"Most summer blockbusters insult my intellgence, but this once has insulted my stupidity."
I chuckled at this email contribution to the Kermayo show a few weeks back and duly braced myself for a white-knuckle mind-ride that Christopher Nolan's new movie promised to deliver.
The British director made the proverbial shitload with The Dark Knight back in 2008, so the studios have indulged him this time and he has come back with a summer hit that combines some of the feel of his own Memento with that of Bond, The Matrix and Abre Los Ojos.
The flow of words and ideas is so slick and engrossing in Inception that some of the action scenes actually come across as a little distracting.
For sure we never felt maddened by this. That the movie feels like it has bitten off a little bit more than it can chew is certainly part of its thrill, yet there are still times when the whiff of excess is palpable. Maybe this is one that ought to be re-made by a European arthouse director in a reversal of the usual process. (I'd ditch the snow mobiles.)
The core of the plot is complex, yet easy enough to grasp. Cobb, played by De Caprio, is an expert in extracting information through the medium of shared dreams. Saito, a Japanese businessman, pays Cobb to do something a little trickier: plant an idea in the mind of a young man called Robert Fischer who has just inherited a commercial empire. Saito wants Fischer to break up his late father's enterprises and to believe he came up with this idea himself.
To carry out this 'inception' successfully Cobb and his associates have to take Fischer down into a dream within a dream within a dream. At each level time passes subjectively slower and the hardest part of the whole process will be to synchrionise a 'kick' that wakes the sedated dreamers at precise moments at all three levels.
Now, there are some commentators who seem to think that this structure alone would have made for an exciting summer cinematic experience and all the rest of the stuff about Cobb's past life and scrambled subconscious is little more than a side-show. And of course there are those who counter that the three-level inception is itself the side-show!
Let's try counting the number of realities with which audiences are presented outside of those involving the Fischer 'mission'. If you discount the opening sequence dream and the short training jaunts, there's 'limbo', Cobb and Mal's lifelong dream interrupted by a freight train, the 'reality' where Mal jumps, and the 'reality' of the plane, which may be two different realities after all. I think that's it...
The way in which this structure is built up by the screenplay and the frenetic pace with which important information is presented, left me with barely enough free awareness to ponder whether this was all a deliberate ruse on the part of the director to divert audiences away from dwelling on some of the obvious questions that he had no intention of answering. (Like, what's that gizmo in the case and how does it work?)
The ending was also always going to be a major source of diversionary anticipation. As Cobb himself notes, it's the only part of a dream that really matters to us. In Memento Nolan had employed a subliminal trick about halfway through the movie which basically gives the game away. The first time I saw it I missed it. (V didn't, which was a little annoying!) So we were expecting something similar here: a big reveal at the end, but also a 'splice' moment like ones in Vertigo or in Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos (heinously remade as Vanilla Sky), which can only really be appreciated during a second sitting.
But this time Nolan was even cannier. In his final shot he serves up more of an hmmm moment than an aha! one*, an Escher staircase of a non-conclusion. I almost expected Joseph Gordon-Levitt to pop up again and break the hush in the cinema by shouting 'Paradox!'
But maybe Nolan did give us a quick flash of the truth earlier. If you ask me that shot where Cobb and Mal are seen as an old couple walking hand in hand has a lot of explaining to do.
Western philosophy is said to have kicked off properly the moment Thales of Miletus questioned the identity between appearance and reality in the seveth century BC. This notion, this fundamental and ultimately unresolveable doubt, is possibly the most important enigma ever conceived by human kind. It was most famously elaborated a couple of centuries later by Plato in the Republic where Socrates relates the allegory of the cave. The latter, plus a wayward reading of Baudrillard, is the philosophical underpinning of the Matrix trilogy.
Now most of us who sat through all three of those films ended up with a strong sense that they'd rather overextended themselves metaphysically. Yet philosophy is the one aspect of Inception where Nolan has kept things nicely tight, avoiding the conceptual proliferation that ultimately undermined the Wachowskis' franchise.
There are two powerful and quite disturbing ideas in play here — firstly, that reality has somehow been laid on for me personally, that everyone and everything I see are part of my own mind (solipsism) and secondly, the even more unsettling idea that death — and suicide specifically — might offer a path to awakening. I suspect that both of these occur to most intelligent people at some point in their lives, even if they are immediately dismissed as nonsense.
There are some stunning visual effects in Inception, many of the kind one is only used to seeing in the more pretentious kind of mobile phone ad. Oddly these are rarely central to the developing action, except perhaps in the zero-gravity hotel corridor scene, which was carried off in a real not imagined CGI space. (That scene also accounted for one of the film's many comic moments.)
This is the kind of movie that's worth going to see with someone else, because you are going to need to talk about it afterwards. Fortunately I'm married to a convoluted subconscious. V often bemoans the fact that she is far more inhibited in her dreams than she is in real life; it's as if she takes reality as a dream and then pays for it during REM sleep! Her relationship with mirrors is another long one...which is perhaps why her favourite scene in Inception was 'pliable Paris' with Cobb and Ariadne.
Grade: A (-)
* And who can forget the way Kubrick combined aha! with eeeeeh?! at the end of The Shining.