Depicting dream in film, effectively capturing the nuances of its radically altered physics and metaphysics, is very much a minor art in its own right. Hitchcock was pretty good at it; then there’s the European school that would include Buñuel, Resnais, Cocteau and Tarkovsky; and David Lynch is currently acknowledged as the master of the extended dreamlike state. Together they make a fine peer group for Christopher Nolan to associate himself with as he draws dream into the mainstream with his thriller Inception; and with a track record in reality benders such as the tricksy reverse-narrative Memento and the smoke-and-mirrors prestidigitation saga The Prestige, he would seem well qualified for the job.
But for all its Freudian rollercoaster ride tropes and the occasional Kantian grappling with the nature of reality, Inception proceeds along very familiar lines. It opens with a routine rough-and-tumble mission, which provides a taster for the big one that will form the body of the movie. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an espionage agent specialising in stealing secrets from targets’ minds by means of manipulating shared dreams in scenarios that take the form of 4-D chess games of the id. And he doesn’t work alone. So, in addition to his regular sidekick, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he assembles a crack team, including dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy) and sedation expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao), in order to go after their ‘mark’, business magnate Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) on behalf of rival Saito (Ken Watanabe).
It takes the form of a Mission: Impossible-style caper or con, but rather than entering an impenetrable vault, circumnavigating a foolproof alarm system in order to win the priceless object, they instead plumb the mineshafts of the subconscious in pursuit of a more abstract MacGuffin—the ‘inception’ of the title: planting rather than stealing an idea within the mind of the subject. But once you start to share dreams with other people, all manner of unexpected stuff can come out of the woodwork, and Cobb’s personal quest for redemption, involving unresolved issues with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and family, form one of several jokers in the pack. And for audience and characters alike, it’s not always easy to tell reality from dream, or whose dream we’re in, so the agents carry ‘totems’—small, unique objects—in order to establish their existential bearings.
The dreamlike feel of the various scenarios comes from surface rather than textural elements—parallel mirrors, geometrical paradoxes and distortions, and Chinese box labyrinths, each with a different level of distended time. It all starts to become really interesting when what happens outside each dream impinges on the action inside, enabling some delirious cross-cutting sequences between the levels. This combined with rotating sets, inducing vertigo and weightlessness, a variety of locations, from claustrophobic Tangiers to the snowy Calgary mountains, plus Dark Knight-style pile-it-on action—shoot-outs, perilous vehicular shenanigans and large scale pyrotechnic set pieces—makes for a breathless, visually splendid experience.
It’s a virtual gaming world as much as a dream world, and as someone terms it, Fischer’s ‘militarised’ subconscious domain pushes Inception closer to Bond or Bourne than Buñuel. Rather than the usual ‘dream sequence’ movie, Inception has more in common with the sci-fi sub-genre where supine protagonists are plugged into a shared alternate mode of being—examples of which include The Matrix series, Avatar and eXistenZ. And what Inception notably lacks are the truly unguessable left-field reality shifts of a film like Lost Highway, with its genuine nightmare ambience and the creepy thrill of entering uncharted narrative waters. Nolan’s dreamverse has too much structure, too much lateral logic and what moments of surrealism there are feel rather forced. Yes, it’s intriguing to watch Paris folding over like a calzone, but would André Breton have thought it was the real deal?
But dream elements aside, Inception still works well as a thriller, along regular thriller parameters. Here the meticulous crafting—the acting, design and cinematography—yield the high quality overall package you’d expect from Nolan. DiCaprio is fine as the lynchpin that holds the worlds together, and he offers more of that effective troubled psychology he showed in Revolutionary Road and Shutter Island. Though an odd match for DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard brings her own brand of menace to bear in another good performance, and Ellen Page sparkles as the wide-eyed ingénue who quickly wises up. The male ensemble all pull their weight, with Cillian Murphy showing convincing emotion in his struggles with dying father Pete Postlethwaite. And no Christopher Nolan movie would be complete without Michael Caine, here taking a very Alfred-like role.
With its 200 million dollar budget, Inception needs to succeed on the entertainment level and indeed it does; but just like those arty dream movies it seeks to emulate, it will no doubt delight some whilst leaving others scratching their heads and wondering what it’s all about.
Stills © Warner Bros.