Wednesday, July 21, 2010
A few weeks ago, just before the first day of my summer teaching session, so determined was I to get a full night's rest that I ended up enduring a restless eight hours of dreaming that I couldn't sleep. By morning, I was more tired than when I'd laid down because my mind was screaming that I'd been awake all night. That was the experience I kept flashing back to while watching the time, mind, and reality-tripping thriller Inception, wondering if Christopher Nolan has a similar sleepless night in his past that brought him to this point.
The Dark Knight, Inception marks the director's highly-anticipated follow-up to that genre-busting tour de force. And while it falls perhaps just short of the "masterpiece" appellation it got tagged with early on by critical auds starved for fresh ideas, that doesn't make it any less of a towering achievement. In crafting his masterful puzzle box of dreams nested inside dreams giving birth to other dreams, Nolan emerges with that rarest of beasts in a Hollywood minefield currently clogged with remakes, reboots, prequels, and sequels -- a wholly original blockbuster.
Like Avatar last December, this is a project that spent more than a decade nursemaided by its creator before finally being brought to celluloid life, but unlike Avatar, which found its appeal by aiming squarely at the heart, Inception works by engaging us intellectually. In my review of the James Cameron epic, I described it as a visual treat that was immensely fulfilling in the moment, but grew fainter the further into memory it receded. In that sense, Inception stands as its polar opposite, with visuals that are no less impressive, but subsumed within a story of such clockwork complexity that it asks -- begs -- to be savored, digested, and discussed. If the art of cinema is a metaphor for the manufacture of dreams themselves, then Nolan has confirmed his reputation as one of the premier dreamsmiths working today.
Of course, it's not just the nature of dreams that Nolan is scrutinizing, but reality itself. Taking inspiration from a repertoire as diverse as Phillip K. Dick and Federico Fellini, Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a so-called "extractor," a corporate spy who specializes in invading dreams and acquiring the secrets hidden within the crevices of his victims' subconscious minds. When he's enlisted by business titan Saito (Ken Watanabe) to execute the "inception" of the title -- sneaking into the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy) and planting an idea so deep down that the subject thinks he himself thought it up -- Cobb is assured that, after successful completion, his mysterious banishment from America and his children will finally come to an end.
After pulling together an insertion team -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt (previously the best thing about last year's G.I. Joe), new Mad Max Tom Hardy, and Avatar's Dileep Rao (hey, there's that movie again!) -- and consulting father-in-law Michael Caine (great, as always, even in a glorified cameo), Cobb brings in Ellen Page as the gifted "architect" who will construct the shared dreamspace the characters eventually occupy. There's also a thread woven throughout about Cobb's (late?) ex-wife (Marion Cotillard), and her increasingly dangerous impact on his subconscious sojourns, but honestly this is a movie that defies easy summary and demands to be experienced.
As I did my best to keep up with the plot and get some kind of grip on the twisty convolutions of the dream world, what I found most interesting was Nolan's decision to steer clear of the baroque, expressionist visions seen in films such as Alex Proyas' Dark City or Tarsem Singh's The Cell or even the stylized simulacra of The Matrix. Instead he imbues Inception's dreamscapes with such you-are-there immediacy that the line between the real and the dreamed blurs until meaningless. To do otherwise, of course, would contradict the very point the filmmakers repeatedly accentuate, that when we're asleep we unflinchingly accept whatever manufactured reality blossoms in our head.
Now, the real dirty little secret at the center of this whole enterprise is that when you stop and think about it, its all a lot of hokum. A device you hook yourself and your buddies up to that lets you share the same dream experience? Really? Talk about a McGuffin's McGuffin. And yet, there's not even a cursory attempt by the writer (Nolan himself) to tack on some kind of pseudo-science gobbledygook of an explanation for the dream-hopping antics the entire endeavor hinges on. Rather, he does the best thing possible by simply dropping us smack-dab in medias res, and we accept it because of Nolan's absolute fidelity to the very same verisimilitude he so consistently brought to bear in his two Batman opuses.
Indeed, it's a testament to how effectively the director grounds us within his faux-rainsoaked streets and faux-snowbound fortresses that the climactic final act seamlessly intercuts between four distinct levels of dream -- with four distinct levels of story -- following different characters dealing with different crises without it ever becoming overwhelming or unmanageable. The skill Nolan exhibits with his trademark hopscotching narrative (on display since his debut with 1996's Following) is so dexterous that it puts other, simpler storytelling schemas to shame. So, with all that said, why was I hesitant to deploy the "masterpiece" label earlier?
For one, there's the supporting cast. Though they perform exceptionally from top to bottom, the screenplay (again, by Nolan himself, so he shoulders the blame) conspires to keep them as a collection of one-word descriptors (the partner, the forger, the chemist, etc.) rather than fully-formed characters. Depending on how you choose to read it, this is either a ding on the film, or all part of Nolan's insidious plan (that link, by the way is the motherlode of spoilers, so caveat clicker). And while I appreciated the various intricacies of the "rules" established ahead of time for the dream realm, they could certainly have been conveyed in a manner that made the first half less top-heavy with exposition. Also, as a friend helpfully pointed out to me, there's one key contrivance introduced so late in the game that under any other circumstances it would have necessitated sending the script back for revisions.
The movie's ending is another lightning rod that's certain to spark reams and reams of critical analysis, academic study, and its share of coffee-soaked late night conversations at Denny's. Without giving any of the necessary details away, it either provides welcome closure or snatches it away at the last instant. It's poetic or infuriating, based directly on how much opacity one can tolerate in their moviegoing experiences. I liked it, but I know there are plenty of folks who wanted to throw something through the screen when it went to black. All of this nips around the heels, however, of the cinematic legerdemain Nolan plies again and again.
Every frame bespeaks his preternatural mastery of the form, creating images of such lasting power and beauty that they stay with you long after they've left the screen. There's the magnificent sight of a cityscape folding in on itself within the dream world, there's Gordon-Levitt's wild zero gravity fight scene in the middle of a rapidly rotating hotel hallway (which my comrade Brian Hall calls perhaps the first iconic cinematic image of this decade -- I'm inclined to agree). While elaborate, it's never indulgent. While involved, it's never impenetrable. Inception is a feast for the mind and the senses -- the kind of movie experience we dream of. A