Inception is nothing if not the most ambitious Hollywood movie of the year. The hype machine has been telling us so for months, and the actual film, whatever its ultimate successes and failures, bears this out. Its director, Christopher Nolan, has built a career on an obsession with tricky narratives that are, by their very nature, difficult to navigate, from the low-budget Following and Memento through to his emergence as a major Hollywood player with the box-office shredding Batman films. These narratives can feel like personal obsessions-- Memento’s backward-tracking film noir hero was driven by the need to make sense of the narrative of his own life and forced to depend, thanks to crippling short-term memory loss, on the kindness of lovers and strangers to tell him the truth about his past. (Nolan upped the ante, clever boy, by telling the story backwards.) But the very trickiness of Nolan’s notions can also feel imposed from without—the multiple-narrative storytelling strategy that pointed The Dark Knight to its potentially orgasmic finish backfired, and the movie collapsed into an incoherent, pretentious heap. However, even narrative devices that are employed to serve the story thematically aren’t necessarily a measure of success. Nolan kept the audience suitably and satisfyingly disoriented in Insomnia in a way that conveyed the distress of the sleepless lead detective (Al Pacino) investigating the film’s central mystery, but in The Prestige the cinematic sleight-of-hand with which he constructed the movie was involving, but it couldn’t hide the obviousness of the movie’s big twists.
I can remember growing up and being swept up in the breathless rush of information gushing forth from movies as disparate as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Network and even a thriller like The Andromeda Strain, movies that attacked their subjects with seriousness but with wildly different tones—cosmic mystery, anger fueled by satirical corporate-speak, poker-faced medical and military panic-- and made me feel as though I were somehow inside the events and being carried along. It didn’t matter that I may not have understood all the ins and outs of what was being referenced or inferred or even explicitly laid out (some of which was due to the age at which I saw them, surely)—the movies themselves carried the electric charge of engagement with their audience that helped at least this viewer to connect with what was going on. The very act of watching them, plugging into them, made me feel smart, alive, ready for more.
This kind of tidal wave of visceral connection is clearly what Nolan is going for in Inception, and the breathless pace at which the movie hurtles into his opening set piece, all the way through its tangle of exposition, made me eager to anticipate the moment when, like in those other films, I would find a way to just give myself over to the experience of tumbling through the different levels of consciousness on which the movie plays out its mind games. Leonardo Di Caprio, with that familiar haunted glumness that is fast (after Shutter Island and The Departed) becoming his signature, is Dom Cobb, a corporate spy whose stock in trade is the extraction of company secrets by means of invading, along with a team of specialists, the mindscapes of his targets and navigating their unique psychological terrain. After a test-run designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of Cobb’s talents, he’s hired by a smooth bigwig (Ken Watanabe) not to steal secrets but instead implant an idea into the brain of a rival businessman (Cillian Murphy)—an idea to dissemble the monopolistic company he has inherited even as his own father (Pete Postelthwaite) lays dying, thus opening up the marketplace for the competition, an idea which he must perceive as organic, his own.
So far, so good. As it has been pointed out, this is essentially a Rififi-esque caper movie blown up to gargantuan Hollywood blockbuster proportions, and as such Inception remains aware and unashamed of its genre roots at this point, as Cobb and his business-like assistant (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) embark on assembling the team that will be required to perform this daring reversal of their usual methods, a job which some of them believe can’t even be done. We’re introduced to the chemist (Dileep Rao) who will concoct a sedative powerful enough to allow Cobb and company access to several different levels of consciousness, all the while keeping their inner ears “alive” to physical influence from the outside world so that they might be jolted out of the dream state at the crucial moment. Then there’s Tom Hardy (magnetic, and near unrecognizable from his thrilling turn in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson of last year) as the team muscle who can capably assume the identity of various important acquaintances of the target. And lastly, Ariadne (note literary/psychological reference, please), the student recruited by Cobb to create the fantastic interior dreamscapes on which the intrigue will play out. She’s played by Ellen Page with the actress’s patented perky insouciance and native intelligence, but thankfully minus the Juno-influenced snark, and she seems alive to the possibilities of creating mazes of the mind designed to be deliberately perplexing, especially to Cobb, who needs to be kept most unfamiliar with the mental terrain she creates in order to keep the projection of his very unhappy dead wife (Marion Cottiard), which tends to pop up at inopportune times, at bay. All these actors are sharp and fun to watch, and if their characters are written a bit on the thin side, it may be a side-effect of existing in a movie crammed to this degree with stuff. (I saw Inception with my friend Don, and I like his suggestion that a good way to look at these characters, one which could justify that thinness, is as separate aspects—the scientist, the businessman, the macho swagger, the long-buried creative idealist—of Cobb’s personality.) And they all get their introductions amidst a sea of exposition, which is annoying and overwritten, but also part of the territory—I didn’t resent it so much as accept it as part of what I wanted to see these terrific actors navigate successfully. And frankly, the effort it took to keep up with it was strangely more compelling than I expected—I wanted it to gel and make sense.
