27 August 2010


Written & Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Full credits at IMDb

In his non-Batman films, Christopher Nolan works off of gimmicks. For Inception, which feels like a multiplexed Last Year at Marienbad, he takes The Heist Movie and flips it around: Leonardo DiCaprio, doing One Last Job Before He’s Out Of The Game For Good, is assembling a crack team not for stealing but to do the opposite—for planting. It’s a series of clichés, twisted just enough to make them seem like they’re not. It’s familiar but original, the same but new, which is exactly what Americans want. That’s how you make $150 million in one summer month.

Leo and his gang (including, hooray, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, blech, Ellen Page) use unspecified technology to invade dreams, usually to swipe something from their targets’ subconscious. But a new client (Ken Wanatabe) wants them to do what’s never been done (or has it?)—lodge an idea in a mark’s mind and make him (Cillian Murphy) think it’s his own. Nolan’s twisted sci-fi plotting is so Original, in fact, that the script requires page after page of clunky exposition to set it up—mostly in form of Page, as The New Girl, asking DiCaprio, The Old Hand, lots of questions. (Hopefully, if Nolan has done it right, the same ones about which the audience is wondering.) One she doesn’t think to ask: why are these dreams so un-dreamlike?

I mean, sure, the opening sequence abandons spatial logic, much as our brains do during REM sleep: a conversation begins in a room, and continues on the roof without missing a beat. (This is the most Marienbad-y scene, though Nolan swears that he only saw that classic recently, and had simply absorbed its style from the many films he has seen that Renais’ influenced.) Despite this bit of illogic, there’s still a bit too much sense to the movie’s dreams, too much psychology manifest in literal terms. Like, when Page explores DiCaprio’s mind, it’s a “building,” with multiple “levels,” accessible by elevator. The most secret part is, literally, the basement. What’s there has been “buried”—get it?

How could you not? The basement is where DiCaprio hides his deepest, darkest secret: the truth about what happened to his dead wife (Marion Cotillard). Yes, once again, DiCaprio is coming to grips, in flashbacky dreams, with the fate that befell his beloved bride, as he did only a few months ago in Shutter Island. Meanwhile, Nolan, once again, is dealing with the fallibility of memory and with a man consumed with guilt over the accidental death of his wife. Curiously, however, this Nolan protagonist directs his vengeful rage inward, rather than out, unlike those who have preceded him, from Batman to Guy Pearce in Memento and Al Pacino in Insomnia. (Though you could argue that because Inception expands the deeper it burrows, inward is the new outward!)

Nolan here is obviously obsessed with movies—his own, those of his star, and those from throughout film history: from French New Wave to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back, from the Bond series to Royal Wedding. Inception, in fact, is not a movie about dreams—if it were, it’d be as unbearably dumb as some have claimed it is. Rather, it’s a movie about movies. (Still, relatively dumb.) After all, the oldest cliché about the movies is that they’re like a dream—you know, experienced by immobile subjects in the dark, vicariously participating in a story. But, as he does with clichés, Nolan spins this platitude until he invests it with new meaning. And it’s here that Inception gets interesting, maybe even a little fun.

Nolan’s detectives don’t move between levels of consciousness—they move between different genres. Or, different settings, anyway. What’s frustrating about Nolan’s moviescape is how every level tends toward a different variation on the effects-heavy action spectacle, without leaving much space for credible human drama. What’s pleasurable about it, though, is how he’s able to tie the narrative in epistemological knots—what’s real? what’s a dream?—by capitalizing on how dreams and movies overlap. Inception’s real gimmick is its unanswerable twist: is the entire movie “really” happening? Or is all of it part of a dream? (Dreaming also nicely justifies the implausibilities of the genre conventions on display: the way endless goons are available to give chase; the way that bullets never hit the hero.) At the very end, Michael Caine picks DiCaprio up from the airport; a moment later, they’re in DiCaprio’s house. Were they able to move so quickly because it’s a dream? Or, because of course Nolan wouldn’t show every second of a car ride between the airport and home—because that’s what cuts are for? Inception understands, and exploits for cheeky confounding, that the grammar of movies and the grammar of dreaming are the same. It's not just that movies are like dreams, but that dreams are like movies. Grade: B+

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