Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception

In Christopher Nolan's previous non-Batman film, The Prestige, Robert Angier says at one point that man's "reach exceeds his imagination" in response to Nikola Tesla's bitter contention that our grasp exceeds our nerve. Tesla, a genius buried for decades in the history books by the inventors who stole from him and led lives of great fame, fell in the estimation of his peers due to his eccentric beliefs about scientific possibility. He proposed ideas that people could not bring themselves to contemplate, and soon he went from being one of the most notable engineers of his day to a footnote to be dug up by the faithful. To him, man's problem was not that science went too far but that it did not go far enough, and the primitive superstition and ignorance of the world hindered us as a species.

Angier's modified quote gets at something else, an idea that could stand for Nolan's ethos as a filmmaker. For the magician, Tesla's genius proves that the world is so complicated and full of potential that what sets us back is an inability to process the grand complexity of the universe. With six prior films, Nolan, the most ambitious mainstream filmmaker of his day, has pursued this idea through art. Where other A-list blockbuster filmmakers content themselves to churn out stale, formulated pictures that push just enough buttons to earn a big opening weekend (which is all that matter anymore), Nolan has ideas. To be fair, thus far his reach has indeed exceeded his grasp: The Prestige was a visual tour-de-force and an atmospheric delight, but I've yet to determine whether I find it a convincing examination of obsessive rivalry or simply a top-notch con job, a question I seek to answer for myself soon when I re-examine the film. Batman Begins, while an improvement over the previous franchise films, spent far too much time with its exposition and shot itself in the foot at the end by undermining Nolan's attempt to add semi-realistic verisimilitude to the franchise with a microwave gun and a shocking level of collateral damage. Even The Dark Knight, easily the finest and most ambitious Hollywood epic since the final Lord of the Rings film, lost itself in its politics, conjuring numerous allusions to the War on Terror but leaving a question in everyone's mind whether it was really condemning Bush's policies or supporting them (both sides must omit certain sections of the film to support their points of view.) Despite his drive and his desire to do something will all the money entrusted to him, Nolan has always typically retained his most incisive work for his more intimate films, not capturing the same verve with his blockbusters.

Until now.


Inception will not convert those opposed to Nolan's style, and, despite the raving of the Rotten Tomatoes users over the effrontery necessary to dislike one of the director's films, this does not make them Philistines nor trolls. I sympathize with the complaint registered that a director as literal and detail-obsessed as Nolan is not the ideal candidate for making a movie about dreams. Indeed, for all of the film's twists and turns that lead dream worlds to crumble and distort, Inception only fleetingly taps into an oneiric mood, and the film never takes on an ephemeral tone even in the sustained build-up of the last hour.

Instead, Nolan does essentially what he did with the Batman films: he takes a subject that is inherently fantastical and roots it in a straightforward, crisp aesthetic of semi-realism. While this stylistic choice does not reflect the true nature of dreams, it allows Nolan to take the heist film to a new realm. With Inception, Nolan steps out of the shadow of his biggest aesthetic influence, Michael Mann, to make a heist thriller without boundaries, one that extends to the realm of science fiction and, more surprisingly, the first convincing romantic story of Nolan's career.

Wasting no time attempting to ease the audience into the film, Nolan opens with Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an Extractor, attempting to steal information from a businessman's mind on behalf of a rival corporation. Just as the audience gets a handle on which scenario is a dream and which is reality, the director kicks the chair out from under us, revealing the initial dream to be a dream within a dream and the supposed reality merely the first layer of a dream. Yeah, it's gonna be that kind of movie. Once everyone wakes up for real, we know that the mission has been bungled though the nature and purpose of that mission remains just out of reach. Dom viciously berates one of the members of his team, the "architect" Nash, for slipping up in designing the target's dream world, thus giving the man the opportunity to deduce that he was dreaming and wake himself. The businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), reveals then that he was actually testing Dom and his crew and that, save for the architect whose failure will get all their names on the rival company's hit list, he admires their work.

