCaprio’s Dom does use it for very personal reasons (after all, this is DiCaprio); he’s actually compartmentalizing his own memories of his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and visiting these subconscious physical spaces from time to time, which is visualized in the most blatant manner possible – an elevator that descends to different mental “rooms” and eventually reaches the basement, where the darkest, most repressed memory lies. Several long scenes of dialogue between Dom and his newly acquired dreamscape architect, the bright grad student Ariadne (Ellen Page), belabor the backstory of this quietly tortured soul, a man who experimented with extracting on his wife until she lost utter grip on reality, finding herself meandering in a limbo state of raw, unfiltered subconscious, which, in Inception, is something akin to death. Now Dom is exiled from his children, facing a murder accusation from Mal’s parents, and desperately wishing to reunite himself with some semblance of family. There’s also a good chance it doesn’t matter to him on what level of reality this occurs.
Less comparable to dream logic than it is to virtual reality, these so-called “levels” – reality, the initial dream, the dream within a dream, and the dream within a dream within a dream (yes, this film goes that far) – have a peculiar lack of progressive disorientation, with the only notable effect being the exponential inflation of dream time. This allows the dream team to smoothly traverse from one level to the next uninhibited by the increasing disorder and free-associations one might expect, as if they’re just playing a video game, completing one mission and moving on to the next. The idea of “pure creation” raised by Ariadne would have made an interesting bedfellow to this particular angle had Nolan slanted the movie purposefully in the direction of virtuality, an ever more relevant issue. But Nolan doesn’t seem to realize the relationship, or at least doesn’t show any evidence onscreen, so it comes across as a stale way of using the multivalent phenomena of dreaming for strictly convoluted narrative purposes. In a separate 101 session on the film’s skewed universe, Dom’s sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains this extraction network to Ariadne (Page is getting quite the education at this point), and he does it so thoroughly and without any gaps that once Nolan reaches the climactic invasion, or “heist” as it really is in conventional terms, he can focus solely on the spectacle, letting the residual lessons learned from Arthur earlier stand in for the gaping lack of intellect in the second half of the film.
The central heist involves a corporate oil tycoon, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy, whose significant acting talents are more or less put to waste), the lone heir to his superior father’s legacy, which Dom’s crew, or more precisely, their American employer, is wary will expand into an omnipotent monopoly. A prized safe appears to be the extractor’s incentive, and it is a man from a competing corporation, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who insists they plant the idea into Fischer’s subconscious that he destroy his own empire. A couple of experienced extractors – Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) – join their team and bring their own respective merits: Eames is a skilled impersonator, and can literally morph his corporeality in the dreams, and Yusuf knows of a mighty sedative that can put Fischer into a sleep deep enough to allow for multiple dream levels. Unlike in his past films, Nolan creates no defined villain here, with Fischer turning up as a rather naive and modest businessman with a daddy complex. Instead, the enemies prove to be strictly of the subconscious, defense mechanisms established by Fischer that materialize as well-dressed gunmen, or the recurring personal projections of his family and malicious wife that threaten to squander Dom’s missions.
The emotionality that drives this complex operation is insubstantial and, frankly, pretty cruel. Any rewards the team receives after their inevitable success are at the expense of ruining one man’s personal and professional life, pounding into his head that his father never loved him and was disappointed that he tried to repeat his own path. When this emotional epiphany does come in a deathbed scene whose quiet pathos is entirely extinguished by the fact that Nolan is at the same time weaving an intricate climax around it and intercutting between several chest-pumping action sequences, it falls flat, reiterating how loosely tethered it was to the thematic sweep of the film in the first place. As much as the bittersweet romantic tale of Dom competes for the human spotlight of Inception, Nolan does not supply it with the conviction, passion, or darn screen time it deserves. What we do learn of Dom’s marriage is fleeting and flashback-ridden, which is partly suited to emphasize his regret and inability to capture the past, but nonetheless does little to assign any weight to the few scenes when the two connect in abysmal dreamspace, with Mal attempting to coax him into what she perceives as a reality and he staunchly, but dramatically, refusing.
So in place of all of the hugely absent emotion, Nolan inserts headache-inducing spectacle, as well as the most laughably prolonged slow-motion I’ve ever seen on this side of Brian De Palma. But the most troublesome thing about it is that I didn’t even find Inception particularly enjoyable on a visceral level. Its fight scenes, to compare them to another mind-bending film with which it shares a great deal, pale in comparison to those of The Matrix. They are overblown, absurd (one has the crew doing a ski chase in the arctic that recalls On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and clumsily machinated, a frenetic burst of close-ups that wrongly equates immersing the audience in the action with disorienting bravado. For what it’s worth, I enthusiastically looked forward to Inception, and I certainly can’t fault Nolan on the grounds of ambition. Only a film this sprawling and ambitious could fail this big. It’s mechanical, dispassionate and hopelessly unenlightening, and in the end, it just does a little with a hell of a lot.