Inception is a masterpiece. Making a huge film with big ambitions, Christopher Nolan never missteps and manages to create a movie that, at times, feels like a miracle. And sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a movie; while presented in woefully retro 2D, Inception creates a complete sense of immersion in another world. The screen before you is just another layer of the dream.
I don’t even know what’s the most remarkable aspect of Inception. It’s huge-budget filmmaking harnessed to tell a personal story that’s smart and uncompromising. That’s certainly remarkable in this age of Hollywood. It’s a production that brought its cameras to six countries, never allowing a backlot to do when a shot could be achieved in a real location. That’s starting to feel unheard of in this day and age. It’s a movie where Christopher Nolan manages to bring together all of his obsessions and quirks, where his personal issues are the life and death issues at the center of the story, and where he has managed to turn every single one of his directorial weaknesses into massive strengths. That, perhaps, is the truest miracle – the auteur finally completed before our eyes.
Every single movie Christopher Nolan has made until now has led to Inception. The fractal, recursive nature of Following and Memento informs the structure of reality in Inception. The exploration of narrative and storytelling in The Prestige leads to this film. And the obsession with control, a throughline that leads from Insomnia to Batman Begins and fully blooms in The Dark Knight, takes Nolan directly to the drama at the heart of Inception.
The advertising for Inception presents the film as a dream-based heist thriller, which is true enough in a larger sense. But the heart of the movie is psychoanalysis presented as kick ass action. Nolan’s interest in dreams doesn’t come from the surreal nature of them (in fact very early on Nolan, who wrote the script, presents an in-universe rule that makes the dreams be as realistic as possible) but from what they say about the dreamer. Nolan is looking at dreams as the entryway to the subconscious. They’re the gate through which a repressed, emotionally distanced person can access the feelings that trouble them deep inside.
And that’s the genius of the film. Nolan is a director who has always been chilly; some may kindly call him restrained. While visually he is an unabashed pupil of Ridley Scott, Nolan is a student of the Stanley Kubrick school of emotion, and Inception reminds me of The Shining in that the emotional content isn’t subtext or nuanced but rather blaring, plot-motivating text. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, the best extractor in the world. A dream thief, Cobb and his team get into your mind during sleep, when it’s most vulnerable, and they find and steal information they need. But Cobb has a problem – he can’t keep his own subconscious under control, and his repressed feelings about his wife keep manifesting themselves in the dream space, becoming more and more aggressive and dangerous.
In another film that’s the subtext, the subtle motivation behind Cobb’s character. In Inception it gradually becomes everything, and it is explicitly dealt with as a part of the plot. By making the pain deep inside Cobb another element of the heist movie structure, Nolan is free to deal with it analytically, with a cold eye for what it means to Cobb as a contained man. Like in The Dark Knight the greatest danger isn’t external, it’s completely internal – the loss of control. In The Dark Knight that loss of control was represented by the dual figures of The Joker and Two-Face, while in Inception that loss of control – the scariest thing Nolan can imagine, it seems – is represented in the haunting beauty of Marion Cotillard.
All of this happens against the backdrop of a gripping thriller. Cobb has been hired by a mysterious businessman, played by Ken Watanabe, to perform the most difficult dream job there is: they are not going to steal something from the mind of industrialist heir Cillian Murphy but rather leave something there. They are going to go deep into his subconscious and plant an idea that will blossom into something that will benefit Watanabe; it turns out that the planting of an idea – inception – is markedly more difficult than the stealing of one. And so Cobb must gather a crackerjack team of dream experts to get deep into the mark’s mind – many layers deep into his subconscious – and give him an idea so firmly rooted that when he awakes he’ll be convinced it’s his own.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Arthur, Cobb’s usual point man. His job is to do the research into the mark, to get to understand the target intimately so that the team can create a dream that will feel convincing and real. Tom Hardy is Eames the forger, the team member who impersonates people within the dream, making the dreamer think that certain thoughts or ideas come from his own subconscious. Dileep Rao is Yusuf the chemist, the guy whose specially concocted sedatives allow the team the freedom and flexibility to move throughout the mind. And Ellen Page is Ariadne the architect*, perhaps the most important member of the team. She actually builds the dream world, creating a space for the team to work and where the mark will feel comfortable. In the world of Inception the worst thing that can happen during a mission is that the mark begins to realize he’s dreaming.
The cast that Nolan has assembled is just as crackerjack as Cobb’s team. These are among the best young actors; beautiful faces to be sure (and I don’t know that anyone has photographed Ellen Page as angelically as Wally Pfister does here), but also among the most serious actors of their generation. Structurally Inception is a heist film, and as in a heist film most of the characters are defined by their functions, as opposed to anything deeper. But with a cast as great as this, Nolan is able to get characterization out of the smallest moments. He knows that he can trust this cast to round these people out, that they will become more than just their job description, and that their interrelationships will take on a life of their own. That’s exactly what happens; while the greater pleasures of Inception have to do with epic action scenes and satisfying psychological catharses, the smaller joys come in moments where Arthur and Eames bounce off of each other, or where the troubled, weary Cobb slowly warms when dealing with the fresh-faced, talented Ariadne. Nolan shows a facility for maintaining the team dynamics while also keeping the central story focused on Cobb, as his inability to keep control over his deep-seeded issues begins to endanger his team.
