Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

There’s a certain paradox to the notion of Christopher Nolan making a “dream-film.” Nolan’s work has always been distinguished by a Swiss-watch precision and intricacy, and this springs from his writer’s need to focus on those aspects of the film that are relevant to the story. But dreams, as most anyone can tell you, aren’t so coherent. Often, the content of dreams is born less out of specific situations in one’s life than from deep-seated desires and anxieties which manifest themselves in strange ways. As a result, Nolan’s multi-level dream narrative doesn’t come off as a dive into the unconscious so much as a complex multi-player video game, in which the participants join in with an ostensibly unified purpose but are at the mercy of their own skill sets, personalities, and limitations.

But if Inception isn’t really convincing as an according-to-Hoyle dream film, it thrills on just about every other front. To begin with, Inception is a marvel of screenwriting structure, as Nolan uses the device of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams to craft the cinematic equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. Even if the concrete goals of the story are fairly clear- the cranial crooks need to implant an idea, while team leader Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has to come to grips with his wife’s death and find a way home to his kids- Nolan’s story is complex, as Cobb’s team must burrow deeper in their mark’s mind while fending off his built-in defenses.

That the film is never confusing is fairly amazing, and a testament to Nolan’s skill as a filmmaker. Rather than rushing through to the job itself, Nolan takes plenty of time to explain the rules of the game and to establish the different dream-worlds they will inhabit. So once he has to cross-cut between the different dream levels, we’re always sure where everyone is- no mean feat when you’ve got four or more levels to deal with at once. Additionally, Nolan’s screenplay employs a device in which time expands with every further level the characters visit- ten seconds of “real world” time equating to three minutes in the first level of dreaming, an hour in the second level, and so on. This leads to a riveting use of cross-cutting in which the team must wrap up its mission while, in the highest dream level, the team’s van ever-so-slowly plunges off a bridge into a river. If they don’t finish up before they hit the water, the mission will fail.

Inception is most successful as pure spectacle. Even if they don’t feel like dreams, there are images in the film that are astonishing, some of which appear in the trailers, others of which I won’t spoil here. Inception’s effects are always convincing and often transcendent, all the more so because they’re so perfectly integrated into the worlds of the characters. And if the so-called “human interest” comes up short here- wait, Nolan’s using the dead-wife plot again?- perhaps that’s because Nolan intends them not as fully functioning characters but as someone’s “projections.” Ah, yes- but whose? (That said, Tom Hardy rules, which is something I never imagined myself saying after his performance in Star Trek: Nemesis.)

One thing is clear, Inception is a movie that I’ll need to see more than once so I can watch it freed from my initial expectations. Now that I have a better idea of what Inception is and what it isn’t, I should be able to judge it more on its considerable merits. And now that I know what to expect, perhaps now I’ll be able to better determine what exactly Nolan’s game is. Because if my experiences with his work have taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more going on than Nolan lets on the first time around. Even if there’s not- well, it’s still pretty doggone awesome. And isn’t that enough?

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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