There’s a moment early on in ‘Inception’, in a scene where Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) is speaking to his grandfather, Miles (played by Michael Caine) about what Cobb must do to get back Home. Cobb’s got to get around some official Charges that are keeping him Away. It was during this scene that I thought I’d outsmarted Christopher Nolan and figured out the hidden truth of the film.
But, of course, Nolan’s a smart guy and knows everyone going to see his movie about dreams and dreaming is primed to question the reality of the story’s supposedly non-dream reality, and so it wasn’t long after this scene that I realized I was missing the point a little bit. ‘Inception’’s not about twist endings a la ‘Sixth Sense’ or ‘Shutter Island’, (though the ending is the part of the movie that's most fun to talk about). It’s really a whip-smart exploration of dreams and what it feels like to dream told in a multiplex-friendly crime-action framework. The whole thing works brilliantly.
"Inception" tells the story of Cobb, a man with a rare talent for 'shared dreaming', a cutting edge science in this world that allows a group of people to have the same dream and act consciously and powerfully within that dream. The particular skill-set Cobb and a very few dependable practitioners have is the art of Extraction: going into a person's subconscious, via their dreams, and taking out of it something (usually a lucrative secret) the mark wants to keep hidden. After Cobb and his team audition as Extractors for a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), Saito offers Cobb a different job that will help him beat those Charges and get back Home to see his two children. Cobb must delve into the subconscious of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cilian Murphy), an heir to Saito's rival, and implant into Mr Fischer's subconscious the idea to break up the empire he is heir to as soon as it comes into his possession. To make it more difficult, they have to make Fischer believe it's his own idea. What they're attempting is called Inception.
Reading that synopsis it would seem that nearly everything is standing in Nolan's way of making this movie work, most significantly, 20 or so years of uninspired studio group-think. 'Inception' is not a sequel. It's not based on a popular novel or known character. It is original. The concept is the highest of the high. The requirements of the plot do not allow for any oversimplification or "dumbing down". To make 'Inception' into a success, Nolan had to make a cinematic treatise about the nature of dreaming, memory, consciousness, and unconsciousness fun, and he had to make it entertaining enough for an audience large enough to justify the budget he needed to film something this ambitious. The success of 'Inception' seems to me the film industry story of the year, and, with luck, will usher in a new slate of original movies that haven't had their ideas scaled back by timid executives because it might not play for the folks who got a brain-ache watching "2012". (A really dumb movie I loved, by the way).
The film is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it brings together many of the top film artists working at the height of their powers. Christopher Nolan, obviously, credited as director and screenwriter of the film, tops his previous efforts with this film, which is in itself a major accomplishment. Leonardo DiCaprio does great work here, firmly established now as one of the few legitimate movie stars with unimpeachable acting chops. The ensemble acting is fantastic all-around, Cilian Murphy and Ken Watanabe turning in particularly compelling performances here. Hans Zimmer's music and Wally Pfister's cinematography complement the film perfectly, the moments where Zimmer uses bass like an aural shiv are always welcome. And, much as I hate to say it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty good in this. He doesn't have much to do acting-wise, but he's the Inception team's stoic Go-To Guy, and I couldn't help but like him in this.
That a movie about the chaotic and usually nonsensical world of dreams is written and shot with such mathematical precision gives the film a nice underlying dissonance that puts the viewer off-balance, and keeps them from asking the story's most pertinent question: is the world from which Cobb is trying to escape through dreaming itself a dream?
I believe the answer is yes: Cobb is stuck in a dream. (And in 50 years, off the subject for a minute, I believe film students will marvel at the coincidence of one actor, Di Caprio, appearing in two thematically identical films (Shutter Island and Inception) and then marvel again that both movies were released in the same year.)
On the film's rules alone, I think they establish the very real possibility that it's a dream, even beyond that final shot, don't they? Do we ever actually see Cobb's totem, his little metal top, ever have an uninterrupted spin so we can see it fall over as it's supposed to? There's a scene in the bathroom I remember where Cobb attempts to let it spin out, but the top falls to the floor before it can finish or not finish its spin.
What was more persuasive for me that Cobb's "real" world was in fact a dream, was the way Nolan shot the "real" world of 'Inception'. To me, it all had the qualities of a dream; a lucid dream, maybe, but still a dream. Nolan never gives any place a feeling of specificity (to use a word from the film). So no landmarks (except the Eiffel Tower, seen in a startlingly weird long shot of Paris), no branded products, no billboards, no bit of grit or earthiness or mise en scene designed to give any particular setting a feeling of authenticity. Nolan seems to tend towards this dreamy style of filmmaking in his movies anyway, but he never goes all the way like he does in 'Inception'.
