Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s dashing mindbender Inception is doomed to wide and inaccurate comparisons to Stanley Kubrick.
I say this because every challenging English-language film that critics cannot immediately box draws comparisons to Kubrick. True, there is a mind-blowing zero-gravity fight scene with the weightlessness of 2001. Then again it could be Fred Astaire, dancing on the ceiling of the HAL 9000. Inception creates some odd visual marriages among its overspill of film references.
So is it wrong of me to say that too many observers are betting on the wrong psychedelic space-station mind trip? I think a more productive point of entry for Inception is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. What would it look like if Andrei Tarkovsky directed a James Bond movie? Inception would seem to be the answer.
Each film – Solaris and Inception – examines the relationships of dreams and art, ideas and memory and filmmaking, psychology and reality. The films suggest that artistic endeavor comes from public exposure of the subconscious mind; art is therefore both sparked and troubled by subjectivity, affected by the deficit between reality and our personal perception of it.
Their plots center on dead wives and dead realities, imperfectly rebuilt from the troubled psyches of guilty men. These copies can be brought to life, indeed, but never made whole and real. Time diminishes memory. Reality can never be known entirely or remembered perfectly. We can only see through our lens of love and hate, memory and desire, and most of all guilt. If there’s one word in this review to underline and remember, it’s “guilt.”
If there is a flaw with Inception it’s this – Tarkovsky was willing to lose himself in his own personal dream logic. Nolan remains cold and clinical, approaching the subconscious mind as an investigator. The English director keeps a precise, rational, drumbeat structure (the rational structure of a magic trick, a collective deception agreed to by a performer and an audience). Inception feels like an ego making a movie about the Id.
Now if you are not a Russian film scholar, or if you would rather watch an action movie than sit through three hours of ten-minute car rides and Russian poetry, then that’s understandable. More people will see Inception this weekend than have ever seen a Tarkovsky film. Those masses are unlikely to be disappointed. Tarkovsky directing a James Bond movie would still be a James Bond movie, after all.
The film takes place in dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams. One dream might have a deadly struggle in a hotel suite; at the same time, the next dream might have an Arctic snow battle removed from The Spy Who Loved Me. During a ski chase, you are left waiting for the Union Jack parachute to open.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is an extractor, an agent who steals secrets from people’s dreams. Like many pros during a life crisis, his home life has started to harm his work. The manufactured dreams in which he operates are being compromised by the vengeful presence of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard).
To clear his name and return to his children, Cobb makes a deal with a Japanese tycoon (Ken Watanabe). Rather than steal an idea, he must do the impossible – successfully plant an idea in the mind of a powerful businessman (Cillian Murphy). His dream team includes an architect to build the dreams (Ellen Page); a sidekick thief (the quite great Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a forger (Tom Eames) and a sedation expert (Dileep Rao). Like The Dark Knight, Inception’s final 40 minutes shoot forward with the authority of a freight train, powered by the conviction of its own greatness.
We could chat about the high quality of Wally Pfister’s cinematography or Hans Zimmer’s score. We could talk about the film’s openness to interpretation, how it feels like another audience on the other side of the screen might be watching the same events, the same characters, but ultimately not the same movie. There are questions left to ask and answer, ranging from “What the hell was that?” to “Is Inception a modern way of saying Genesis?” As a critic I do not pretend to have the answers. OK, I do pretend to have the answers. But ultimately I only hope to direct you to the right questions.