[Towards the end, this review of Christopher Nolan's Inception will contain some spoilers, but until that point, I think it's safe to read, unless you want to watch it with no foreknowledge. I'll let you know before the spoilers begin. These are some half-formed responses to a first viewing, and I'd welcome dialogue and comments about the film. Forgive any errors or markers of haste that have crept into the text.]
Christopher Nolan continues to indulge his abiding preoccupation with mental states as narrative frameworks (Following, Memento, Insomnia) with Inception. The story plays out in a series of nested dreamscapes. Leonardo DiCaprio (fulfilling his contractual obligation to keep a determined furrow in his brow at all times to show how seriously he takes this acting thing) is Dom Cobb, whose job it is to enter people’s dreams and “extract” secrets from their subconscious minds. Desperate to get back to his estranged family, he decides to take on one last job to clear his name on charges for a crime he swears he didn’t commit – instead of extracting information, this new mission demands an “inception”; with his crack team of dream explorers, Cobb will plant an idea in a subject’s head.
Nolan doesn’t extend his explorations of disordered subjectivities to the formal fabric of the films – the miracle of Memento was that it conveyed its protagonist’s memory-loss through a single device (the reversal of the narrative sequence) that explained the placement of each scene and unlocked the narrative intricacies that were unavailable even to the narrator. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell criticised Nolan for throwing away a radical opportunity for experiment by reordering the story but maintaining a wholly lucid story arc that reimposed order and convention on what might have been a more disruptive reformatting of the tenacious narrative template of the classic detective drama (although I remember Bordwell doing it without recourse to a sentence as convoluted as that one). But Nolan has a gift for making tough intelligent material into clear-minded entertainment, with little sense of stultifying compromise. Memento drew viewers in to (skip to the next paragraph immediately if you haven’t seen it and don’t want a major spoiler) the world of a man on a heroic quest to find his wife’s murderer, but ends with the viewer in the uncomfortable position of having sympathised with a man who is probably a serial murderer, a deluded killing machine who doesn’t even recognise himself as such. The terror of that situation comes from having more knowledge than the main character, despite having seen nothing that he has not experienced himself. Nolan seems endlessly fixated on the contingency of experience, the imperfection of memory, vision and interpretation. Memento wasn’t just a depiction of a deteriorating mind, but a thesis on the power of narrative to trick us into believing terrible things and allowing us to accept them as natural. Yet that interest in the fallibility of the senses in making safe sense of surroundings does not carry over into the visual make-up of the films, which are vivid, pin-sharp depictions of psychic opacity. The same goes for Inception, which never infests its aesthetic with the weirdness of dreamscapes. Instead of hallucinogenic morphing, non sequiturs, flying, misted spaces and trouserless school plays where I haven’t learned my lines (am I giving too much away about my own dreamworlds there?), Nolan lodges his film in environments as concrete as any film. That is, pretty concrete, in that most physical laws are fixed and consistent, but still “filmic”, in that they are prone to manipulation and reconfiguration. I’m going to suggest that Inception actualises the well-worn metaphor of cinema as a kind of dreaming (or dreaming as a kind of cinema) and takes it seriously: we experience it like any other film. Dialogue scenes are shot in a shot/reverse shot sequence that makes it all seem comfortingly conventional. There are chases, shootouts and fights that carry out psychological processes in the syntax of action films. Is this all a ploy to create further confusion between layers of reality (there is little difference between how they operate physically), or a sly reminder of how ephemerally dreamlike cinema is, even if we don’t usually think of it in that way?
As I said, it’s grounded in some of the conventions of genre. This is a science fiction film, and it would ordinarily be expected that a film driven by an idea, a possibility (the infiltration of dreams, a cybercultural analogy if ever there was one) would spend time setting up a world shaped by the existence of that concept. How, you might ask and expect to be told, does a world in which undercover operatives in the pay of corporations can enter our minds and steal stuff look and behave? How has the political and cultural landscape been affected? We get none of this broader picture (perhaps with good reason, but spoilers will have to wait until the end of the review…), and the film drops us into the action as if it has already started without us. That, we are told, is how dreams start. There is no starting point in a dream, we just find ourselves involved in an ongoing series of events, though our dreaming selves somehow have a sense of what is going on. It comes on like Last Year at Marienbad with guns, skipping from one set-up to the next and delaying the pullback to an explanatory frame for as long as possible. Once the perameters of the dreamworld have been explained, the second half of the film becomes a breakneck rush through the heist itself, which occupies the remainder of the film.