Saito then gives them a new job, one that could clear everyone's name and allow the exiled Dom to return to the United States. Just as the other company hired the Extractors to steal information from Saito, so too does the man want the team to infiltrate another rival, the son of a dying energy tycoon, not to steal an idea but implant one. Dom's crew say that such an act, the titular inception, cannot be done, that the brain can always trace the root of an idea and it will know that it received a planted suggestion from an outside source. Cobb, however, believes he can pull it off, and he sets out to replace his lost architect and plan a heist that makes the complexities of the Ocean's movies look as difficult as stealing a piggy bank.

One of Nolan's key flaws as a director is that neither he nor his frequent editor, Lee Smith, have the instincts to know when to cut a scene or produce a neatly flowing document. The Dark Knight's editing left some scenes so unresolved that the film screeches to a halt in two or three places. Here, however, the scattershot editing works in the film's favor. As Dom tells Ariadne (Ellen Page), the gifted college grad student he hires as the new architect, dreams have no concrete beginning or end; we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a situation, never thinking about how we got there. Thus, Nolan's habit of simply dropping into shots works to the film's benefit, helping the jumping narrative blend dream with reality even more convincingly.

Likewise, Nolan's clunky, expository dialogue, which makes up most of the script's lines, does not bog down the film but provide a much needed anchor as the director takes us into deeper and deeper layers of the subconscious. Dom's point man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is always explaining, but that's his job: he does the research, calculates the times, and synchronizes the layers of the dream, so he must carefully go over the details. Ariadne needs vivid descriptions of places to recreate them in the minds of others. Even Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose talents of fake identity in the real world allow him to actually take the appearance and voice of others in dreams, needs to know the character of his impersonations. On a psychological level, the further these characters travel, the more even they cannot suss out what is imagined and what is real, and their thick dialogue becomes their only tether back to sanity.


Thankfully, the detailed speech does not extend to Nolan's literal-minded dream state. We learn the "rules" quickly: any pain experienced in dreams is genuinely felt because the brain processes the nerve responses, but those who die simply wake up. In order to pull off the inception, however, the target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and the team must be sedated for hours, necessitating a sedative so strong that anyone who dies will not wake up but enter into a limbo state that, due to the temporal state of dreams (which slows exponentially the deeper one ventures), could last decades before dumping a psychologically destroyed person back into the real world where only a few hours have passed. Why any of this is is rightly not explained, because how could one ever provide a sufficient reason?

While the dialogue does gunk up the film in a few places, Nolan counterbalances any potential issue with a rich narrative. Without losing sight of the heist story, the director splits focus to show the dangers of burying into one's mind. Those who enter the dreams of another can manipulate the world, but the subconscious recognizes shifts and projections of people slowly gather around foreign bodies as if white blood cells targeting potential contagions. The more one subdivides the dream state, the more unstable and unpredictable the subconscious becomes.

This is most evident not in Fischer, who has trained himself to withstand Extractors and marshals an army to defend his thoughts, but Dom. Like Michael Mann, Nolan cares for the dichotomy between good guy and bad guy, from the rival magicians in The Prestige to, of course, the fine line that separates Batman from the Joker. But Inception features no villain, nor, to be honest, anyone of heroic action; even Saito bears no animosity for Fischer, and wants only to break up his father's energy empire to prevent a corporate superpower from forming. (In fact, the father issues Fischer confronts in his dreams make for surprisingly touching material.) But lingering feelings of regret and guilt cloud Dom's mind, made corporeal in the dream world in the form of a projection of his wife Mallorie (Marion Cotillard).