Inception hints that the worlds Ariadne will have to create will materialize the awe-inspiring, disorienting center of Nolan’s concept. The imagery most familiar to audiences subjected to the movie’s unstoppable advertising campaign are the images of Cobb and Ariadne sitting at a sidewalk café, expressionless as a Parisian street crumbles and explodes around them. Cobb illustrates to the woman the possibilities of dreamscape design by folding the city over and onto itself, and it is an undeniably exhilarating effect. Later, Gordon-Levitt further demonstrates the power of creative dream technology by taking the young designer on a walk up a staircase that leads nowhere, a reference to Escher that portends the visual feats of disorienting space and surreal unreliability of the dream environment that the movie surely holds in store.
But when Nolan gets us into the meat of the action, in which the fates of this team of mental raiders, along with Watanabe and Murphy, play out amidst Ariadne’s constructs, the movie is often thrilling, but just as often it is overwhelming and suffocating. Inception settles into a extensive pattern of cross-cutting as various intrigues—a dizzying car chase, anti-gravity hand-to-hand combat (the physical disorientation of which is caused by the jarring movement of that car chase up on Consciousness Level #1), a James Bondian ski slope shootout, a frightening confrontation with the deepest fears and emotions of two major characters—work themselves out simultaneously, each affecting the other. In other words, the last half of the movie is assembled in a frenzy of simultaneous action in the manner of The Dark Knight, and though the action hangs together much better than it did in that movie, Inception simply becomes too busy for its own good (or at least for mine). My mind was working overtime just to keep the action straight in my head, but I never found a way to give myself over to it, to surrender. It’s not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie, and as such it demands that a viewer’s facilities be poured almost exclusively into following the machination of those various narrative cogs. For me, following them came at the expense of the treacherous emotional tones Nolan reaches for in the final act. There was no room in my tightened lungs and overstuffed skull for the expanse of feeling those scenes clearly intended.
More problematic, and more damningly on its own terms, is that the movie feels like a disappointment in terms of its visual imagination. After the priming of that Parisian street folding and the trip up that Escher staircase, it’s not unreasonable, I don’t think, for an audience to expect (especially for a big expensive movie like this) that Ariadne, inspired, might construct some playfully maddening cages inside which her prey and her colleagues might bounce. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable either for a movie that takes place almost entirely within the realm of the unreliable, the unpredictably mutable and ethereal, to have some of that feeling about it itself. Inception’s conception of those various levels of consciousness are pedestrian at worst (a hotel corridor, a ski slope) and half-baked at best—a skyline of cut-out skyscrapers and a cliffside beach setting that seems to be missing only a half-buried Lady Liberty. But they’re not differentiated enough in terms of the movie’s visual style to make keeping them straight any fun—the whole movie is Action 101, no variations of tone or texture, and those familiar street-folding, landscape-crumbling images from the movie’s trailers are just about it in terms of arresting special effects. Inception is a work made by a man who wants to give himself a technical workout—Nolan wants to see if he can pull off the challenges he sets for himself as a storyteller. The movie is, for all its big-ass sensibility, relatively light on pretense, which is the last thing that could be said of The Dark Knight, and I find it difficult to take points away from a filmmaker for his ambitions, for trying something not necessarily so much new as it is, oxymoronically, simply complicated. (In this pursuit Nolan seems to be spiritually kin to a director like Nicolas Roeg, who loved fracturing rather simple, and sometimes simplistic, ideas and reassembling them in ways that made them seem more... complex.)
But ambitions have to be realized, and I think Nolan only gets halfway there with Inception. I’m not suggesting that Nolan should have made a spy movie version of Mulholland Drive or The Exterminating Angel, but it would have been nice to at least sense some of the shivering instability or devilish humor of those movies, or other films which have successfully suggested dream imagery and thought and logic. A better movie for Nolan to have at least partially emulated would have been Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape, which is a lot more fun than Inception while plumbing much of the same territory. As it is, Nolan’s is ultimately too square and literal for a film about the mysteries of the mind. (Did the team have to ride an elevator from one level of consciousness to the next?) And It’s simply too much; I would have appreciated some room to breathe, a break from the movie’s insistent intensity (which is too often represented by its volume level). Had I been able to breathe, I might have been more receptive to the pain at the center of the story, that which surrounds not only Cobb and his doomed wife, but Murphy and his distant, disapproving father as well. The movie doesn’t reject Freud or Jung so much as misplace them; the two are nowhere to be found in the supposedly psychologically charged action set pieces, which is the aspect of the story Nolan really cares about. At times Inception had me right where it wanted me—it has a protracted vehicle crash off a bridge into a river that is extended so long that I’m sure somewhere Brian De Palma is cursing in envy-- and even after that feeling of disappointment has taken hold, the movie flips right over and serves up the most exhilarating cut to end credits I’ve seen since Drag Me To Hell. (It involves the image of that spinning top seen above, a recurring motif in the film.) But most often I just wanted to wake up.