Christopher Nolan is smarter than I am. That needs to be established right up front, because everything I'm about to say about his remarkable new film, Inception, may well be mistaken. I've been wrong before. A few years ago, I gave a fairly lukewarm review to The Prestige, which on first viewing seemed exceedingly clever but utterly hollow. A subsequent second look landed that film on my eventual Top 10 list for the entire decade.
Nolan works at a dizzying level of structural ingenuity and philosophical complexity — a level that's virtually unprecedented for a director making gigantic summer tentpoles for major studios — and even an attentive viewer can fail to grasp the big picture after just one go. So while Inception left me mildly disappointed, and I'll do my best to explain why, bear in mind that we're talking, without any question whatsoever, about the year's most ambitious and least compromised Hollywood movie. You really should see it, if only to marvel at its improbable existence.
Then again, maybe it doesn't exist. Maybe we're dreaming it together. Inception posits a world in which skilled operatives like Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) can break into your unconscious mind and steal whatever valuable secrets you keep hidden there — though they have to do so fairly quickly, as the dream gradually recognizes any intrusion and defends itself. (Turns out the faceless background extras in your dreams function as an immune system.) But this turns out to be child's play compared to Cobb's latest assignment: Rather than extract information from the unconscious, the powerful tycoon Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants to plant an idea — one that the victim, Saito's main competitor (Cillian Murphy), will believe, upon awakening, to be his own. With the help of a sort of production manager (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a chemist (Dileep Rao), a student architect (Ellen Page), and a "forger" who can impersonate others in the dream world (Tom Hardy), Cobb crafts a insanely complex operation involving dreams nested within other dreams like Russian dolls. But there's apparently no level so deep or convoluted that it can't be invaded by the projection of Cobb's dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who has other plans.
Nolan clearly intends the tortured, guilt-ridden relationship between Cobb and Mal, the details of which he parcels out slowly over the course of Inception's two-and-a-half hours, to be the movie's emotional fulcrum. Trouble is, Nolan doesn't really do emotion. Nor is he especially interested in people. He's a cerebral filmmaker to the core, and his movies, though they've become more visually impressive over the years, tend to be precisely as strong as their fundamental ideas. He can't hit the operatic heights that Martin Scorsese did earlier this year in Shutter Island, which features DiCaprio in almost exactly the same role. Late in Inception, there's a scene between husband and wife that should be devastating, and would be if we could discern any difference whatsoever between the real characters and their dream projections. In fact, they're all equally one-dimensional — little more than good-looking vessels for Nolan's ruminations on the nature of the desires and fears that drive us.
Granted, that's equally true of Nolan's Memento, which is a stone masterpiece. But that film used anterograde amnesia as a brilliant metaphor for general self-delusion, whereas Inception never truly makes a satisfying, intuitive connection between dreams and waking life. Movies explicitly about the act of dreaming flirt with tautology to begin with, because cinema itself amounts to a collective waking dream. Nolan's vision of the unconscious, however, seems oddly redundant even by that reckoning, resembling various virtual-reality scenarios more than what you and I experience while asleep every night. Even if that's the result of Inception's dreams having been expressly designed by Page's architect — a reasonable interpretation — what do these jerry-rigged fantasies represent, exactly? How does the film act as a mirror for our own foibles and neuroses? In the absence of compelling (preferably earth-shattering) answers to such questions, there just isn't much here beneath the clockwork plotting and surreal imagery, which makes Inception feel ... well, exceedingly clever but utterly hollow. [Pencils it in on decade list.]
Still, the movie does push both clockwork plotting and surreal imagery right up to the point of no return, in exhilarating ways. If you've seen the trailer, you already have an idea of what to expect from the latter: city blocks that fold in on themselves, random implosions, zero-gravity fistfights. But you have to actually see Inception to experience the brain-scrambling head trip involved in watching a coherent story unfold on five (five!) separate planes simultaneously, each plane imbued with its own unique properties and (crucially) its own time scale. (In reality, it's well-established that dream time doesn't deviate much from actual time — a dream that seems to take 20 minutes really does take about 20 minutes — but we'll let that slide.) Plenty of filmmakers could conceive of and stage that zero-gravity fistfight, for example, and achieve a visceral reaction, but perhaps only Nolan could conjure a logical reason for the weightlessness that makes your cerebral cortex equally giddy. The movie's entire third act is a marvel of engineering — arguably the most deliriously creative example of sustained cross-cutting since D.W. Griffith made Intolerance in the medium's infancy. You can only shake your head in awe.
Again, though, that's strictly surface stuff. Even on that superficial level, Inception doesn't always deliver. The scheme itself, which involves persuading Saito's rival to dismantle his late father's business, takes up an enormous amount of screen time and never becomes remotely involving in its own right — it's hard to really care whether our heroes succeed or fail, which makes the film's conclusion feel disappointingly flat. (Nolan ends on a note of ambiguity, but one that's fairly predictable in this context. At least it isn't spoken aloud, as in Cronenberg's eXistenZ.) And it's rare to see this many first-rate actors so indifferently used. At one point, two of the supporting characters share a spontaneous kiss — a funny, touching moment — and it's genuinely startling, because it's the first (and only) time that either one of them even momentarily behaves like an autonomous person rather than a narrative cog. Compared to this purely functional ensemble, Joe Pantoliano's wheedling, manipulative Teddy in Memento seems positively Shakespearean. It's as if Nolan exhausted his creativity on the basic concept.
As you may have noticed, however, most Hollywood filmmakers exhaust their creativity on the freakin' title. However flawed it may be, Inception deserves to be seen. In fact, if you care at all about ensuring that intelligent, rule-breaking movies occasionally get made on a decent budget, you should purchase as many tickets as you feel you can afford, whether you use them or not. Plus, as I said, it's entirely possible that the film's fundamental meaning slipped past me, that six months from now I'll rewatch it on DVD, have a belated revelation and put a giant dent in my forehead with the heel of my hand. For all I know, there's still another plane of reality (or pseudo-reality) that escaped my notice, upon which everything ultimately hinges. I wouldn't put it past the sneaky bastard.
If the greatest pleasure of the movie is seeing "DiCaprio be beautiful again", something about…
worth reading on the subject: an interview with Kubrik assistant and friend.
But an outstanding, penetrating comment!