Christopher Nolan’s characters live in a world of ideas. They’re trapped by them, enslaved by them, dominated by them and ruled by them. They are fallible people who externalize every lash on their souls; their gestures change the world and they know it, but they know also that they will never live up to the abstract ideals they forever chase or evade. They are haunted by dreams dashed, lost, or inadequately conceived.
Therefore it seems predestined that Nolan would eventually tap Leonardo DiCaprio to play one of his leads. DiCaprio has built his career around playing fiercely intelligent men with deeply compromised mental integrity who chase oblivion to find peace. He does so again in Inception, which plays as a striking companion piece to this year’s other DiCaprio head trip, Shutter Island.
It’s good that DiCaprio is such a natural at this sort of thing, and better still that Nolan’s cast—so uniformly strong that any quarter of them could headline a great movie—gives so strong an impression of character and intent. On paper, these people are ciphers. See the movie and ask yourself: what do we really know about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s staid sidekick, or Ellen Page’s honest and talented dream architect? The answer is nothing more than I just told you. The roles are simply embodied, and the actors’ charisma does the rest. It’s too bad, really, that in creating his most idea-driven movie, Christopher Nolan has left his characters behind.
But what ideas they are. DiCaprio plays Cobb, leader of a team of people who are able to enter a person’s mind via their dreams in order to steal valuable data. They call it extraction, but “they” also talk about a much more dangerous maneuver: inception, or the introduction of an alien idea into someone’s mind. It’s this latter they’re hired to do by an energy mogul (Ken Watanabe) who wants to stop the son of his chief rival (Cillian Murphy) from monopolizing the field worldwide once the rival (Pete Postlethwaite) dies, which should be any day now. Most of the movie is taken up with the business of Cobb recruiting his team and then delving into his target’s mind three layers deep: a dream within a dream within a dream, and a flirtation with delving even deeper into the chaotic and bottomless subconscious. Complicating the matter is that Cobb can’t seem to keep a guilt-driven projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from popping up and sabotaging his work. And she’s getting more dangerous all the time.
So much of Inception is spent in surreal atmospheres with flexible rules and plenty of paradoxes. If I’m being honest, this—more than the good cast and intriguing premise—is why I wanted to see the movie so much. Mainstream filmmaking has been “safe” for as long as it’s existed, but the past few years especially it seems that formula, contrivance, and dim versions of the high concept have ruled every major release of every weekend. Most filmmakers (and consequently most moviegoers) forget that in movies, you can do and show anything.
Some remember, sometimes, and you get the occasional glorious success (300, Dark City, most of Pixar’s catalogue) or brilliant failure (Speed Racer, Sin City). The filmmakers remember that the empty soundstage and the green screen are canvases, and that there aren’t—or shouldn’t be—any fetters between their conception of the story and its execution.
All of which is a high-falutin’ way to say that every now and then, a filmmaker decides to show us things we’ve never seen before and can never see in any other medium. By this gauge Inception is an unqualified triumph. It is quite simply an amazing thing to behold; the glimpses you’ve seen in trailers only hint at the construction of interlocking chains of logic, consequence and action that Nolan has constructed, even if most of it is washed in that teal light filmmakers are so fond of, and so much of the dialogue is given over to simply explaining what is happening. There is one extended action sequence that takes place on three levels of consciousness, one affecting the other which affects still yet another. I guarantee you have never seen anything like it before.
Nolan’s preoccupation with city spaces dominates, as well. Cities tend to be great lurking beasts in his movies, as much a character as a setting, but never more so than here; each real-world city is introduced with establishing shots that show building after building eating up the horizon, and almost every dream construct we see is some spin on a city. In The Dark Knight, Gotham City was an endless maze for human rats to play in. In Inception, the rats build and embrace the maze themselves: for instance, in the decades spent in the dreamspace of his own subconscious, Cobb and his wife built miles of geometric cityspace and little to no wildlife. I can’t tell if this is a statement of some kind, or merely Nolan unintentionally revealing something about himself. Either way, I sympathize with his fascination.
Among all that awe, it came as a surprise to me that the more intimate moments with Cobb and Mal are so affecting. More than that, they’re frightening: Cobb’s head is a haunted place, and Ariadne’s few forays into his dreamscape feel more dangerous than any other peril presented in the movie. I felt the peril there, in a quiet and ransacked hotel room, far more than I did in some of the later action sequences. I wish we could have spent more time there.
If I have a complaint about Inception it is that it is so very plot-heavy, and its central premise for getting to the meat of it—the dream-diving—is loaded down with specialized language and the mechanics of the thing that when Ariadne at one point asks in exasperation, “whose subconscious are we diving into?” the audience laughed in recognition. There’s enough jargon here to populate a David Mamet film, and like a Mamet film, you have to pay close attention if you don’t want to get left behind.
In terms of coherence, forward motion and characterization, Inception is in many ways a step down from The Dark Knight. In terms of virtuosity, it has no modern peer: here is, quite simply, an engine built to show you wonders. Amidst the endless array of explanations and exposition, Christopher Nolan has built a movie that is impossible not to look at.