Here are the good points: the cast are uniformly powerful and committed, never mugging or pointing to the potential stretches of logic that the plot contrivances have to be contorted through. Sometimes they look awfully young, like an undergraduate review with a swollen budget, but maybe I”m just at that age where actors start looking like teenagers. Ouch. The plot is chewily dense without ever stepping into mystifying messes, and it’s a pleasure to visit a blockbuster movie that doesn’t treat you like a complete imbecile. The forward rush of the chase keeps a great momentum, and its linearity provides a persuasive throughline that is so strong that Nolan can manage to make a multi-strand narrative seem like one big action scene. And that’s where the problems begin. The central ideas of this film are so delicious that we probably didn’t need quite so much shooting and running and chasing to spice it up. The Bond-style snow battle was especially tiresome, even though it was juxtaposed with an utterly dazzling gravity-free punch up in a hotel corridor. For the most part, the film wisely refuses to milk its best ideas (we’d love to see more vertical streets, Escher stairs and wall-walking, but Nolan keeps such moments brief and tantalising memories), so why we had to have quite so much of the white stuff is anybody’s guess. In other bad news, Morocco is forced into its usual role as stunt double to cities (in this case Mombasa) that are less accommodating to film crews. What this means in practice is that we get a chase through streets that are meant to be in Kenya (but look just like Morocco), in which our heroes get to knock the locals out of the way as they stand around looking baffled, passive and wishing they spoke English. There’s no place for this sort of exotic projection in a film at this level.
But these are minor quibbles. As with Memento, Nolan manages the impressive feat of keeping the audience challenged, puzzled even, without falling into a fug of incomprehension. Even though it mostly unfolds across many different dimensions of consciousness in different time-frames, the time-pressured espionage structure makes it a wholly lucid dream. Any complications or ambiguities, questions about the status of the reality or otherwise of what you’re seeing are themselves inceptions perpetrated on the viewer. You may find yourself forming certain judgements about the plot without realising what made you question something. Of course, you might also go the opposite way and conclude that this is all utter nonsense – why go to all that technologised trouble to plant an idea in someone’s head? Why not just persuade, negotiate, coerce or otherwise to business with the subject in the real world? Why do we need to snatch secrets from someone’s unconscious mind, when surveillance, spying and burglary used to be good enough ways to get deeply personal information out of our bins, desks and inboxes? One of the nicest things I can say about Inception is that I didn’t ponder its nonsense until afterwards. Which leads me to the spoiler section. I hope you’ve enjoyed this review so far, but if you haven’t seen Inception, and you plan to, and you don’t want to know about the ending, you mustn’t follow me beyond this point. Leave now. Here, go and look at some pictures.
SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW AFTER THE NEXT IMAGE. ONLY CONTINUE READING IF YOU WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF THE FILM. YOU CAN ALSO SCROLL STRAIGHT DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THE PAGE TO SEE SOME LINKS TO OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT INCEPTION.
I’d love to hear about what you made of the ending of Inception, because I suspect there are an ever-expanding number of interpretations currently cluttering up cyberspace. This is not because it needed “solving”. It actually resolved everything very nicely, concluding the mission, explaining the protagonist’s emotional dilemma, reuniting him with his kids and presumably settling a big score in the business world. Don’t you just love closure?
Maybe it’s not that simple. It’s a film about dreams and reality, so there must be some kind of rug-from-under-you twist about how what you’ve just seen never really happened, or it was all in somebody’s mind. Maybe that’s why DiCaprio bounced from Shutter Island to this – maybe he only plays deluded protagonists with lost wives these days? Sure, the little spinning top is a maddening, open-ended hint that poses a question it doesn’t want to definitively answer, but aside from that you can take the film at face value and consider it all neatly wrapped up. But as mentioned above, it all starts to get a bit more complex under inspection, and new interpretations present themselves.
