Inception: Nolan's Realist Dreamscape

Nolan's Magnum Opus?
Only Christopher Nolan could have dreamed up of something like Inception.  Bold, ambitious, and meticulously told, Inception is, I daresay, the greatest science-fiction film of our contemporary age.  It would take something more than extraordinary to top Nolan’s achievement.  And perhaps the only director in the world who could do that is the British filmmaker himself.

Nolan, whose directing credits read Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), and The Dark Knight (2008), has over the past decade forged a reputation as a conjurer of intelligent, intimate dramas, as well as brainy summer blockbusters.  His latest tops them all.

What is Inception?
Just like Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Inception explores dreams and reality with nothing in between except perpetual murkiness.  While Lynch’s film was a surreal and hallucinatory experience, Nolan’s is a cerebral, thrilling tale of one man’s incapability to let go of the past.  That man is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a world-class thief specializing in invading a subject’s subconscious when he is asleep to steal secrets from his mind when it is at its most vulnerable. 

Now, this is a world where special technology is available to a limited few to accomplish such a crime.  Cobb’s team, one of the best in the business, comprises of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb’s trusted second-hand man; Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architect of dreams; Eames (Tom Hardy), a “forger” who could impersonate anyone in a dream; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist.  In a final mission, they set forth together in an attempt to pull off the “perfect crime” – inception.  What is inception?  It is the planting of the seed of an idea so deep into a subject’s subconscious such that when he wakes up from his dream, it is as if that idea was his all along.

This is never done before and tremendously risky, but Cobb carries on with the mission because a huge carrot is dangled in front of him – a chance to wipe away his criminal records and to get back to his children as a free man.  Carrot-dangler Saito (Ken Watanabe), a rich owner of a corporate empire wishes to see his rival Fischer (Cillian Murphy) destroys his own empire that he inherited from his ailing father.  And the only way possible is through the concept of inception.

Dreaming About Dreaming
Inception works like a heist film.  Players are picked, given tutorials and schematic plans before the actual job (these are crucial scenes for viewers to understand the “laws” that govern the world of dreams).  Like every heist film, even the most perfectly planned one almost always runs into a brick wall.  Action-packed showdowns naturally ensue when gun-wielding “bad guys” (the subject’s subconscious projections of “antibodies”) combat the “virus” that is Cobb’s team. All these happen in the dream(s) of the subject.

If Nolan’s stunningly original vision about dream invasion has not confused you already, he takes his film to a different realm, or realms, to be more specific.  Picture this: “You are asleep.  You then dream of yourself.”  So far so good, that’s easy to imagine.  Now picture this: “You are asleep.  You then dream of yourself asleep dreaming about yourself asleep dreaming about yourself asleep dreaming about yourself asleep.”  Go ahead, it’s okay, reach for that aspirin.

Now, of course in Inception, not everyone is asleep.  Things happen.  An explosion here, a gunfight there.  A foot chase here, a car chase there.  In the second-half of the film, Nolan juggles five dream sequences, layered inside each other, with expert direction, an unprecedented move in all of cinema.  And if that is not challenging enough, he adds flashback sequences for character development and builds their back stories (including an important sub-plot regarding Cobb’s wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard)).  All of which brilliantly cinematographed and edited by Nolan’s regulars Wally Pfister and Lee Smith respectively.

Inception features decent performances by the ensemble cast.  DiCaprio, in particular but not surprisingly, is a standout.  He gives the same tortured performance in Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), coincidentally another masterful film about dreams and reality, and one man’s incapability to let go of the past.  Close behind is Cotillard’s supporting turn.  She and DiCaprio form the core of Inception’s more tragic and haunting moments.  On hindsight, I feel that her performance is understated because her character helps to anchor the film emotionally, which otherwise would have made it a cold, detached science-fiction spectacle.

Influences of the Real Kind
It is a spectacle alright.  Nolan’s preference to use practical sets pays dividends as action sequences are conceived as realistically as the film’s context allows it to be.  So even though action happens in “dreams”, logic still applies, either naturally or metaphysically.  In one technically tricky sequence, two men fight out in a corridor devoid of gravity.  Nolan does not film it because it looks cool, but because it is a logical consequential effect of a circumstance that has happened prior to it.

Now this gravity-defying sequence is indebted to Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) serves as inspiration for Nolan.  Another Kubrickian touch occurs late on in a scene with Fischer and his ailing father on his deathbed; there is visual symmetry in the way the furniture are arranged, and there is an unnatural feel to it, like an eerie trip into vast space, which in this case is a large safe.  Other influences include Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), and Proyas’ Dark City (1998), both of which are two of the best sci-fi films of the nineties.  Even some of the action sequences are Bond-esque.

Nolan rarely uses CGI unless it is integral to his story.  In Inception, he integrates it into a number of shots, most notably and astoundingly, a scene that shows the city of Paris folding onto itself.  If that is not the most awe-inspiring moment in all of 2010 cinema, then what is?

Lost & Found
Nolan’s screenplay may confuse initially, but it gets significantly clearer as the film progresses.  But there are questions left unanswered, not due entirely in part by its pleasantly frustrating and ambiguous ending.  Explanations to the film’s more bewildering moments would probably surface only on the second or third viewing.  Who knows, even flaws undetected on first viewing may also crop up.

Theories and analyses will most definitely appear in cyberspace, posted by clever thinkers or people who deceivingly portray themselves as such.  Which ones fit?  Only Nolan knows, or we assume that he knows.  And I give him that benefit of a doubt.  For he could have, as critic Ebert has written in his review, left the labyrinth and thrown away the map.

Is Inception Great Cinema?
Great cinema generate debates that go on for years, even decades. Think Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961), Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), or even Nolan’s own Memento.  There is no doubt that Inception is great cinema.  It forces one to think, to draw convincing links, to piece the puzzle, and to come out of the experience with a better understanding of not only the film, but more importantly, of the world we live in and our place in it, which I feel is cinema’s noblest aim.

Inception is a complex, thought-provoking picture mass marketed to the blockbuster crowd, many of whom would have been used to camping in theaters screening Twilight and Transformers.  How will they respond to an original film that rewards a quick-thinking brain?  A positive response would rock the foundations of Hollywood filmmaking of late – the unhealthy obsession with brainless remakes and sequels.  Inception could change Hollywood cinema for the better, to reclaim the glory and glamour it once had, to bring filmgoers back to when movie directors made movies.

Nolan the Realist Who Dreams
Not many directors are as fortunate as Nolan, whose Batman Begins and The Dark Knight raked in hundreds of millions at the box office.  Warner Brothers, in gratitude, offers him a big budget in a quid pro quo decision to do whatever film he likes.  The result is Inception, a concept he started exploring after he co-wrote Memento with his brother Jonathan.  After spending nearly a decade writing and rewriting Inception, he has finally brought it to the big screen, a concept visually realized, and a place in the pantheon of science fiction cinema all but earned.

Nolan has become the “Spielberg” of our generation.  And maybe someone more.  He is only 40, and barring something tragic, he has many more decades ahead of him to rewrite cinema as it is.  If Nolan continues in this trajectory, alternating between populist fare and original mind-bending works, and fusing them with his unique brand of storytelling and realist visuals, it would be one of the most awesome dreams any cinemagoer could possibly ever wish for.  the best part?  It is real. 


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