*** out of *****
By Bob Clark
Back when the Matrix sequels had freshly come and gone from theaters, I had talked about them briefly with a friend from college, who thought that the Wachowskis had made a critical error in not simply having Neo and his cyberpunk comrades simply wake up and discover the war they’d been fighting between man and machines had simply been another virtual reality dream-world. I asked if that wouldn’t make all of their adventures feel all a bit meaningless, and open the door to a revolving door of dreams within dreams with no end in sight. After all, David Cronenberg pulled more or less the same stunt in his own virtual-reality thriller eXistenZ, which threw out its story of Jennifer Jason Leigh as a radical game-designer with a Salman Rushdie style fatwa on her head in favor of a new paradigm in which she was an anti-VR assassin herself. It’s the sort of last-minute turn of the narrative screw that might work fine for a stand-alone feature, I said, but would more or less ruin any sense of continuity for a budding multimedia franchise. My friend simply shrugged and said, “Turtles all the way down!”
At the time I thought he was just didn’t like The Matrix Reloaded (even as a fan, I can’t blame him too much for that), but perhaps there’s some method to that madness. Audiences love to have the rug pulled out from under their feet, but only when that rug is an elaborately woven of the finest thread and most elegant Persian design. It’s our own modern equivalent of the flying-carpet, with the sensation of flight coming not from a few choice magic words spoken by Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu, but instead from Christopher Nolan, one of this generation’s premier practitioners in the art of Byzantine tapestry. With Inception, we have something of a logical next-step from the mind-games of The Matrix to a portray a cinematic maze that eschews the Manichean power struggles the Wachowskis copied in pattern from Lucas and Cameron (premier filmmaking Dedaluses from yesteryear who still know their way around a flight of waxen feathers) to instead embrace a set of convolutions all its own. As with all cinematic puzzles, which have the potential to either provoke and enrapture us with curiosity or stymie us with endless frustration and confusion, the question isn’t whether or not you can find your way out of the maze, but rather if it’s worth getting lost there in the first place.
It helps that, at least in broad terms, the story is a rather simple affair, as far as these things go. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCapprio) leads a crack team of dream thieves—hooking themselves up into a target’s subconscious in order to steal heavily guarded information in tailor-made reveries—who find themselves hired by shady industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe), who instead wants them to break into the mind of an energy tycoon’s young heir and plant an idea in order to manipulate him into breaking up the old man’s monopoly. In return, strings in high places will be pulled to allow Cobb back into the United States, where he’s been a wanted man ever since the suspicious death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who along with him pioneered their cutting edge (but vaguely described) technology, and now reappears from mission to mission as a hostile projection of his own memory of her who turns every dream he invades into a nightmare. With a Mission: Impossible inspired team including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the type of right-hand man who would ordinarily be expected to betray his partner at some point if the story weren’t already confusing enough, and Ellen Page as a young architect student turned apprentice dream-designer (not to mention handy audience-surrogate for all the expository psychobabble), Cobb dives into this one last job to clear his name and return home to his children, hopefully with at least some of his brain cells still intact.
It’s familiar territory for filmgoers raised with the likes of Phillip K. Dick adaptations and original works by Charlie Kaufman, not to mention perennial favorites by dreamers like Bunuel, Cocteau, Fellini and Lynch—indeed, no generation of cineastes may be better prepared for the baffling twists and turns that taken here, especially after the conclusion of television’s Lost and its reality challenging six-season run. If so much of the existential science-fiction on display throughout Nolan’s film seems familiar, then at least it provides a helpful map of genre roadsigns for an effort which seems insistent to defy most kinds of cinematic and narrative convention—as always, the director relies on Michael Mann’s mis-en-scene of a cold industrial-chic that rings true with his band of tech-savy professional criminals and presentation of dreamscapes anonymous as an amnesiac’s hotel room. Traces of early Cronenberg abound as well, from the Canadian director’s preference for corporate espionage and modernist architecture to Hans Zimmer’s synth-rich score, which sounds as though it’s doing its best to sound like a clone of Howard Shore from his Scanners soundtrack. With plenty more influences to be found throughout, both highbrow (a dreamer grown ancient beyond the dreamscape’s infinity and a rotating-set recalling Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as films and music-videos directed by Stanley Donen) and low (a third-act action sequence involving spies on skis resurrecting the ugly head of James Bond during the Roger Moore years), Inception is a bit like a dream itself that one might have after watching an eclectic movie marathon, and if the tailoring doesn’t always fit, at least it wears its influences on its sleeves.
As with Memento and The Prestige, Nolan creates a powerful piece of visually imaginative dramatics that seeks primarily to paint the bull’s eye on the back of a moving-target of a simple story evasively told. This isn’t a labyrinth you can escape from with the aid of a trail of breadcrumbs or a spool of string—instead, it seems at times that the entire maze is made of nothing but loose threads, a series of yarns within yarns and subplots within subconsciouses. The problem begins to set in, however, when he combines the same hypernarrative instincts that have served him well in his indie-fare with the propulsive blockbuster dynamics that made Batman Begins and The Dark Knight two of the most successful and respected pieces of big tent-pole entertainment from the past ten years. It’s a combination that other filmmakers have tried in the past, often with rewarding results—Lucas melded the artsy sci-fi tendencies of THX 1138 and wholesome populism of American Graffiti into the original Star Wars, and Cronenberg found success with the seemingly ordinary remake of The Fly, a genetic fusion of his gusty body-horror and mainstream emotionalism not unlike Brundlefly itself. But unlike them, for the most part Nolan keeps his indie and mainstream sensibilities at an arm’s length apart from one another, channeling most of his more challenging creative efforts into the script and his crowdpleasing Hollywood instincts into the visuals, and the two mix about as well as oil and water.
