[This review was originally published on my blog The Photo Play.]
Christopher Nolan is becoming best-known these days for his Batman movies, but before he was a purveyor of superhero pulp he was reinventing the noir genre for the late twentieth century with mind-bending films like Following and Memento, the latter of which brought Nolan to the attention of American audiences. His films that are not merely adaptations or remakes of the works of others are ridiculously complex and yet still in the end comprehensible and satisfying. (And yes, Memento was an adaptation of his brother’s short story “Memento Mori,” but the two seem to have been artistic collaborators very early on.) Whenever Nolan adapts a foreign work to film, whether that be the remake of the Nordic movie Insomnia or the filming of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, the results are always good, but not as great as his fans know they could be. After making Warner Brothers a giant pile of money with the smarter-than-average The Dark Knight, he has been given a budget large enough to free his delicately intricate imagination to what one can only assume are the distant limits of his capabilities. And yet, at the end of it, one is left believing that he could do even more.
Inception is the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who makes a career out of invading the dreams of others, usually for the purposes of extracting valuable information from the invaded. As in all good noir films, Cobb is an imperfect anti-hero, surrounded by secrets he doesn’t want to admit, and haunted by a mysterious femme fatale. And just like Humphrey Bogart in so many of his films, Cobb takes a questionable job from a questionable man; but unlike Bogart’s usual roles, Cobb is actually doing some very bad things for his own selfish reasons. A bad decision he made some years back with his wife led to some very unfortunate consequences, and he escapes frequently into his own dream world to sort out the pain.
The conceit of entering another person’’s dreams has drawn comparison’s to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix. Unlike the latter, Inception does not dumb down the concept at the beginning and then needlessly complicate it as the story goes on. Instead, all of the complicated explanations are laid out in advance, with multiple examples of how the dream-invasion technology works, so that when the time comes for the extended invasion to which all of this is leading, the audience is never truly lost or confused. Dreams are layered within dreams, and those within more dreams. Those lines of Shakespeare come to mind when watching Cobb and his team casually build and destroy entire worlds at will, “This vision… shall dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.”
Cobb’s dream team–the cast of which includes such interesting choices as Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer) and Ellen Page (Juno)–is hired not to extract information from the heir to an energy empire (Cillian Murphy), but to plant an idea within his mind: not extraction but inception. As Cobb and his colleagues point out, inception is extremely difficult if not impossible because people can tell if an idea is being forced upon them from the outside. If a grown man feels that he is being coerced into an idea, he will fight against it. But Cobb takes the job not only because he wants what is being offered as a reward, but because he knows from experience that inception is possible; he also knows from experience that it is very dangerous for everyone involved.
If there are any weaknesses in Inception they revolve mostly around the fact that our dreams are never as orderly or logical as those laid out here. To be sure, the film’s dreams are being designed by architects and are intentionally given narratives and a certain level of order, but Inception lacks any real presentation of the bizarre randomness that we actually experience when we fall asleep. Eternal Sunshine understood this strangeness much better, although that was a less ambitious film than Nolan’s. There is also the ethical question of whether or not we should be rooting for Cobb when he is engaging in such dubious activity. Even so, he is not presented as a moral hero like Bruce Wayne who is only trying to do the right thing; Cobb is dangerously selfish in his desires, even to the point of putting his team at risk in order to keep his own secrets safe.
Inception has an overabundance of originality and intelligence, something entirely lacking in most films today. Nolan as auteur puts out some of the best films of our time, and even when he is working with other people’s stories he manages to keep it smart and enthralling (unlike some other auteurs we all know). His next slated project is the third (and promised last) movie of his Batman series, after which he will reportedly move on to produce a relaunch of the Superman franchise. My hope, though, is that he can continue as an auteur to direct the kind of films that push the envelope of filmmaking’s capabilities.