Ha ha ha, here it is.
Within the strange world of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, dreams are given concrete, literal meaning, and ideas are seen literally as something as potentially dangerous as a virus. There’s no indication of just how far into the future this story takes place, but it’s obvious that it’s been a while – it’s a science fiction world rife with the possibilities of the exploration of the subconscious, something that seems pretty common knowledge and yet – ostensibly, still in their burgeoning state – such things seem to have been relegated mainly to the tools of corporate espionage, as much as we’re aware of them, in any case. Our main characters, Cobb and Arthur, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively, are old hats at this game, and the former’s been at it long enough to garner a reputation as “the best in the game” – like you do; but this is a Christopher Nolan film, however. And, all it takes is a little push.
Is it strange that, in a film all about dreams – whether manufactured or real – and figments of the subconscious that the moments that take place in what is ostensibly the real-life are the most surreal and dreamlike? I have to think this is something intentional on Nolan’s part, because – while his multi-leveled dream sequences are filled with visual and narrative expansion and experimentation, they operate with what comes off initially as a very cold, antiseptic logic. It’s only later on, as Cobb’s own mental monsters start bursting these self-created universes at the seams that the pretexts of the sensical are dropped gradually, little by little. But, almost from the beginning – from the moment that they’re first woke up until all of the team has been corralled together – there’s an almost imperceptible sort of haziness to everything; strange turn of phrases that catch the audience and the characters off-guard for a moment, leaving a tonal impression on the scenes to come. Things and events seem to drop into place with the sort of coincidence that is really only found in the dreamscapes and subspaces and, more than anywhere else in the film, Nolan’s graceful-yet-quietly-sudden staccato sense of visual editing from location to location reminds one of nothing so much as the sudden, dizzying hops from context to context that one experiences during sleep.
On the other side of the coin, while I still find complaints that Nolan’s dreams “just aren’t surreal enough” a little nonsensical, because seriously what kind of dreams are you people having, it’s very true that they operate mechanically – which is a given, in a sense, because inside the narrative it’s acknowledged that these are things being built up by a team of designers and architects to fool the Mark of their whole heist scheme, Cillian Murphy’s character. They’re meant to be cheats, in a sense – reasonable enough facsimiles of the real world, governed by the harsh, self-contained set of rules that Cobb and his partner have set up to keep the whole thing from falling into disaster and disarray. And, like all of Nolan’s films, the real drama within results from the inner, personal fragmentation of the main characters bumping up and breaking through their own strict self-governance, resulting in external chaos, and fire and brimstone all around. Here, such a thing is personalized in the form of the constant recurring figmentation of Cobb’s dead wife, first glimpsed only in the depths of his subconscious, locked away as a part of some intentionally half-forgotten memory – and then, constantly intruding into the coldly and almost mathematically designed shared dreamscapes of the film’s multi-leveled heist scheme, a chaotic variable portrayed by Marion Cotillard whose attacks act as a double-edged knife toward anyone who would intrude on what “she’s” laid claim on. Although, considering that she is only a half-hollow mental representation of the memory of a loved one created by Cobb as the emblem of his subconscious, this complicates matters considerably. Enough for a future post and to spare, I think.