Compare, for instance, the scene in "Dark Knight" where the Joker enters the restaurant kitchen for the underworld summit and the scene where Cobb is talking to his grandfather Miles (Caine) in the university classroom. In the kitchen scene, not only is the Joker grungy and grimy and REAL, the finger-streaks where he's applied the grease paint plainly visible, but so are the mundane stainless steel kitchen appliances pushed up against the walls, the dirty floor, the cheap TV that makes the table it's on bow slightly, the chairs that scrape and squeak as people settle into them.
Contrast that with the university room in which Cobb and Miles speak. It is less a realistic classroom than it is the quintessential ideal of a university classroom. The wood-panel walls that glow warmly, the chalkboard wiped clean except for what Miles has written on it, the neatly cluttered desk upon which he is taking neat little notes in a tidy little notebook. It's all so made to order, so very collegiate and professorial, each thing such a distillation of itself, that after the scene ends you forget everything about it except the fact that it was set in a university classroom. Which lends the scene a dream-like quality because after we wake from a dream, all the details not directly tied with what was urgently happening seem to melt away first, don't they? In my memory of the film, all the places in the "real" world adhere far more to what Cobb's Platonic ideal of these settings would be than they do to any identifiable reality of that place. The private plane on which they begin their Inception mission, for example, so perfectly embodies the knee-jerk idea of a "private plane" without offering any concessions to the reality of an actual private plane, that one can't help but guess that this place, too, is a dream-place.
The moment I mentioned in the first part of this post, during the scene between DiCaprio and Miles, was for me one of the clearest bits of evidence towards the "it's all a dream" theory of "Inception". The moment happens when Caine asks, in effect, if DiCaprio wants to go Home. Caine's eyes are hopeful, intent; he's hanging on DiCaprio's reply. DiCaprio thinks about it for a moment, conflicted, and when DiCaprio starts in about the Charges against him that prevent him from going Home, we cut back to Caine and watch his expression drop with disappointment. Not disappointment at the sad fact of DiCaprio's legal difficulties, but a disappointment more like that of Mark Ruffalo's character at the end of 'Shutter Island' when DiCaprio, far from cured, reassumes his former identity.
Could it be that Miles is there in a shared dream with Cobb, trying to persuade him to wake up? Or maybe he's just an aspect of Cobb's subconscious, the part of DiCaprio that knows he's dreaming, trying to gently pull him out of this endless dream?
There may be more moments like this one that point in the same direction, or even different directions, but this was stood out to me.
I did have a few quibbles with the movie, as ever. Nolan's fight scenes are still largely rendered into a kinetic blur. I want to see the fight, I don't want to sense the energy of a fight. The James Bond-esque interlude at the snowy mountain fortress was the least interesting and least dream-like of the dream levels, all that endless skiing and snowmobiling, and it seemed the action stayed there the longest. Another issue I had was with the way Nolan had his characters give valuable exposition at the same time he presents arresting visuals to the audience. Kind of like getting the audience to "watch" the credits by also running additional scenes or a gag reel: no one's actually reading the credits when there's a gag reel, and no one can actually absorb exposition when the world is breaking in half and stacking on top of itself. I felt this pull in two directions more than a couple times watching this movie. Maybe it was a cheap way to guarantee repeat business.
But given the number of bravura moments in this movie, the quibbles fade to insignificance. At the culmination of the film's climactic sequence, when the van hits the water and the elevator drops in the gravity-less hotel and Cilian Murphy reaches into the safe and pulls out the pinwheel -- I'm sure there were a lot of talented filmmakers who watched Nolan pull off that sequence and cursed his name for pulling off something that high-wire that beautifully. I haven't seen a sequence of that kind done that well for a long time, maybe not since Lecter's escape sequence in "Silence" I'm sure there must be other great examples in the intervening 20 years, but that's the one that comes to mind.
A lot of fanboys are already, of course, putting Nolan in the same league as the Great Stanley Kubrick. Obviously that's premature, but I will say that with 'Inception', which comes after 'Dark Knight' which itself came after the overlooked but genius 'Prestige', it's looking promising. Nolan's batting a thousand at the moment, and his consistently calm, assured handling of films with complex ideas, particularly so with 'Inception', makes the wait for the third installment in his Batman series seem even longer, and his next original movie an even bigger event.