Director: Christopher Nolan
At one point during Inception, a crack team of dream invaders led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb attempt to enter a person’s dreams despite the fact that they are all in fact already inside a dream, which is itself within another dream. Are you following? If not, it helps that one team member, Ellen Page’s Ariadne, chips in with the question “Who’s mind exactly are we going into?”
One possible answer to Ariadne’s question is the mind of director Christopher Nolan. Eessentially a giant ‘thank you’ for making The Dark Knight the success that it was, Warner Brothers gave Nolan $160 million to create worlds and images that have been in his mind since he was a teenager (by the director’s own reckoning). He pitched Inception to Warners while making Insomnia in 2002, and wrote the script over the following 6-7 years. Given the complexity of the resulting script, its long gestation period is not surprising; Nolan has created not just a fascinating representation of the dream world, but a believable and realistic one too, with its own rules and regulations. It sounds like The Matrix meets Dreamscape (with more than a dash of Paprika), but Inception differentiates itself from these titles by means of combining involving storytelling with visual chutzpah. Cobb explains to Ariadne how dreams are made and how they work; she then experiments by mentally folding the Parisian cityscape over itself like origami (this shot was glimpsed in most of the trailers and TV spots).
There are so many rules in the dream state that man of them pass by on a first viewing. Second helpings reveal the true depth of the story. Cobb is wracked with demons of his own in the form of memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, mysterious to the last) which threaten to derail the processes of dream extraction. Indeed, her mysterious death forbids Cobb from returning to the US, but when a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers to help Cobb get back home in return for planting an idea (the ‘inception’ of the title) in the mind of rival suit Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Cobb feels he has no choice. The true theme of Inception is choice, and how the decisions we make affect our entire reality. Choosing plans, choosing routes, choosing truths in which to believe: these decisions and many more play key roles in Inception. It’s a lot deeper than Iron Man 2, during which the only choice to contemplate was “More popcorn or an ice-cream?” That said, depth can be balanced with stuff blowing up and fight scenes, and any fight scene that borrows from Fred Astaire deserves a positive appraisal.
On the CVs of everyone involved, Inception will be seen as a progression. It certainly is for editor Lee Smith; this is a cleaner-cut film than The Dark Knight, and juggling four simultaneous dream states in one go is no easy feat. With Nolan guiding him, however, Smith does it with aplomb. For this critic, this year has seen the first two films starring DiCaprio in which he didn’t look prepubescent. As evidenced in Shutter Island, Leo has grown into a hungry and immersive actor, and his performance here is excellent. No showboating, no freaking out, just coiled pain and occasional lashes of anger.There’s still a chance Leo could suffer an acne outbreak at 40, but Gilbert Grape is gone, leaving only Dom Cobb, Teddy Daniels and the like. For Ellen Page, despite being mostly expository in nature, Ariadne is the first role that actually allows her to play someone her own age, and not before time. Michael Caine and Tom Berenger do well in small roles, while Cotillard and Murphy hold the screen with their big blue/brown (delete as appropriate) eyes. Watanabe’s presence is awesome, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur and Tom Hardy’s Eames steal the show with playful banter and subtle glances. Expect rapid career progression in both cases.
Has Nolan progressed? From The Dark Knight, he has progressed out of the shadow of studio sensibility and franchise ties to create a personal, profound vision. It would be equally fair, chronologically at least, to see this as a regression to Memento, and the fractured workings of the mind therein. On the evidence of that film and this latest masterpiece, Nolan is a creature who works best unfettered and free to create his own visions. What does Chris Nolan dream of? Like Sam Lowry in Brazil, he probably dreams of flying free of the system to do what he pleases. If this is the case, we can only hope that dream comes true.