Fans of the hit TV show Lost often complained that, while they loved the plot’s myriad twists and turns, they sometimes feared that the producers were making it up as they went along.
That is certainly not the case with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, one of the most elaborately diagramed films I have ever seen. M.C. Escher himself could not have created a more precise piece of work.
Ten years ago, Nolan made a film that I absolutely adored called Memento. Like Inception, that film—about a man with no short term memory trying to solve the riddle of his wife’s death—challenges the audience’s assumptions and has us questioning our own take on reality. But Memento was quick and dirty—a calling card of sorts, a young upstart showing the establishment how it could be done.
Inception works on a much larger scale—Nolan, after all, is a huge director now (he went on to make the two Christian Bale Batman films)—but I’m not sure it’s to the film’s benefit. For all of its genius, Inception left me a little bit cold.
Here’s the premise: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an underground dream thief. He has the technology to penetrate your subconscious and extract all your deep dark secrets. But Dom has secrets of his own, including why he’s on the run from the law and what happened between him and his wife (Marion Cotillard).
Dom is tracked down by a powerful corporate executive named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to go beyond his “extraction” work and do something called “inception”—that is, to actually plant an idea in the victim’s subconscious mind. Specifically, he wants Dom to penetrate the mind of a young man (Cillian Murphy) who just inherited his father’s multinational company and convince him to break it up and sell it.
According to the film’s mythology, this is no easy task: The very nature of dreams is that they always start in the middle, but an idea has a germ, a genesis. To plant that inception, you’d have to go deep into the victim’s subconscious: Not just a dream, not even just a dream within a dream, but a dream within a dream within a dream. And the deeper you go into someone’s subconscious, the more dangerous it is that you’ll lose your grip on what is real and what is imaginary.
On its most basic level, Inception is a heist film, which means that Dom has to assemble a team: There’s his elegant right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a cocky master of subconscious disguise named Eames (Tom Hardy); and a chemist (Dileep Rao), who is necessary to sedate the victims (and thieves) and awaken them from their slumber. Finally, he recruits young neophyte Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architecture student whom he teaches to create the landscape of the subconscious. She serves as our entree into Dom’s world.
Considering that the film is about dreams, it’s not very. . .dreamy. I kept wondering what a more sensual filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai would’ve done with the material. (Or, for that matter, David Lynch. Now that would’ve been one freaky movie.)
Instead, Inception has a Matrix-like precision and coolness. The dreams are complex, but they’re mostly linear. Yes, buildings spontaneously crumble and staircases go nowhere, but there is nothing even resembling surrealism in this film.
Ironically, Nolan isn’t really interested in dreams, at least not in the Freudian sense. As with Memento, he’s interested in perception versus reality. Inception is sort of the film version of that dorm room puzzle: “What if I’m the only one who exists and everyone else is a projection of my imagination?”
DiCaprio, as usual, is great as Dom, but on the heels of his (equally great) work in Shutter Island, I think he needs to put the kibosh on playing dogged men who are haunted by images of their children and wives. Maybe a comedy next?
Speaking of comedy, Inception could use some. I remember that Memento’s thrilling audacity was also quite witty. ButInception has a near solemnity. (One of its best jokes is the use of Edith Piaf on the film’s soundtrack—of course, Cotillard won an Oscar for portraying Piaf in La Vie en Rose.) Also, much as I love Joseph Gordon Levitt, I’m not sure why he was cast as Arthur. Dom needs an amusingly grizzled sidekick, not another fine young fellow like himself.
If I’m making it sound like Inception is no fun at all, then let me clarify: Christopher Nolan is one hell of a commercial filmmaker. Inception is engrossing and deliciously mind-teasing throughout (and, considering how complicated it is, surprisingly easy to follow). It is most definitely the kind of film you’ll want to see again, and discuss enthusiastically on the way out of the theater. But I didn’t care about the characters, only the puzzle. In that sense, it was as emotionally involving as hearing about somebody else’s dream.