The first half of the film is set up: the explication of the world (done with panache and thrills), the building of the team, the outline of the heist. And then the second half of the film is the heist itself, a journey through multiple layers of the psyche that span the globe and have relativistic chronological connections. This leads to one of the most incredible, jaw-dropping and beautifully-created sustained action set pieces in cinema history. The action ranges across levels, with car chases and shoot outs and fist fights, and with the events in one level of reality impacting the next. Moments in one level are hours in the next, and crashes and explosions in one ripple down to those below. It’s heady and smart and most of all completely and totally thrilling. What could be the most thrilling, though, is the way Inception shows serious promise for Nolan as an action director. His action scenes have always been confused and poorly shot; while a handful of Inception‘s action scenes – like a chase through the streets of Mombasa – are vintage Nolan mess, most of the heart-stopping action in the third act is next level stuff, which hopefully means Nolan has begun to conquer his fear of long shots in fight scenes.
As amazing as the bravura third act is, the most transcendent part of it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s zero gravity fight in the dreamy corridors of a hotel. The simplistic comparison is to The Matrix, but I think it’s also the best – no action scene in a mainstream movie has been so incredibly realized, so elegantly staged and remained so viscerally exciting since the Bros Wachowski shook up the world of action movies. It’s a scene that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, not because it was using some exciting new technology or because it was incorporating underground techniques but because it was just so well done, because it was so beautiful and so fun and so fresh. The biggest problem with the zero-G fight is that it ends, that Nolan doesn’t keep dragging it out so that we can keep living in that perfect cinematic moment. I wanted to get to my feet and applaud.
To be honest I wanted to get to my feet and applaud all through the third act. The stakes keep raising while also becoming more and more personal. The goal isn’t a knock out punch or an explosive finale (although both come into play) but rather emotional breakthroughs. And to make those breakthroughs be an organic part of the sound and the fury going on around them is the work of a master, a filmmaker who has truly come to a place where his skills are unsurpassed. In the final moments of Inception you realize this movie has worked on every single level, from Hans Zimmer’s edging on monster movie score to Pfister’s stunning visuals to the textured and believable CGI effects that give the dreamworlds their depth. A standing ovation is the natural impulse when faced with such perfection.
I can see how some might dislike Inception. Nolan’s vision of dreams is one that is fairly staid and antiseptic and frankly not that resonant with how I dream. And if a viewer cannot engage in the beginning, during the film’s opening dream heist, it’s possible that they’ll never be able to engage with the rest of the film. But I can’t see how someone could say Inception is bad. Thematically it is Nolan’s most complete and whole vision (which is a relief, as I think thematics has been where the director has dropped the ball in the past), but cinematically it’s also his grandest vision. It’s his complete statement as an auteur, bringing together his personal quirks and his stylistic quirks; Inception is his ultimate city movie, and it’s his ultimate repression film. It’s the summation of everything he has done to date. And it’s delicately assembled, with each piece having meaning and a perfect fit with every other piece. There’s not a wasted moment or an unnecessary diversion (again, a relief, as Nolan was all about diversions in The Dark Knight). Everything means something.
What’s perhaps best about Inception is that it’s not a trick film. A smart, aware viewer will find most of the movie’s answers given to them in the very opening scene. Nolan’s not trying to hide anything or pull any twists, and he’s more interested in paying off emotional beats than pulling the rug out on viewers at the end. Memento works despite being a puzzle movie, but The Prestige is fatally crippled by being a one and done fluff experience. Nolan wisely avoids that here; a lesser director might have tried to twisterooni his film to death, but Nolan knows that we’re going to be looking everywhere for clues and meanings, and he’s happy to deliver them. This, again, is a psychoanalysis film, and Nolan wants us to interpret it just as a therapist might interpret our dreams. The ending isn’t intended to shock or stun but to pull together the pieces, while sending the audience out discussing the larger meanings and contexts of what they’ve just seen. And it’s a film that will reward mightily on future viewings. Inception works on the most basic levels as the ultimate in cinematic entertainment, and it also works on deeper levels of meaning and character. The film I am most reminded of, weirdly, is Lawrence of Arabia. While Inception has nothing to do with David Lean’s masterpiece (except for some gorgeous location photography), it contains the same scope I find there. I can watch Lawrence as the gripping examination of the meaning of a man, or I can watch Lawrence as a lush, epic adventure. Both ways of approaching the film are equally correct and both ways are equally satisfying. Inception brings the epic scope of Old Hollywood together with the psychological realism of New Hollywood, creating a fusion that feels timeless and classic.
I loved Inception. I loved seeing the world Nolan created. I loved visiting the locales and spending time with the characters. I loved every moment of the waking dream, every frame of the celluloid reality. Cinema is dreaming, and Nolan understands this implicitly and completely. While Inception didn’t remind me of many dreams I’ve had, it reminded me of many incredible, transporting moments spent in movie theaters. I’m glad that Nolan opted not to post-convert his film to 3D, as that process would only distance the audience from the movie. By shooting on 65mm film, Nolan has created a massive, immersive and complete visual experience. I actually can’t wait to see this movie again but in IMAX, to be completely enveloped in the universe that Nolan, the year’s leading cinematic dream architect, has created.
10 out of 10
* not everything is subtle. Ariadne is a Greek figure connected to labyrinths, and the basic structure of any dream world, we learn, must be a maze.