Note: If you’re allergic to SPOILERS, you probably don’t want to read this review before seeing the film. If you’d like to try anyway, or if you’re willing to give it a skim, I’ve tried to keep them to the latter half of the review, and I’ve marked the spot where the spoilers begin in earnest.
Christopher Nolan’s films tend to be ruminations on loss and regret — tender morsels of bleeding humanity wrapped in an increasingly glossy, protective coating of hard-edged technical sophistication. When you get past the estimable Hollywood sparkle, you find simple dramas tightly wound around the center of each film. Leonard Shelby loses his memory and gains the capacity for infinite self-delusion. Bruce Wayne loses his parents and sacrifices his own life for the public good. Robert Angier nurtures a revenge scheme that blossoms into an endlessly cloned act of self-destruction. To be a Nolan protagonist is to perch on a razor’s edge between reason and impulse, between sanity and mania, between reality and dark dreams of aggrandizement and/or immolation of the self. The films are things of beauty, precisely constructed and expertly executed. But you wouldn’t want to live there.
The newest arrival in the dense center of Nolan’s psychological hellscape is the gruffly named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert in the navigation of other people’s dreams. Specifically, he’s a heistmaster who assembles small groups of experts to build customized architecture — like levels of a videogame — that a dreamer will inhabit, unaware that his mind is being manipulated by the enemies who are occupying the dream with him. It’s an elaborate way to steal something from another person’s mind. But the real trick is “inception,” a term that refers to the rarely attempted process of successfully planting a new concept there — surreptitiously controlling the actions of another by entering their dreams and using artful misdirection to make them think that your idea is something they came up with by themselves. It can be dangerous business, but Cobb’s convinced to give it a try when a wealthy businessman (Ken Watanabe) suggests that his success will be rewarded handsomely and uniquely — Cobb is a widower separated by legal problems from his young children, and this client promises that he can pull strings to have them reunited.
This is all dramatized with a combination of carefully applied CG work and a whole lot of old-fashioned elbow grease. Because the film employs a concept of nested dreaming that screws around with greatly accelerated temporal motion, Nolan broke out super-high-speed film and video cameras to deliver super-slow-motion footage at a thousand frames a second. (Lars Von Trier used similar equipment to shoot scenes in Antichrist.) Because the physics of one dream can play havoc with conditions in a dream taking place inside that dream, Nolan’s crew built huge mechanized rigs that allow the action on certain sets to apparently flout the laws of gravity. And because Nolan’s team doesn’t care much for technology for technology’s sake, it’s (almost) entirely shot on film — including some 65mm stock — which is processed without the influence of the digital intermediate technology that helps so many contemporary films be color-graded to resemble a bag of Skittles. The result is a film that, despite its high creative pedigree and enormous financial expense, retains a crisp and unfussy (dare I say old-fashioned?) look. It is not, thank the maker, in 3D.
The narrative ambition here is to use intellectually complex ideas about human consciousness to deliver emotional content, all the while balancing the chilly, cerebral stuff with exceptionally clever set pieces that provide a rollicking summer-action-film payoff. It sounds like a grand plan on paper, but Inception never quite pays off. For one thing, the rules of Nolan’s dreamworlds feel a bit arbitrary, and boy are they onerous to explain on screen. Despite a few nifty visual-effects sequences, the first half of Inception offers little more than a heaping helping of talk talk talk talk talk talk talk that verges on self-parody. Nolan’s films have always been overburdened by expository dialogue, and not one of them has required quite as much exposition as the immaculately conceived (reportedly it roiled around for 10 years in the auteur’s brain) Inception. I call this a shortcoming, but it seems to be just the way Nolan’s screenwriting brain works, so maybe there’s little point in complaining about it at this point — except, perhaps, to argue that adaptation may be Nolan’s forte. (I’d note that his strongest, most warmly human, film to date, The Prestige, was elegantly reworked from somebody else’s novel.) This film is weighed down in every scene by the enormous burden of guilt borne by Cobb, who blames himself for the death of his wife. Only once does Inception really theaten to cheer up, as another character steals a kiss from Ellen Page. The rest of the time, it’s sweating bullets.
This time around some reviewers have taken to referring to Nolan as an “engineer” of fabulously complex action scenes, and the descriptor is apt on several levels, referring to his processes in the script, on the screen, and behind the scenes. But the term also describes an apparently autonomous, clockwork quality to the result. Inception is a cold affair even when — or especially when — it’s facing down painful emotional truths about life, death, and the essential solipsism of our existence. Some movies are derided as essentially shapeless, but it’s possible that Inception has too much shape. I find this kind of grim fatalism highly palatable in the context of a superhero movie, which damn well better have an operatic quality to it. Frank Miller’s 1986 comic miniseries The Dark Knight Returns was so cutting-edge that it made clear the problem with Tim Burton’s Batman and its follow-ons was that it was too much vaudeville, not enough Wagner. Nolan’s The Dark Knight had significant flaws, but it also boasted a few cinematic moments for the ages, and it sure got my heart pumping. But Inception is so cool and calculated that I barely felt an upward tick in my blood pressure.