Like the vision of the protagonist's wife in Solaris only much, much darker, "Mal" filters in and out of the picture, tormenting Cobb and actively fighting against the team's goals as she becomes his demons. The idea that protagonist and antagonist are merely flip sides of the same person is therefore literalized, with Cobb forced to fight himself in the form of the person he loves more than anything. The fragments of happier times, or seemingly happier times, that Nolan intercuts into the film gradually morph from bewildering shock cuts into devastating snatches of a horrific situation. It's an evolution that relies on direction and acting to sell, and while Nolan cannot match Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio takes the similar unfolding of a doomed, half-imagined free-fall of a relationship that he captured in Shutter Island to another level. Never has DiCaprio given a performance this good; in this film, he plays a man who knows that he's slipping into madness and putting on a brave face anyway. When a Newsweek writer, the same one who wrote about how awkward he thought it was to watch gay actors play straight roles, typed up his latest grab-bag of embarrassing nonsense about how DiCaprio never smiles anymore in his movies (no, seriously), perhaps he was so focused on making an ass out himself yet again not to consider that Dom is doing good not to break down screaming, much less put on a happy face.

Of course, the biggest issue with Nolan's previous attempts to ape Mann on some level is that the Brit cannot effectively work in Mann's milieu. He gets lost when he gets himself in too deep, and "too deep" is where Mann starts. With Inception, Nolan turns to a different, equally precise director for guidance, Stanley Kubrick. Now, as great a director as Mann is, he, and everyone else, is no Kubrick, so if Nolan couldn't match his first hero, he certainly couldn't do so with Stan. Yet Kubrick's style hedges closer to the kind that Nolan has shaped for himself. Like Nolan (and unlike Mann), Kubrick is removed from the action, gazing from afar to collect all the details. Not nearly as detached as the American ex-pat, Nolan is also not as sweeping and holistic, and where Kubrick stood back to survey like a general, Nolan just wants to clear his head enough to get a handle on things. Amazingly, he finally does so with his most twisted, Byzantine film yet. By stepping out of the fracas, he paradoxically manages to travel deeper than ever before into the thick of his gnarled vision and not get lost.

Appropriate to Nolan's left-brained vision, the Kubrick influence can be most readily seen in literal form. Nolan takes from the director the setpiece that allowed his character to seemingly walk upside down and float in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan uses the old school setup with a few digital touches for a thrilling fight in a hotel hallway as the movement of people in one state alters the gravity of the entire world of another. The long hallway itself could be a vague reference to The Shining, but the execution is all Nolan and the second-most exciting thing he's directed since he flipped a semi.


Nolan has never made a perfect film, and he doesn't start here. Even for a film about dreams, some plot-holes crop of when some aspects of certain dreams don't jive with the rules we've been given. Too, a few expository scenes are simply too weighty with lines, especially one where Page's character, only just introduced to the fold, starts asking extremely personal questions about Dom's life and demanding answers from him that heap on the plot and backstory. But there's something dull about perfection anyway, hermetic and removed. Pauline Kael once wrote, "Great films are rarely perfect films" and, with a few exceptions (Citizen Kane, nearly all the upper tier of Kubrick's filmography), I'd rather watch a film made a few missteps while reaching for something that pull back just to ensure immaculate design of a lesser movie. However much Nolan might fail to meet the goals he sets for himself in most of his movies, he still reaches, goddammit, and that means something these days.

But let us not worry about whether Inception is a masterpiece, for to do so would only fuel a hype machine already barreling out of control. Greatness only comes when a work of art sits in the mind long enough to take full root, and the constant search for modern masterpieces is less important than finding the movies that really grab you. For what it's worth, I would not likely consider Inception a masterpiece, as it has little to say about the human condition, or even the nature of dreams. But it's proof that even the maker of the third-highest grossing film of all time can still go on to make his breakthrough.

A hodgepodge of inspirations as much as the director's other films, Inception jumbles together a variety of genres, philosophies and artistic influences.The complexity of the film's sources may be lost on some, like Patrick Goldstein, who mocked a review, a positive one no less, for referencing both Jung (which is pretty standard in a film about dreams, no?) and the classic French heist film Rififi. Goldstein's rant devolved so quickly into hysterics and a desperate plea for critics to maybe know a little less about their subjects so that they might reflect the common man that I suspect he invited some members of the Rotten Tomatoes community to come to his office so he could pander to them real-time as he was writing. Perhaps if he was not simply trying to drum up page views, he might have put any effort into his piece at all and at least countered the statement with a reminder that Rififi unfolded in near-silence, while Inception uses Nolan's heavy exposition, but then that would be an actually relevant comment on the movie itself, which I suspect Goldstein didn't even see before his screed on the importance of maintaining a consensus and keeping the hype machine chugging.