Did everything appear as we saw it until the last scene, when Ariadne apparently “improvises” and helps Cobb escape from the basement of his subconscious? Or did she create a closed loop that has kept him trapped in his own personal limbo, in which the cycle of the plot plays over and over again? Or, was the Fisher inception a red herring, and the whole plot actually about the team’s attempt to rescue Cobb from limbo, or just from his grief – i.e. was Ariadne actually brought in to carry out an inception on Cobb, making him think the whole thing was his idea, and planting the idea that he needs to escape from the memory of his dead wife? This interpretation makes a lot of sense to me. Ariadne (who in Greek mythology helped Theseus escape the labyrinth) is brought in, perhaps by Miles (Michael Caine) to get Cobb to come back to his children; she seems particularly interested in Cobb’s past, and unnaturally adept at and accepting of the whole extraction process. It is she who persuades Cobb of the unhealthiness of that relationship, and in introducing her to the dreaming mind, Cobb gets to explain his relationship, to see how it was constructed. When he finally accepts that his wife is a projection, not a real entity lodged in his unconscious, he is able to let go, but isn’t it odd how calmly and easily he gives this speech, as if entranced or prompted to do so? This either demonstrates that Ariadne has “incepted” him, or it might show that Cobb is still dreaming, has always been dreaming, and will dream all the way through the conclusion – in reality, he never gets back to his kids, but at least stays in a limbo that lets him fantasise that he does. As I was writing this I wondered if the whole film is Christopher Nolan’s dream, a projection of his self in film form. It is formed out of echoes and memories of other movies, some of them his, some of them those of his actors. It would explain why he and Leonardo DiCaprio have started sharing suits and haircuts, and why an Edith Piaf song is being used as a wake-up call in a film that stars Marion Cotillard, who portrayed her so successfully in La Vie en Rose. I’m sure as I ponder Inception a bit more, other ideas will occur, as if planted there covertly. It’s a rare treat when a Hollywood movie can live on in the mind like that. All in the mind…
- The beach which serves as such a crucial location for Cobb and his wife is noteworthy. Beaches are liminal spaces, the threshold between land and sea. This is where people reach the limits of a journey, the border of a space, signifying the edges of their selves. La Dolce Vita and Les 400 Coups (referenced at the end of Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen) are just two well known films that finish on the beach as a spatial boundary representing the place of indeterminate existential crisis. Are other locations similarly resonant?
- I wonder how much Nolan has planted ideas as rewards for repeat viewings, and how many of the interpretations we find are our own inventions. But Nolan can’t lose: if it’s accidental, then it reflects back onto the film’s motif of ideas planted in such a way that the dreamer imagines they are his own. This is a film that rewrites itself in the viewer’s mind after the fact – isn’t that how all movies work in some sense? We watch them for a few hours of our lives, but most of their existence is spent as a fading, partial memory.
- I keep finding Kubrick comparisons in online discussions of Nolan and Inception. Surely Nolan is far too interested in dialogue, plot and crowd pleasing for the links to stick. There were moments when I was reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that may be because that film follows me everywhere. The zero-gravity hotel has obvious resonances with scenes of Dave Bowman floating through the empty spacecraft, and Cobb’s meeting with Ken Watanabe as an old man in a sparse dining room undoubtedly chimes with Bowman’s meeting with himself at the end of 2001. Is this a simple graphic homage, or does the comparison unlock a new interpretation of the scene (i.e. are all these figures projections of Cobb’s subconscious)?
- Most critics have been very generous with their praise for the film. It mostly seems deserved – there is so much good will towards Nolan and this particular set of actors that the film suffers little in the way of negative analysis. Its flaws are overlooked. The upshot of this is that the most insightful articles, those which reveal the film afresh to those who were beguiled by it, have come from those who thought much less of it. The criticisms are mostly levelled at Nolan’s cold, pristine handling of the material, and it’s not difficult to see their point. It makes concrete architectural spaces of our dreams, which are more often fluid, vapourous and changeable (if I may mix my metaphors).
- Scott Thill, “Is Inception the Sci-fi Film of the Year?” Wired.
- Total Film’s 10 Things You Need to Know to Understand Inception.
- Christopher Nolan interviewed by Elvis MItchell for KCRW’s The Treatment. Very interesting when discussing Nolan’s preoccupation with unreliable narrators.
- Article on the film’s sound design at Wired.
- Stephen Boone, “Inception: As Eye-Catching, and as profound, as an Usher concert.” This is one of the sharpest reviews I’ve read, and the most critical.
- Warner Bros. official site.
- Glenn Kenny’s review at Some Came Running.
- [Critique] Inception: Review from Filmosphere (in French).
- The Inception prologue comic at Leonardo DiCaprio.com.
- Review at The Review Diary.
- Excellent, insightful discussion at The Man From Porlock.