Part of the problem is that character development falls by the wayside — with the exception of Cobb, there’s not a single person in this film who functions as much more than a tiny, spinning cog in the big machine. (No less a personage than Michael Caine plays little more than a walk-on part.) Even the dream sequences in the film are fundamentally bland. One of them looks like the inside of a Hilton. Another is the snowbound setting of a secret-agent movie. There’s just not much, well, dreaminess to them. Again and again, Nolan pretty much nails the feeling of waking up from a nightmare, but he declines to take a stab at representing the surreal quality of dreaming on screen. It’s not that I want Inception to look like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or a Stan Brakhage movie, but its dreams are built like a brick shithouse, pretty much impervious to joy or whimsy, and I have to consider that a missed opportunity. My spirits rose when a runaway locomotive plowed without warning through a busy city intersection, then dipped a little when I realized that the train’s appearance was specifically justified by the narrative. Inception runs nearly two and a half hours long, and it’s packed so full that it doesn’t have any time to waste on fripperies that don’t move the story forward — the kind of extraneous stuff that convinces us that its characters are human.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
I don’t have to like it, but Inception is designed to be a big, chilly machine — big enough and baffling enough, at least, to justify the expenditure of some $200 million of Warner Bros.’ money — and it’s just not interested in much more than the facts of Cobb’s existence. At the heart of matters is Cobb’s relationship with his late wife, Mal (Marion Cottilard), who has been showing up to sabotage his dream operations — or, to put it more correctly, his subconscious projection of her has been making his life difficult. To be clear, this is not a ghost who’s invading dreams. It’s not his wife. It’s projection from his subconscious of his wife as he imagines her, and he imagines her angry and resentful. But Dream Mal is no substitute for the real thing, although he badly wants her to be. He wants to believe that, if he dreams long and hard enough, he can have her back. The tragedy is that Dream Mal will never do something that Cobb couldn’t anticipate. She’ll never have that independent existence, that spark of other-ness that characterizes all relationships between imperfect mates. If she slaps him in the face, buys him a pocketwatch, or sleeps with a stockboy at Tesco, it will be because he has already conceived of her doing that thing. And that’s the tragedy of dreams — even the best of all dream worlds is fundamentally an illusion, and transient.
Or is it? In a scene set in Mombasa, Kenya, Cobb recruits Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a sort of pharmacologist whose compounds allow people to enter dream worlds. The chemist wonders aloud whether people pay him to be put to sleep, or to wake up. Which world is the dream and which is reality? That line of thinking has upsetting ramifications. Inception at first seems to lament the artificiality of Cobb’s relationship with his dream woman as though it were a special case. But the human mind is always alone, dreaming or not. Every relation we have with another person is a complicated exchange of stimuli that triggers various chemical and neurological processes. The result is that your mind uses memories, visual impressions, and other data to construct, in real time, an idea that stands in for the other person. In other words, we’re all interacting every day with simulacra of the human beings that we love — the necessarily incomplete versions of them that have been created inside our heads. How much does it matter, to our experience of our own world, that those are real people with their own complicated minds, rather than just the preferred versions that we build out of the bits and pieces that we do know about them? That’s the question that I think Inception expects us to consider.
Movies themselves are a kind of dreaming, and this movie works itself into so many layered dream-environments that the concept of “reality” starts to be incidental except as the condition inhabited by the film’s audience. As Nolan pulls us all backward through the final layer of his narrative, I suppose there’s meant to be a hint of ambiguity — I kept finding myself thinking like a coder, trying to figure out if each layer of the film’s multiple dream sequences had been nested properly, so we were moving out of them completely and in the correct order. Well, they’re not — although I’m not sure exactly how everything fits together, the main trick is that the film actually opens with Cobb already deep within a dream, the bulk of the film is told in the form of a flashback that explains how he got there, and then a brief coda represents what happens next. Cobb’s final decision — he opts to enter a dream of his own making, where he can be reunited with his children under the auspices of a beaming granddad — represents a delusion: a willful abrogation of responsibility to one’s self that directly recalls Leonard Shelby’s choice at the end of Memento. As in that film, Nolan’s idea is to create an elaborate metaphor that speaks to the human condition. (Are we humans really that much different from Cobb, living forever in a perfect little world of his own creation? Don’t we, too, make our own reality? And don’t we sometimes live, like Cobb, in abject fear of our ability to inadvertently introduce a malignancy into the psyche of someone we love?)
I have all kinds of respect for Inception’s intellectual ambitions, but my feeling is the film is too elaborate and way too self-serious. It’s like a computer stuffed so full of high-performance, bleeding-edge hardware that it overheats and performs poorly because its designer neglected to allow any room for adequate airflow over the components. Maybe Nolan’s next film will embark on a demonstration that there is no such thing as free will, or some similarly grand ontological bummer. I’ll look forward to it no matter what, but I hope he can figure out a way to again populate such a story with genuinely intriguing characters (more than one, I mean) who behave in recognizably human fashion while keeping the tedious explanatory chit-chat to a minimum.