That is my main concern for the film's future, that people will not examine it -- whether they ultimately like or dislike their findings -- and instead view Inception in the stifling vacuum created by marketing, in which movies suck the money out of our wallets and the synapses of our brains, numbing us to a simple "thumbs up/thumbs down" reaction; everyone blames Siskel & Ebert for this, but at least they backed up their reasoning. Analyzing the twists and turns of Inception may not reward in the same way that readings of the humanist works of an Ozu or a Kiarostami lead to greater understanding of not only the movie but life, but why not have a go at sorting out some of Nolan's dreamscape?

Some fault The Prestige for caring more about fooling the audience than letting the magic infuse the film, a contention I occasionally agree with (thus I am always switching my preference for magician-based films of 2006 between Nolan's more science-centric thriller and The Illusionist, which better captures the intoxication and beguiling charm of being hoodwinked into seeing something wonderful). But The Prestige was not about magic but illusions, standing previously as the director's finest outpouring of his love for legerdemain. Nolan loves to pull a fast one on us, not because he thinks himself superior but because he's got some cheek on him. Not all con jobs are mean-spirited, and the director appeals to our desire to work out that which stymies us. Some, as they do when shown a magic trick, will demand to know the secret but will give up when the magician playfully wags his finger. Others will study the move until they can perform it themselves, and it is those people to whom Nolan caters.

Inception is his greatest swindle yet, in the best possible sense: by leaving its imagery on the table, existing outside even the most expository dialogue the film has to offer, the director imparts his vision onto us and entrusts the audience with taking from it what they will. Inception's truncated final shot sent a groan of withheld resolution from the crowd, but the tease only implanted the idea of the film deeper into their minds, and the appreciation pouring out of the crowd as they left the theater reveals that Nolan's trickery is not cruel. It's a sign of respect in a field where no one seems to believe in the maturity of an audience anymore, and the taste of the stereotyped "masses" that Goldstein defends so pathetically might hedge closer to that of the critics' if the mainstream treated them with respect. "You musn't be afraid to dream a bit bigger, darling," Eames says to Arthur as he brandishes a ludicrous weapon during a shootout with hostile subconscious projections, and the line may be as much a challenge to everyone else currently using up hundreds of millions of dollars of studio money to no artistic end as it is a offhand bit of British cheek.


17 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Jake! I am linking back to this as I type. I especially like your thoughts on the closing shot and how not all con games are cruel (as mirrored in the Fischer plot).

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  2. I agree about the Fischer plot. I didn't want to go into it with the review (I might do a more in-depth post, maybe at the end of the year after it hits home video), but I loved that they actually helped Robert out and gave him a peace, even as they brought up questions of how ethical that was (and the ethics here are a lot less murky and confused as they are in TDK).

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  3. Uh...yeah...I don't want to spoil anything for your readers...but the "completion" of the Fischer story arc...LOVED IT! It was literally like something out of a dream when he opened that safe...it was so simple and universal a concept/imagery (and now that I think of it, perhaps a nod to "Blue Velvet" and Lynch?)...and it totally floored me. I actually got choked up during that scene. And some critics say there was no emotion in the film...

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  4. Well said. The great thing about this movie is that whenever there is a flaw, it is directly compensated for by another aspect. Characters that could be called cardboard are livened up by the performances, etc.

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  5. Jake - I read your eloquent and enthusiastic post here after writing the first draft of mine - which isn't nearly as positive as yours. I enjoyed the film's premise and themes, but I wasn't very gripped, touched, or visually wowed by it. I plan to give it another viewing before I post my response.

