by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Inception, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s major-budget Warner Bros. movie that he got to do as a personal project following the blockbuster success of his second Batman film, The Dark Knight, and which I was curious about mainly because it’s a film about dreams and their manipulation and I was wondering where a director like Nolan, who in his non-superhero projects has been famous for his deliberate cultivation of the obscure, would take a concept like that. As it turned out, it was an overwhelming movie in all the wrong ways, a concept that triggered all Nolan’s worst impulses as a dramatist, a vividly filmed farrago of fantasies stacked on top of each other in a way that not only defeats but defies the very concept of narrative sense. I can’t call Inception a good movie and I can’t really call it a bad movie, either — it’s just two and one-half hours of striking images only intermittently related to the sort of thing we old-fogy fuddy-duddies call plot and still expect our movies to contain.
The basic premise is that Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a security expert who knows how to get information out of people by putting them to sleep and performing “extraction,” i.e., absorbing the content of their dreams and therefore getting their deepest and darkest secrets out of them by sucking them out of their subconscious. When he’s not doing that he’s coaching other clients into security measures that can prevent that being done to them — sort of like the firewalls put on a computer to prevent it from being infected by a computer virus. As the film opens Cobb is found on a beach in Japan and the people who find him start barking something in Japanese — we’re not given subtitles but I inevitably joked that they were saying, “Hey! This looks like that guy from Titanic!” It turns out Cobb has been hired by a Japanese industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to attack the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite) is a super-rich industrialist who has willed his empire intact to his son, only Saito wants it broken up so he can grab major pieces of it and therefore he wants to reveal the existence of a second will, later than the first, in which Maurice disinherited his son for the Andrew Carnegie-esque reason that he wanted the boy to make it on his own rather than get a lot of money he’d done nothing to earn and which would just ruin him psychologically. (In writing this synopsis I am almost inevitably attempting to add a degree of clarity the film itself deliberately denies us, forcing us to pick out these details out of reams and reams of exposition.)
To do this Cobb and his team, including “dream architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), are going to attempt “inception” — not the mere “extraction” of a dream already within the subject’s subconscious but the actual planting of a new dream — though, as with so much about this maddening movie, Christopher Nolan made that much clearer in his promotional interviews for the film than he did in the film itself. What follows is 2 ½ hours of utter weirdness, spectacularly and powerfully done action scenes that have only the barest relation either to the overall plot or to each other, mainly because Nolan’s conceit is to keep the audience largely in the dark as to whether a particular sequence is supposed to represent objective story reality or one or another of the three dream levels in the characters’ consciousnesses — since for reasons that Nolan doesn’t bother to explain (Edgar Allan Poe, who ridiculed Ralph Waldo Emerson for writing books so obscure that people would read them and think, “This must be profound, for I do not understand it myself,” would have had a field day with this movie!), like so much else in his script, in order to do the inception on Fischer’s consciousness he has to go through three layers so he’s dreaming a dream within a dream within a dream. (If this doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s because it doesn’t.)
I can’t say I actively disliked Inception — Nolan is clearly a master filmmaker who knows how to stage an action scene, and I can’t really fault it because it doesn’t make sense since Nolan clearly designed it not to make sense, as if he were deliberately making a movie that would work for the adolescent audience and at the same time be taken seriously by intellectual critics who would mistake its incoherence for philosophical and psychological depth. The film reminded me very much of the Matrix movies, especially the last two, because the Matrices also played this silly game of keeping the audience guessing whether a particular sequence represented story reality or the projection of one consciousness or another — in the Matrices, the illusions the all-powerful machines created to control what was left of humanity (when the second Matrix movie, The Matrix Reloaded — the title itself referencing the world of computers — began with a quick bit of dialogue explaining that something that looked like a living, breathing human on screen was supposed to be a bit of computer software, I knew this was not my kind of movie) — and also because like the Matrices, Inception took the overall everything-is-brown look all too common in modern movies and ramped it up to the max, so much so that when one of the dream stories gave us an exciting sequence of a commando attack on a fortress in an icy mountain (don’t ask), it was a relief to get outside and away from the dank all-brown interiors in which virtually the whole film is set.
Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. remains my all-time favorite dream movie — how a man with a reputation as a comedian could make a film in 1924, with only the most primitive effects technology available, that threaded the balance between reality and dreams so much more effectively than this one is a mystery — but then Keaton, for all the stoicism with which he viewed the world (that strange childhood of his, which involved his parents including him in their vaudeville act and flinging him about the stage as “The Human Mop,” gave him an even more cynical view of the world and the possibility of happiness than Chaplin’s almost as bizarre one, with his dad deserting the family, his mom going crazy and his older brother Sidney essentially becoming his single parent), had a heart and wasn’t afraid to show it. Through most of the movie Nolan maintains that bizarre detachment characteristic of all too many modern films, the refusal to let the characters engage emotionally, and though he attempts to explain the alienation of Cobb’s character from normal human emotions through a subplot by which his inability to return to the U.S. is explained by the mysterious death of his wife, who got so wrapped up in her own dream world (one they more or less shared, sort of) that ultimately she killed herself and left behind messages framing him for her murder, the sequences late in the film in which the wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, best known for playing Édith Piaf in the biopic La Vie en Rose — which may explain the in-joke use of Piaf’s record “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as part of the mechanism by which Cobb and his team move the other characters in and out of their dream worlds — though the song, with its message of triumphing through adversity by sheer force of will and refusing to look back, represents a philosophy quite the opposite of Nolan’s!), appears in Cobb’s own dreams and tries to win him back evokes comparison with the Russian version of Solaris (also about a man devastated by the loss of his wife and whose consciousness is tried when she returns to him in his mind as a result of his consciousness being altered by an outside force) but only goes to show that not only is Christopher Nolan no Buster Keaton, he’s not Andrei Tarkovsky either.
Inception is clearly a movie that does what it sets out to do — it’s just that what it set out to do was create a Chinese puzzle-box of a story in which nothing really “means” anything and therefore there’s nothing to hook an audience member’s (this audience member’s, anyway) emotional identification with the plot and characters. Indeed, like so many other modern filmmakers, Nolan seems convinced that he must actively discourage his audience from identifying with his characters, lest that blow his image as being “cool.” It also doesn’t help that Leonardo Di Caprio remains a stubbornly wooden actor with an ultra-limited emotional range — the boyish charm he had in Titanic that somewhat negated his woodenness has left him with the advancing years — making him perfect for a film in which we’re not supposed to identify emotionally with him or anyone else (though I must say that through most of it I was rooting for young Fischer to break away from all this craziness and regain control of his life, his consciousness and his fortune!) but lousy if you’re watching a movie with the conventional (at least the formerly conventional) expectation that you’re going to like the character the star is playing and want him to succeed and prosper.