Monday, July 19, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 64: Inception

Inception touches on some classic questions. How can tell if we’re dreaming? Is “real” life more valid or meaningful than dreams? Can we control our subconscious minds? Should we?

If you like philosophical or scientific explorations of mysteries like these, Inception is not for you. The thrills in this expertly constructed summer movie are more visceral than conceptual, its thinly developed characters careening from one level of consciousness to the next only to dodge falling objects and run from men with big guns. Think of it as a highly realistic, beautifully art-directed video game that becomes interactive only after the fact, when you go online to kick ideas around with other fans.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional “extracter” who gets paid to enter people’s minds and alter their subconscious minds by manipulating their dreams. As A.O. Scott pointed out, that’s also a pretty good description of what movie directors do, and I sometimes wondered if writer/director Christopher Nolan was sending us a message in Inception about what it takes to make a blockbuster. Subconsciously, at least.

My favorite of Nolan’s movies is still his second feature, Memento, which got a lot of respect from critics but didn’t make much of a dent on the public consciousness. With his two Batman movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan learned how to manage a blockbuster Hollywood budget and pile on cool special effects. He also learned to dumb down his dialogue, overlay an avalanche of emotion-cuing music, and amp up the psychobabble. He’s gotten better at making tentpole movies with each one he makes, so The Dark Knight was much less lugubriously paced and less painfully self-serious than Batman Begins, and Inception is more fun than The Dark Knight. With this one, Nolan has become one of Hollywood’s chainsaw artists, getting surprisingly subtle results from tools that seem crude in the wrong hands.

Inception cobbles together its narrative from a lot of familiar parts. Cobb, a brilliant man haunted by the ghost of his departed wife, gets a challenging assignment from a powerful client: Instead of going into someone’s mind to extract information, he’s supposed to do an inception, planting an idea so subtly that the subject thinks it’s his own. After accepting the job, Cobb assembles a group of crack specialists, introducing us to the main characters and giving him an excuse to explain what he’s up to. Then Cobb and his team get to work and go to sleep, entering a treacherous world of dreams within dreams where they race against dream-distorted time to complete their task and dodge that barrage of bullets. Meanwhile, Cobb struggles to get a handle on his own demons, which threaten to subvert every mission he sets out on.

Like Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect who creates the lifelike dreamscapes the team operates in, Nolan seems to be fascinated by the mechanics of his imagined world. Much of the dialogue – maybe even most – is exposition about how things work and what can go wrong in the world of shared dreaming. I found something satisfying in all these rules, which make the impossible seem just plausible enough, but they kept me at arm’s length emotionally, watching the movie rather than getting lost in it. But I think all those rules and explanations are just what draw its fans in so closely. By spelling out the laws that govern his world, Nolan is inviting you in to play with those ideas yourself as you think and talk about it afterward. And, like a video gamer learning a new game, the more you do that, the more attached you get to it.

I'm not a gamer, so I guess it's not surprising that I wasn't drawn in. But there was enough cool stuff on the screen to keep me interested while it lasted, starting with the careening chase scene that upends a van the team is sleeping in, making their dream worlds do cartwheels or become gravity-free as the van does its stretched-out free fall (time lasts longer when you're dreaming than when you're awake, so it takes the van minutes to fall in dream time). There was the city that folded into itself, like a convertible top coming down, as Adriane explores her new powers, and the crumbling world Cobb and his wife created and then left to fall into the sea, which has the apocryphal feel of a prophecy. And I loved the old-school movie star glamour exuded by Ken Watanabe (as the man who hires Cobb) and Marion Cotillard (as Cobb’s wife).

But the most interesting thing about Inception is the inception Nolan pulls off on his audience. Judging by all the analyses already being spun online, it looks like people will be sharing their thoughts and theories about this movie all summer long, and watching it again so they can test them. That’s the trick every director wants to pull off, and I suspect Nolan did it by following his own rule for inception: Make your idea as simple as possible, so the next guy can make it his own.


  1. Nolan made a low-budget feature in the late 80s called "Following." It's worth a look, if you haven't seen it.

  2. yeah, I saw it and liked it, Dave -- I think I mentioned it in my Batman Begins review, which you can see if you click on that link. I liked Memento better, but Following was good too -- especially if it's true that he made it with a bunch of friends for about $6k, which I think I read somewhere.

    I liked Insomnia too, but that was so closely based on the Scandinavian one, which I remember liking a little better. Though I find that just about all I remember of either version now is Al Pacino's saggy tired mug, which was in Nolan's version, of course...