The basic idea of Christopher Nolan’s Inception is simple—it has to be for that kind of budget. People expecting a viewing experience as loaded with zeitgeist as The Dark Knight are going to be disappointed. It’s not that Nolan’s talent has dwindled; it’s just that this adventure doesn’t plug into a national state of panic: the mind set of the election year 2008.
Inception is much more mere-movie than that: a complex heist movie, with fantastic, sometimes electrifying science fiction touches. The mastermind Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his tough partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in tailored suits and slicked back hair) are the key members in an illegal Impossible Mission Force, on missions of industrial espionage. They sign on with Saito, a Japanese trillionaire (Ken Watanabe). Their assignment is to descend into the sleeping subconscious of the plutocrats’ young rival Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), using technology that allows them to design dreamscapes and to meet with the victim within in them.
The main argument against Inception is the dreamlands don’t have the chaos or non-sequitors of ordinary dreams. Thus the several dozen film critics who have stoutly maintained that their dream life is far more chaotic than Inception, overlook the fact that these dreamscapes are blueprinted by Cobb’s team.
We take it in stride that such dream-plundering technology exists; we hear in an aside that it was developed by the military. The devise Cobb uses is portable and fits into a small aluminum suitcase; we only glimpse it, and it looks like an old-fashioned reel to reel tape deck.
There are two factors that make the Robert Fischer heist particularly complex. One factor is that the job entails planting a suggestion in the victim: a suggestion that will essentially ruin his fortune if he follows up on it. The other factor is a surprise: it’s introduced with the startling image of a freight train barreling down the middle of LA’s Wilshire Boulevard: the unpredictableness showing that something has gone wrong and that Fischer isn’t as unarmed as he looks.
As in the Bond films, there are shifts of international scenery even before the long sequence of plundering dreamland begins. Before the journey turns inward, Cobb ushers members of his gang through Japan, Paris, Mombassa, and Sydney.
Because of the complexity of this heist, the team is forced to create dreams within dreams, and each deeper dream takes place in an exponentially larger time frame. A false move could get the men locked up in a Tibetan style bardo: an unreal, self-created prison of fantasies where they could languish for decades or more.
Throughout the film, Nolan insists on the practical effect: the miniature, the location and the set, as opposed to CG. The visual tangibility of this Freudian caper adds to its sci-fi plausibility. And Inception does explain most of the important things in its take, even though it drops us right in to the middle of the careers of these somanauts.
Inception has the chill of a film that doesn’t deal with sex or love. Except, that is, in the kind of love that’s doomed, or a parents love children, whose faces we don’t even see until the finale. There’s a tangible British frost in the meeting between DiCaprio and Michael Caine, playing father and son—or is it father in law and son?—in a dusty Parisian classroom. This iciness seemed plausible; why shouldn’t people who only really live in dreams have the dulled feelings of opium addicts?
However, Inception is warmed by Ellen Page as a member of Cobb’s team, a labyrinth maker called Ariadne: Nolan finds stillness and sweetness in a young actress usually used for restless intelligence.
Ariadne is the dreamland’s Alice, the architect who plans the landscapes of these dreams. And she stays cool but sympathetic through the film. The quality Jane Fonda had—the prettiness that had some steel and bone in it—is coming out in Page. It’s actually an inspiration that Nolan takes Page to Paris. The city is a perfect backdrop for Page’s particular kind of self-assurance.
And there’s something at stake in the adventure, some emotions: there’s a ghost in the machine, so to speak. Mal, the wife Cobb seemingly left behind in the dreamworld, tends to turn up at dangerously inconvenient times. Ariadne discovers Mal when sharing a dream with Cobb. The wife is played touchingly by Marion Cotillard. And the story of her entrapment has serious horror in it. Everything we see in Inception is unreal…but what happened to Mal, happens to schizophrenics every day.
Admittedly, the lure of fantasy and the action-man role mirrors DiCaprio’s last film Shutter Island.
It’s hard to guess DiCaprio’s appeal easily; physcially, it’s someething like James Cagney’s no-nonsensicalness, but without Cagney’s urban intelligence; in part after part he seems to be what Cobb calls a character here: some of his appeal is as “a shade,” being the living ghost of the young star who beguiled the world in Titanic. DiCaprio will probably never play a normal romantic leading man ever again, as the youthful confusion crumbles into middle-aged doubt and into a natural realm for him: the film noir protagonist, a trimmer Van Heflin, sweating bullets even as he’s shooting them. He’s more Cagney-like here, assured: a man in charge, despite some memories he’s got buried in the basement.
If Inception is sometimes so imposing that it’s impersonal, it has scope and size: it absorbs you and shakes you up. Hans Zimmer’s digital Alpenhorns rattle the theater like the baritones in a grand opera. Rather than making your fillings hurt, the thunder keeps you aroused. It’s visionary filmmaking, uncommon at this grand scale, with neither the mawkishness of What Dreams May Come nor the spiritual horsefeathers of the Matrix trilogy.
Nolan has made the kind of picture that locks some people out, because so much of it was worked out in the director’s head. He may have made a movie to anger both sides: on the one hand, alienating art house fans who never want to hear a another shot fired in anger ever again. On the other hand, alienating action movie fans who don’t want any explanations for why the heavy ordinance is going off.
The downside of Inception is the crowd-pleasing scenes that hold this fascinating tale together: the excesses of the last level of the team’s dream, an ice-fortress siege. It’s as if Nolan was trying to restage the mountaintop assault in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) with more realistic modern equipment, without any of the dawn skies or razor-sharp lens flares. A scene of a squad of snowboard-mounted soldiers in puffy parkas being drawn by a white-painted half-track is the most action-lacking moment in Inception, bad enough to shake your faith in the film. The shootouts in a rainy Los Angeles seem similarly unimaginative: if these dreamers can dream anything, why are they dreaming of a Michael Mann movie?
And in these landscapes where everything can happen, why do these wonderlands look essentially like $500 a night hotels and endless financial districts? Are they supposed to be alluring, or is it just the world Nolan has embraced: the idea of a perfect spotless executive heaven? (Money, and Nolan must have a lot of it, changes everything.)
Action sequences aren’t Nolan’s strong suit, anyway. Nothing happens during the firefights or chases that’s as audacious and frequently thrilling as the moments when Nolan folds Paris in on itself or Escherizes interior spaces. He brings us into an abandoned city, crumbling into the sea, like Beirut gone cyclopean…or leads us into a Japanese lair of black and gold. The pirouetting of a small metal top on a wooden table turns out to have great significance. This spinning top, as enigmatic as Schrödinger’s Cat itself, is something other filmmakers will be referring to for years.