Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Inception Movie Review

A unifying theme has slowly emerged from the film work of Christopher Nolan. He is fixated on the idea of perception and the conflict of illusion vs. reality. In Memento, a man believes he can be sure of certain facts despite being incapable of creating new memories after about 15 minutes (in the end we learn his foolproof system allows for self-delusion). Insomnia looks at the effects of sleep deprivation on the conscious mind and The Prestige is about the way people can be deceived by distracting the mind with misdirection. Nolan’s latest film, Inception, perhaps shares more in common with his first feature than with anything else in his impressive body of work. But for the chance at a spoiler I shall say no more than that.

Nolan has pulled off the nearly impossible: he has taken the most reviled of narrative devices – “It was all a dream” – and made it work. Don’t take that statement as giving away any valuable secrets. It’s actually a device used early on. The reason “it was all a dream” doesn’t work and the reason audiences tend to hate it is because it’s a complete narrative cheat, a cop out that negates all the emotional investment that has come before. How can you follow a character through trials and tribulations only to learn that none of it actually mattered?

In the case of Inception there are genuine consequences to dreaming. Not to suggest it’s a kind of Nightmare on Elm Street “if you die in your dream, you die in reality” premise. On the contrary, it’s made clear in the opening sequence through a bit of unfortunately sloppy expository dialogue that dying in your dream wakes you up. This is true in anyone’s lived experience – quick, can you recall any dream in which you’ve died and not woken up straight away?

Inception is remarkable in every way a movie should succeed. I have not felt this excited, this positively giddy, while watching a movie since seeing The Matrix for the first time 11 years ago. It’s no small coincidence that the two films have so much in common, not only thematically, but visually as well. I’ve not been so stunningly convinced by the combination of visual effects work and action choreography since the groundbreaking “bullet time” sequences in The Matrix. There are moments in Inception that utterly baffled me as to the manner in which they were executed. Particularly astounding is a fight scene in a hotel corridor that takes place with shifting gravity. It is seamlessly executed.

The basic premise is that sometime in the near future shared dreaming exists. Through this technology it is possible for someone to unwittingly reveal secrets and information through their subconscious dream state. It seems it’s used mainly for corporate espionage and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a skilled extractor who works closely with Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Every dream scenario also requires an architect to construct the dreamscape. Nolan’s screenplay rather mercifully leaves off a lot of exposition except insofar as it relates to the education of a new team member, Ariadne (Ellen Page), a gifted architecture student of Dom’s father-in-law (Michael Caine).

The plot is more or less a simple heist story. For legal reasons, Cobb is unable to return to the United States where his young children live with their grandmother. His goal is to find a way home. He receives an intriguing offer from a powerful businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). Cobb and his team must perform an inception on someone. That is they have to implant an original idea in someone’s mind. Arthur explains that it’s not possible because the mind can always trace the origin of an idea back to its source. Cobb knows better. It will require going several layers deep – dreams within dreams. Because within each sub-layer of dreaming the team moves about 1/20 normal speed, an immense amount of action can fill 40 minutes on screen while a van simply falls from a bridge to the water below.

The middle third of the film is essentially the team gathering and preparation sequence of your standard “One Last Job” heist film. They get their chemist (for a sedative), Yusuf; a forger and impersonator, Eames (Tom Hardy); Page as the new architect; and Saito himself, along for the ride. The mark is Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a monopolistic energy corporation. Of course there are some unexpected twists and turns once they begin the job, including a rather convenient contrivance to raise the stakes – under such a deep sedative, getting killed in the dream won’t woke you up, but send you into limbo instead – a place where you can live for decades during only a few hours of sleep in reality.

Still I’ve not mentioned anything about Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who makes frequent appearances in Cobb’s dreams to foil everyone’s plans. I shouldn’t say anything more than that about Mal, except to say that the relationship between Cobb and Mal is the heart of the film.

I thought I had the film nearly figured out after seeing it the first time. I went for a second viewing to see how the details held up to my theory. But a strange thing happened – I developed alternative theories and found myself with even more questions. I’m not sure there is a “right” explanation for what everything means. I don’t believe Nolan is particularly interested in any true meaning. He’s interested in perception, misdirection, illusion, reality. Still, theories will abound and people will claim to “know” the answer, but pay them no mind. Are there plot holes in the movie? Most likely, yes. But they’re so buried beneath subtlety and nuance that finding them may only suggest new explanations that are half-formed. Kind of like dreams.

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