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  6. Well Jake, this is certainly the most challenging film I've seen in quite some time, probably since Kaufman's SYNCHEDOCHE, NEW YORK, but in the end the brilliance won out over the seeming narrative convolutions. I went with a 4/5 rating, as I wasn't yet convinced this was an absolute masterpiece, though I may at some point come around to that position. Until the end, I wasn't emotionally stirred, though that wasn't the underpinning Nolan was searching for at that point. It's a film that we'll return to over and over, and you can take a bow my friend. The way I see it (and I've read most of the reviews out there over the past day) this is the most extraordinary review yet written by a film blogger. I'm hardly surprised.

    I accidentally left out several links at the diary post at my place Jake, but this has been rectified.

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  7. It helps, Sam, that I don't consider a 5/5 rating to be a masterpiece. I sort of go with Ebert's way of looking at his 4-star ratings, that they signify a film that is excellent rather than a masterpiece. I just don't feel comfortable throwing out that word for a new movie without seriously thinking it over (it took me months to conclude that I really did think Inlgourious Basterds was a modern classic).

    There are aspects of the film I still feel I didn't get at, both due to spoiler considerations and the simple fact that this is a film, like Nolan's others, that needs to be watched more than once. I'm sure I'll spot flaws (well, more of them, at least) when I go into greater detail, but I've also touched upon something that grew out of a review of The Prestige that I'm working on that I've since saved to be part of a larger post about Nolan, to be finished once I watch Insomnia and Following. I don't want to give it all away, but the gist is that it's Nolan's flaws that make me love him, that more than anyone I can think of he toes the line between termite art of the grandest order (he makes genre films that completely break genre and leap into other styles without you immediately catching him) and white elephant art (his need to insert Big Ideas into such artistic transgression). Hopefully I can make a better case for why I would give a film that I've pointed out as flawed five stars, and how I can love Nolan despite all the things he does that give me pause.

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  8. Great review. "One of Nolan's key flaws as a director is that neither he nor his frequent editor, Lee Smith, have the instincts to know when to cut a scene or produce a neatly flowing document. The Dark Knight's editing left some scenes so unresolved that the film screeches to a halt in two or three places. "

    I know what you mean about this. I sometimes felt like they seemed to love everything that they put on the screen so much that they didn't cut where they could have.

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  9. @Sadako: That's my instincts, though I think my upcoming review of The Prestige will show that, sometimes, these two know EXACTLY what they're doing. Plus, considering that this review was 3000 words, the Prestige one will be even longer and I'm already planning a supplementary post that will talk about Inception more as well as give a broader overview about what draws me to Nolan, perhaps I'm not at liberty to criticize others for not knowing when to shorten something.

    @Sasha: Well, who could ask for a better assessment?

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  10. Freakin amazing!! I loved almost every single second of this!! Nolan is going to be considered as one of the best directors of all-time now, and I will stand by and say, yes, I have to also agree. Check out my review here: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/inception-2010/

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  11. A very passionate review with arguments to back it up. I don't agree with it, or at least don't agree about the effect of the film, but I enjoyed seeing it through your eyes.

    I do agree, however, that DiCaprio is fantastic. I think this will go down as the most underrated performance of the year, and, to be honest, I consider that Nolan's fault, because DiCaprio is lost in the shuffle of everything else going on, mostly plot exposition and empty action. When the film actually gives DiCaprio a scene worth acting, he nails it, each and every time.

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  12. Great review! My only comment is to those critics who claim the film is void of emotion. They were clearly in the loo when Cotillard lept to hear death. DiCaprio nailed the emotion of his character throughout and his performance added a level of humanity to the film that made it even more exceptional.

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  13. Wow. Two 5-star films in a row, eh? You must be impressed.

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  14. cool action movie ^^. Like this!

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  15. i like your thoughts on the movie, check this out
    http://splicedreviews.blogspot.com/2010/08/inception.html

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  16. good one ..

    This one however talks on the concepts of the movie with pictures to help make it easy.

    http://digestivepyrotechnics.blogspot.com/2012/03/inception.html

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