But, this is also Nolan’s most strongly, explicitly formal film – indeed, the whole second half is a breathtaking exercise in building convolution upon convolution while still managing to keep it within the level of clarity expected from a well-orchestrated thriller. But, he takes advantage of this in other ways, as well – several surprisingly visceral set-pieces that utilize the multi-tiered composition of the narrative, all happening at once, and all doubling in emotional and physical intensity, the farther down the levels we go. While Dileep Rao swerves through the rainy streets just one level within Murphy’s head, another level down JGL is engaging in a harsh, ugly hotel hallway brawl, suddenly complicated by the momentary absence of gravity one level up, here multiplied several times over. And, yet another level down, Cobb and co., do their best to push forward past the guarded personification of Murphy’s inner-most mental sanctum – the only one of which that feels just the slightest bit bland, if only because of the monotony of color and the weird, sudden barrage of action movie cliche’, if only for a minute or two. Whatever minor complaints people might have had about Nolan’s brand of action filmmaking have, I’m sure, all been resolved here – in particular, what little bits and pieces we see of Rao’s chase sequence through the rainy streets of the subconscious, which is loud, stark and even sweaty (not to mention visually clear, for those of you out there and you know who you are) The culmination of all of these things one upon another results in a startlingly lyrical quality as everything slows down, and the van breaks through the bridge barrier, and JGL slowly, weightlessly moves his crew toward the elevator, all of them suspended in mid-air with a crank-handle. That last sequence is one that left me scratching my head, actually – I couldn’t figure it out; it seemed a little too seamless to be a work of CGI, and too fluid to be utilizing any kind of wire-work. I’ll admit, it stumped me. A little ways up I used the word ‘orchestrated’ in a sense to liken this to a well-made thriller – but, there really is no other word for this type of thing. It’s dazzling orchestrating, made all the more astounding in hindsight because you only realize just how daunting it is when looking back at the work as a whole – the narrative swerves and doubles back on itself, in and out, here and there. A dream within a dream within a dream, and still deeper.
Yet, with all of this excessive, almost obsessive sense of composition, I still don’t agree with those who say either the film or the characters comes off as emotionless – indeed, I think the whole thing is motivated by emotion, and it’s also where all of the drama arises from; Cobb’s raw, unchained subconscious emotion batting up against the mathematical expectancy of his mental heist-plot, the dynamics of the relationship between Murphy’s character and his father which acts as both the catalyst and the climax of the plot. And, once the film reaches that arid land of limbo, then it’s boiled down to basically all emotion, without any of the logic that had preceded it. You do find yourself feeling for and connecting with Cobb’s character, the more his story is revealed, and it’s importance becomes larger to the scheme of things, overall. His overwhelming guilt at the memory of Mal’s death, or the moment when he tries to reach out both to either Mal or to the older, Limbo-wearied Saito – both of them being, given your individual interpretation of the ending, which I’ll get to below, personifications of certain elements of his own subconscious – two scenes among others that are as strong as anything Nolan has done, yet. There is a real, beating heart here, working in tandem with the brain of an algebra wizard. The characters themselves don’t really bare out what little insults of monotony have been leveled at them, either – it’s evident that all of them are possessed of internally complex, fleshed out emotional lives – something that’s either completely out in the open or, in the case of JGL’s character, hidden behind the eyes most of the time. But, every so often, as in the scene where he steals a kiss from Ellen Page’s character, there’s a real sense of fun that breaks out from behind them.
Myself, I do have one major problem with the film – and, to be fair, it is a big one, having to do with the ending. That final shot, the one that’s left audiences nationwide gasping – it feels inauthentic, unneeded for anything that the narrative requires. It’s not really an emotional or intellectual conclusion to anything – it just seems like Nolan didn’t want to leave the Cobb character with any kind of conclusive, even ‘happy’ ending. Sure, some might say that it’s meant to imply that Cobb has resolved to let go off the inner riddle that’s been plaguing him ever since Mal’s death – the question of reality, and how does one cope with the constant perception of multiple ‘realities,’ or differentiate between one or the other – and accept what he’s been given. But, I don’t know – even that seems a little disingenuous, and if that was what was intended, then it’s not an implication that was put forward strongly enough to leave any real impression – on me, at least. Retroactively, it casts a pall over the rest of the film for me, as any bad or at least unsatisfying ending for a film that had – up until that point – worked wonderfully. But, here it makes one go even farther and question the internal, logical conceits at the heart of the picture. And, the disconnect between the two becomes even clearer. One could cut out that final shot and not a thing would really be different about the film on a superficial level, though – so, whatever that’s worth, I suppose. Also, at certain points this almost seemed like a film paid for, sponsored by and with the total cooperation of Armani and Rolex. These people are so, so unbelievably well-dressed – all the time. Everywhere. It’s eye-catching, but – a Hawaiian shirt would’ve been nice, here or there.
Nolan’s winning streak of combining auteurism with a true sense of genre subversion and visceral action-movie prowess hasn’t been seen since at least the eighties. Let’s hope it continues for a good, long while.