July 18, 2010 by Zack
Christopher Nolan has to be one of our most ambitious filmmakers. He’s been compared to Kubrick, in his unique visionary approach to films, and his ability to create worlds that every character lives and breathes in, such as “Memento”, and his “Batman” reboot. He’s made some great films, including “The Dark Knight”, and “Following”; he’s also made more gimmicky films that work only as a trick such as “The Prestige”.
With “Inception”, he takes on the world of dreams. Dream sequences have been a part of film for a long time, and sometimes they work and sometimes they won’t. But what if an entire movie is based in a dream (or is it?) state? How do we define reality in that world?
The plot revolves around Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio, in another strong performance) who operates a business of dream-sharing through a machine that he uses for industrial espionage to steal his clients’ ideas and thoughts in their subconscious for his own gain–and he’s caught by his newest client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who wants to use him for his own purposes and stage a “dream stealing” with a rival business mogul.
What you must do in order to fully accomplish this complex idea of dream-stealing, is have a team of dream operators. A chemist to make the sedative; a forger to impersonate other subconscious characters in the person’s memory in order to fully manipulate the dreamer; and an architect, someone to literally create the dream world.
What Dom suggests in this case, with entering the subconscious of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), is what’s known as “inception”–planting a thought in someone’s mind before they can, but recognizing that it is in fact their own idea. The suggestion is deemed impossible by his Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but as in any movie–this one JUST MIGHT WORK!
The team runs into issues while they enter the dream world because of an array of “security” (your subconscious trying to protect you from invaders) that can easily kill them–and when you die, you wake up, but in this case they are so heavily sedated that they could wind up in a “limbo” if they were to die in the dream. They go deeper into dream worlds to a point where they’re operating on a third level dream world, and the deeper you go, the slower time goes.
The architect, played by Ellen Page, also notices a wrinkle in Dom’s plan: he has an unending dream of living with his wife (Marion Cotillard) who has died and he blames himself for her death.
Nolan’s dream worlds are breathtaking. The sequences of the fighting that goes on in one of the hotel corridors in one of the dream worlds is fascinating. Some of the ideas in this film are very interesting, and even at a running time of 148 minutes, the film never drags.
But it also didn’t work for me. I couldn’t buy into the question the film tries to ask (and leaves open) about whether this was all a dream or whether it was reality. Movies that involve dreams can suffer the same kind of problems that movies involving time travel can. You have to create your own rules, which Nolan does, but those rules are based in such a neatly done way that there’s no reason to think that any of the story is real. It’s so deeply based in dreams, and there’s so much logic behind the dream worlds and elements of subconscious that can be manipulated that the “reality” in the film isn’t given enough screen time to be considered credible.
There are a few hints that I think the film gives you that make me lean toward it actually just being a dream. So in my mind, that’s what the film was. It’s an exercise in expanding the subconscious mind and opening it up into this large universe, and existing in it always. So then, what is the point of it? The story is actually quite simple when you strip it down–it’s just about guilt and salvation, ultimately.
The film is, as I’ve said about Nolan, very ambitious. But I don’t think the whole thing works. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot of them are intriguing. But as a film, there aren’t enough stakes, the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, and the plot is actually kind of ridiculous and even somewhat silly. In a film that takes itself and its ideas so seriously, it just comes off as pretentious and stiff rather than enlightening and eye-opening. The one thing that does work in the film is the action; in a way it does work as just that. But because the film wants to be so much more, and seems to want to expand your mind and open all of these questions for you. But it’s just too traditionally told and conventional to match that ambition.
As someone who dreams an awful lot, and has experienced very vivid dreams, I don’t know that I can buy into a reality that someone can “create” a world and actually manipulate it the way that they do in this film; and when you can’t buy into the reality, then it’s really hard to buy into the dream stuff–even though the dream worlds are more convincing and interesting. And that’s where the film ultimately fails for me.
It looks wonderful; but in the end, whether the top is still spinning doesn’t really matter.