As a follow-up to the smash hit The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan comes along with the warped action flick Inception, a film which allegedly has been years in the making. At first glance, the time it took putting the movie together seems to have been dedicated to layering together different settings and making the ostensible story work – but a little bit of deeper thinking opens up a different story that is not as easily accessible.
Inception is a movie about people entering other people’s dreams, which immediately brings to mind (for myself, anyway) two other films: Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Both of these are movies that I am pretty much in love with, and so using them as comparisons for Nolan’s film helps me to understand what didn’t work for me.
The first problem that I had with Nolan’s film is that the emotional through-line didn’t do much for me. The movie is about a man named Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) who enlists a crack team to join him on a mission into another man’s dreams in order to plant the seeds of an idea, but this mission is being compromised by the traumatic memories he possesses which keep fighting their way to the surface. As critic Steven Boone sees the film, Cobb’s “memories…are the kind of stock images you find in a brand new wallet.” Cobb is supposed to have wonderful memories which have been corrupted by a traumatic event which is merely hinted at through most of the film. But his memories are not so special, and the trauma is lacking in any real emotional punch. Where Eternal Sunshine, for instance, makes its viewers feel the pain of its protagonists’ lost relationship with the reminders of what once was, I was unable to get close to Cobb; I could not feel his pain.
Jim Emerson wrote a blog entry about how unimaginative Nolan’s dreamscapes were. In comparison to films like The Cell, certainly, the settings were much less peculiar and fluid. That doesn’t strike me as a flaw, though. I do think that Emerson was trying to make the movie what he wanted it to be by criticizing it for those reasons, rather than accepting it on its own terms. Yes, the dream lands of this film typically obey fairly normal rules – e.g. physics, traffic laws, etc. Sometimes things can be altered, but for the most part, the world of the dreams is not much different from the world of reality. What Emerson misses here is that that is part of the point of the film: to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Any astute viewer of the film will undoubtedly begin wondering early on where exactly the real world begins and where the dreams take over, and if there were a definite surrealist air to the dream worlds, that blurring would be impossible. No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fairly common settings of Inception, although they are not as elaborate or engaging as those of Gondry or Tarsem’s films. Because their overall normality furthers the objective of the film.
Self-professed troll Armond White criticizes the film mostly because the majority of critics were poised to give it high marks. Still, there is a point where White slams the movie for “carelessly shifting tenses like a video game”, a thought that I admit to having while in the theater. How easily the movie could be broken down into levels of a video game, with each dream providing the character a new objective in order to reach further and further toward the ultimate goal. Ah, but what White doesn’t realize (and what I failed to understand at the time) is that the real question at this point becomes: what is the ultimate goal? In your typical video game, the ultimate goal is to reach the final baddie, destroy him, and get to the end credits. Who is the final bad guy, the antagonist of Inception? Alright, let’s just say that the goal of the movie is as simple as it is set up to be: to plant an idea in the mind of a businessman named Fisher so that he decides to break up his company, thus giving DiCaprio’s character the chance to see his children once again. If we accept that that is the ultimate goal of the film, still who or what is the opposing force?
It wasn’t until my friend Nathan found an illuminating post on IMDB giving a seemingly radical interpretation of the film that I began thinking about these things, but now that I’ve begun thinking about them I can’t stop. The movie is, of course, open to interpretation – the last shot of the film screams for multiple readings, for god’s sake – but there are certain moments throughout the film that might make you stop and reconsider whether it is wise to accept what is being posited. As Cobb explains to his new architect Ariadne (Page), you have to pay attention to the little moments that are off in order to figure out whether you are dreaming or awake. And so it goes that there are little things, things which might make you wonder, which might make the inception more debilitating and complex than originally thought. I realize that I am being extremely cryptic here, but I don’t want to give away anything unnecessarily. I will say, though, that this interpretation of the film, if true (and the argument is quite convincing), leads me to have a whole new level of respect for the craft with which Nolan constructed his intricate maze of a film. I was happy to stop when I thought I knew what I needed to know; now it seems clear that the movie is attempting to engage its audience as much as as it’s engaging its main character. For the viewer who is willing to put that sort of effort into watching the movie, it allows the movie to reach out and touch you in a way that 3-D can only barely imitate.
What I mean is that Inception has the capacity for truly engaging its viewers. Unfortunately, it does not effect that power on an emotional level, which I will readily admit is the level that I most often look for in movies. Instead, it intends to effect that power on a cognitive level, on an intellectual level – if you spend some time thinking about the movie (and yes, reading what other people have to say), it may have more doors to open up to you. I suppose one could say that about a great number of movies – that if you spend time considering them, they will reveal deeper thoughts – but this movie seems like one specifically designed for the purpose. With that said, Inception may be the best film since Tarantino’s awesome Inglourious Basterds. Both of these movies are not without their problems, but the way they revel in the power of the art form is remarkable.
Am I giving Inception too much credit? Maybe. But this is the first film of 2010 that I have spent this much time reading about, discussing with friends, and just generally polishing thoughts about in my head. It’s probably totally incoherent, but I could not wait to write this review. That’s why I consider this a great movie.