Inception (2010): The Uncontrollable Multi-Directionality of an Idea

Having seen Christopher Nolan’s Inception yesterday and afforded myself some time to think about the film I’m ready to speak to it in a way. After being sort of amazed by the initial critical discourse about the film, and subsequently blogging about that, I feel somewhat bound to share my thoughts on the movie as well, adding to the heaps of discourse accumulating about the film. I’ll try to do so in such a manner as not to spoil anything and deal only with the basics/large strokes of the movie. However some points may involve deeper discussion of thematic elements or plot points so if you have not seen the film yet and would like to see it clean, perhaps stop reading and go see your nearest showing.

Inception Poster

In a basic sense of the plot, Leonardo DiCaprio plays dream-spy-specialist Dom Cobb who extracts ideas and information from peoples dreams on the illegal behest of his various employers; he functions as a mercenary of information. For reasons the movie reveals he is not allowed back into the US and because of this is separated from his children. He is offered the chance to return home by a wealthy business man, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who promises his return after he completes the task of inserting an idea into the mind of a rival business heir, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who is due to soon inherit his family’s energy business with the passing of his father.

With Saito’s archetypical directive “Assemble your team, Mr. Cobb!” Cobb sets out to piece together the people he will need to plant this idea. His team includes his right hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect – and erstwhile audience cipher – Ariadne (Ellen Page), the “forger” who impersonates others in the dream world and serves as muscle, Eames (Tom Hardy), and the chemist whose work will facilitate the sleep state necessary to pull off the inverse heist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao).  From here the audience is given an orientation in the rules of the reality of dreams via Ariadne, during which Nolan most flexes his muscle in the dream world, exploding the city around Cobb and Ariadne, suspending the shrapnel of book pages, fruit pieces, brick and cements, in the air like a slow moving and deadly emulsion. The regular heist-film beats are hit in terms of the planning of the job, the inter-relations of the people within the team, etc. The team then set about their complicated task of Inceiving (I guess would be the verb for the practice of “inception”) the idea into the subconscious mind of Fischer. This task is complicated by the spectre of Dom’s deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is conjured by Dom’s subconscious and seems intent to wreak havoc on his plans.

Technically the film is entirely in keeping with Nolan’s work on The Dark Knight; the direction and score, acting and lightning, the sets, are all as direct and evocative, consistent and to the service of the greater cohesion of the film. Despite having the canvas on which he could engage in tremendous – and potentially disastrous – lyrical imagery, Nolan’s film is very straight-forward in its approach, dallying little with the implicit potential for amazement in the dream world outside of Ariadne’s initial manipulations and the scope of Dom’s subconscious city in ruins. Nolan sets out a strict set of rules under which his dream-worlds may operate and devises some elegant solutions for logical problems that would necessarily be dealt with – the use of the individualized totems by the gang, for instance. Having established guidelines for the action allows him to build tension within a dream world where normal rules of reality need not apply.

Structurally the film is of a piece most distinctly with Nolan’s own The Prestige, owing much to the former’s at first abstract opening shots that are later explained. The film also employs a similar manner of lighting indoor spaces within the film. In the context of his oeuvre covers similar ground to both Memento and The Dark Knight insofar as they are concerned with a subject who exists in an alternate, or created, reality that in some illusory way seems able to provide a return to normalcy.  That Nolan was working on the script for Inception for a decade speaks to this being, perhaps, a culmination of his thematic explorations in the direction of these films, or, in the very least, provides a through-line for navigating this period of the directors work. Indeed, even Nolan’s first full-length film, Following, was concerned with a man’s attempt to engage in an alternate way of life as a criminal.

Image from Inception

Though hardly new, voiced as long ago and as poetically by people no less in tune with the human condition than Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage”, Hamlet’s Act III, scene i soliloquy: “To die, to sleep; / To sleep: perchance to dream” … surely all of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia registers in Dom and Mal’s relationship in Inception, “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d” but I’ll stop here lest I drag myself down the endless Hamlet rabbit-hole) the prevalence of an interest in alternate lives and realities has become a more and more pervasive theme in film in recent years and must certainly gesture towards the rise of the digital age and the internet as well all recede from our bodies and physical life into these alternative, mentally generated, states of being. In its exploration of this theme Nolan’s work has been sort of prescient, or perhaps at least in communion with a certain zeitgeist.

