Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.
This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.
Conceptually it is brilliant. Emotionally, it’s more symbolic than felt. DiCaprio is not the warmest of actors but he fails to convince us of Cobb’s helpless love for Mal (real or phantom) in his tortured intensity. He can be intense and driven and desperate and reckless, but DiCaprio is not empathic, and he makes no emotional connection to anyone in this film. For all that narrative architecture of classical tragedy, it simply hasn’t any emotion.
Yet I was still enthralled, as involved on a second viewing as I was on the first. Maybe, as they say in the film, an idea really is like a virus. This one certainly got into me, and I think it is because of the very density of plotting and storytelling and narrative interlacing, the plays of realities down through the layers as time slows and the foundation of the dream construct becomes increasingly unstable.
One consistent complaint of the film has been how the dreams are so… literal. They are in fact recreations of familiar conventions, from recognizable urban landscapes to car chases and gunfights: reality as dropped into a genre film. I see this approach to dream life as the rational mind imposing order and familiarity on the possibilities inherent in the subconscious. It’s not the idea of the fantastic given free reign but rather suppressed into an order that most closely resembles the waking world. The people invading the subconscious of the target mind keep up the appearance of reality, of verisimilitude, to keep the dreamer unaware of the dream. The more familiar the experience, the more the dream hijackers can control and guide the subject.
When you add in the complications of dream time (five minutes of reality is about an hour of dream time) which expands exponentially the deeper you create levels of dreams within dreams, and a third layer that plays out like a literal tribute to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (was this somehow a favorite lodged in the subconscious of one of these subconscious invaders?) it more and more resembles a movie created by the dreamers. You can almost break down the members by craft: Ariadne the architect is set design, Arthur functions as a producer, Eames is their star (taking on other identities beyond his own) and Yusuf… well, as the man behind the super duper knock-out drops may not have a direct correlation to the production role but maybe you could call him the exhibitor/projectionist, providing the venue for the dream movie to occur. Only because of the design of his sedative (another narrative construct designed less out of pharmaceutical verisimilitude than dramatic complication), you can’t walk out halfway through the movie: you’re in this to the end credits.
Nolan provides the requisite spectacle to sell it as an action movie, but what is ultimately so compelling is the way that he plays with all of these factors: the way dream time changes down the levels, the cause and effect one down the chain of reality, the entropy of the final level. Kristin Thompson rightly called this a puzzle film, a multi-dimensional one in this case, but the solving of the puzzle is secondary to exploring how the pieces fit and levels interact. Apart from Mal, the dream imagery doesn’t reflect any psychological insight to the participants, merely the cultural detritus of details put together to organize their caper.
But there is another reading to it all. There’s not a character apart from Cobb with a motivation or a backstory, let alone a distinctive personality beyond generic traits and familiar movie character quirks. As explained early on in the film, the architect designs the world but the target mind populates it, and these folks are right out of genre movie central casting: the professionals who join the team behind the driven hero. A lot has been made of the final image, which teases the audience with question: did Cobb emerge from the dream or is he still stuck inside his head? After repeated viewings, I wonder if it all takes place inside his head. I posit that we could easily read this as Cobb either never escaping the dreamtime, or escaping back into it because he is unable to face his guilt over Mal. It’s a reading that explains a lot. All I know for sure is that we never escape Nolan’s mind.
The DVD features four brief “Focus Points” featurettes, focusing on “The Inception of Inception,” the castle set, the Escher-like staircases and the freight train through the city. The Blu-ray Combo Pack features these four and ten additional featurettes, which can be viewed individually, straight through as a 44-minute documentary, or dropped into the film in the “Extraction Point Mode,” which interrupts the film and branches off to the individual pieces as they relate to the film. (Because there’s no commentary through the rest of the film, that makes for a narrative interruptus.) Also exclusive to the Blu-ray is the 44-minute documentary “Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious,” a motion comic book prologue to the film, isolated tracks from the score, and galleries of conceptual and promotional art, trailers and TV spots, along with a BD-Live accessible “Confidential Files” (unavailable at time of review). The three disc set also includes a bonus DVD and digital copy.
Read Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell both tackle Inception from different angles at their blog.
Available at Amazon:
Inception (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)