The allegorical reference of the dream reality to the internet is made explicit in the film when Dom first find Yusuf in a sort of cafe in Mombasa when Yusuf proves the quality of his work as a “chemist” by showing a group of people hooked up to the dream machines, who come there daily to dream and whose dream-lives have become their reality. Surely this draws a parallel to the way so many live a double life with online games such as Second Life and World of War Craft. The film also registers an allegorical relation to the religious “alternate” life envisioned and lived by so many when language such as “Take a leap of faith” and “You have to die to be free” is invoked. Both Christian and Buddhist spiritualities are gestured towards by the film with its emphasis on waking up as release and Mal’s violent demonstration to Arthur that “Pain is only in the mind”. Obviously Inception here walks very similar to that trodden by The Matrix films, and to see a relation between the two is not unfounded; Both films demonstrate a more secularized and technologized aspect of theology entering into life via the alternate state of mind/being.

In the film’s emphasis on the relativity of time within dreams – each layer of dreaming existing as a sort of Russian doll within another dream – and the emphasis on the createdness of the dream worlds, the film elicits a reference also to a sort of meta-cinematic quality possessed by film as an artistic medium. As surely as Ariadne must construct a believable world for the dreamer to populate its thoughts with, the director of a film populates the screen with images against which the audience will react, emotionally and particularly for each viewer; the relationship between a film and each member is as unique and subjective as the relationship between a dream and the dreamer. In terms of the ability of both the dream and film to collapse and illuminate the relativity of time, the audience watches Nolan’s dream-van, plummet towards a river in slow-motion while Arthur fights in a gravity-less hallway while  Cobb attempts to escort Fischer into his subconscious vault and Eames combats projections from a subconscious ostensibly entirely composed of The Spy Who Loved Me. The audience’s perception of time becomes another layer on top of the layers given by Nolan’s film, and this perceived layer itself under the actual time taken to view the film; certainly a movie this tightly constructed objectively takes two and a half hours to watch, but feels like so much less upon exiting the theatre. The film expands its allegory vertically, beyond the screen and into the real world.

That the dream world, at its deepest level, is constituted by something so reminiscent of a James Bond movie was not an issue for me. Nolan’s engagement with this dream reality was always done in the context of being a Summer Action Block-buster film and not a smaller – in terms of scope – film like Waking Life or even Last Year At Marienbad. As such the film owes a certain fidelity to the conventions of summer blockbuster films and the action/attention quotient of the summer movie-going audience who don’t care for the attention-rigorous demands of those more abstract or verbose engagements with dream-reality. That Nolan is able to complicate the film so far as he does, weaving the multiple times for maximum tension, is a credit to his skill as a director and the skill of his editor, Lee Smith.

In the context of the film, certain the subconscious mind is effected by the culture that it develops within, so that a sort of “final level” of conscious would be militantly populated by drones/projections and a scenario straight out of a James Bond film seems entirely reasonable.

Cobb gets "The Kick"

I feel I would be remiss without also mentioning the film’s sometimes glaring similarities with Scorsese’s Shutter Island from earlier this year. That DiCaprio stars in both films does little to diffuse the parallels that can be thematically and structurally drawn between the two films. The films also share copious amounts of water, genre aspects – procedural/film noir for Shutter Island and the heist films for Inception – as well as tropes of ex-wives as somehow simultaneously idealized and malevolent spectres, and both have relatively ambiguous endings. However, Nolan opens his film up to more modes of interpretation than merely the psychoanalytic realm engaged by Scorsese’s picture – as my previous 1400 words should attest.

The film has also had accusations of emotional barrenness levied its way and I must admit to experiencing a similar, if not as pronounced, emotional disengagement from the film. The emotional weight of Mal and Dom’s relationship comes less through demonstrations that would instill the connection between the two organically within the audience than through exposition and montage; they are told the relationship was powerful and important but are shown little proof to that effect. The only complete memory of Mal given by Dom is the evening when she met her end. However, I suppose this emotional disconnect and lack of depth is symptomatic of predicating the entire relationship within Dom’s subconscious; his relationship with Mal can’t possibly ring true to the audience as they are never given a true Mal, merely Dom’s version of her. We see less emotional connection than something tantamount to a nostalgic emotional masturbation. That reads harsher than I mean it, and is an issue Nolan obviously tried to pad with Dom’s sometimes over-sentimental avoidance of his children’s faces.

This lack of emotional depth is merely a small issue and, as I’ve said, potentially exists as a symptom of the manner in which Nolan has chosen to frame his narrative. All in all the film exists as an integral element in Nolan’s body of work, most explicitly and deeply engaging his predilection towards men and their involvement/enamourment with alternate lives. In terms of summer movie fare Inception may be among the best examples of marrying heady sentiment and pertinence to ideological engagement to a more conventional and consumable narrative structure. Technically excellent, the film speaks to issues of religion, spirituality, existentialism and technology; to expect more from Mr. Nolan may be criminal and best saved for those living in a dream world where every marriage is perfect and your subconscious projection of your partner doesn’t want to kill you.

The trailer, for those who have not seen but read or skimmed through this mountain of text.

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