To be sure, there are plenty of jaw-dropping sights and imaginatively conceived moments throughout, but they don’t so much illustrate the film’s story as they do run parallel alongside it, seldom intersecting with any genuine substance. Sure, cities explode and fold over occasionally like pop-up books and laws of physics are taken about as seriously as Monaco speed limits during Grand Prix, but these scenes bear little import to the unfolding complications of dream invaders and their increasingly long cons. Instead, the vast majority of the story is communicated entirely through dialogue, which at times is overburdened with so much expository speeches that one would think he’d adapted his script from a novel the size of a phone-book. If the standard cinematic rule of “show, don’t tell” is to be taken seriously, then most of the time Nolan must be found guilty of showing us nothing of real importance, saving most of his big ideas for the telling, resulting in a largely verbal, surprisingly non-cinematic experience. At times it feels as though Leonardo DiCapprio and his team of actors are merely narrating the substance of the plot over a demo-reel of special-effect money shots seemingly written into the script for no other reason than to look good in the trailers. It’s especially ironic, given that the import of the movie’s title focuses on getting the dream-team’s target to come up with an intended idea themselves by their guiding manipulations, rather than having it be dictated to them via open suggestion or brainwashing. Whenever we are told what is happening without it being shown onscreen or given a chance to form ideas of our own, Inception proves unable to perform the job of “inception” itself.
It doesn’t help that Nolan insists upon supporting his complicated machinations with a set of increasingly commonplace domestic storylines, the same old set sob stories between fathers and sons or husbands and wives (indeed, alongside Revolutionary Road and Shutter Island it’s getting hard to imagine Leo in any other context than old-fashioned marital discord with pepperings of psychological delusions). Unlike Charlie Kaufman’s varying degrees of success with existential soap-operas like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York, Nolan misses the chance to bridge the emotional undercurrents of his narrative with the intellectual demands of his sci-fi high concepts with the key ingredient of comedy—instead of laughing at itself with knowing absurdism, Inception takes itself dreadfully seriously, resulting in a humorless trek through various levels of reality and fantasy that at times resembles what the classic Jean-Paul Belmondo farce Le Magnifique might look like if it had been played for straight. The problem is further compounded by the degree to which the script forces much of its exposition into the mouths of non-native English speakers like Watanabe and Cotillard, who put on brace faces but can’t help but stumble over themselves tongue-tied in muddled accents and rushed deliveries, perhaps a result of the director’s total lack of pacing throughout.
As with all his work since Memento, a film that thanks to its backwards presentation necessitated a strict discipline to carefully composed scene structure, Nolan edits the film within an inch of its life, cutting as much as he can within scenes instead of deleting extraneous moments in whole, resulting in a film that moves too fast for audiences to keep up with. It makes Lucas with his infamous maxim of “faster and more intense” look like the slowed-down work of Andrei Tarkovsky, by comparison. It’s that kind of impatience that robs the rich premise of any real sense of atmosphere throughout most of the picture, and furthermore reduces most of its imaginative and ambitious sequences into broken, almost incoherent snapshots of fist-fights on ceilings and shootouts in the snow (on skis, no less). Nolan has shown this kind of unsteady hand with action before throughout his Batman movies, and as impressive as the games he plays with time & space through editing and sci-fi concepts are, one wishes that he had something of a firmer grasp of them when it comes down to shooting a goddamn fight scene. It’s especially disappointing, as no matter how confusing the geography and sequencing of all his car chases and firefights are throughout the movie, it’s impossible to deny just how compellingly structured they are, particularly during the extended quintuple-fold set of sequences that makes up Inception’s third act, as multiple series of dreams within dreams are nested within one another like Russian dolls, with the events of one reality affecting the next down the line.
This is where Nolan’s heavy losses and piling creative gambits finally start to pay off, building a finely tuned set of cinematic machinations that not only make for gangbuster entertainment but serve to illustrate the hypernarrative’s twists in ways that its soliloquizing script can only dream of. Intercutting between succeedingly deeper layers of dreamscapes with their own sets of rules compounding upon one another, it distils a blending of technique and theme that evokes both Griffith’s Intolerance and Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, weaving a tapestry of interlacing realities that impresses in the big picture, even if things are looser and more frayed upon closer inspected than anyone bargained for. In the programming code-like bracketing of interlocking action beats, however, Nolan finds himself following the example of fellow fantasist George Lucas, whose series of intercut ground, space and lightsaber battles in Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace provide the basic template for what makes up the most impressive aspect of the film’s design—conditional set-pieces. While the rule-sets in the third acts of the Star Wars films were always based in some concrete laws of cause-and-effect— Rebel fighters knocking out a power-generator on a planet surface to allow an assault against the Death Star or Jedi Knights and native aliens fighting Sith Lords and robot-armies as diversions from the real goals—Inception uses the conditional relations to play with an increasingly complicated system of temporal physics that cause time and gravity to slow down or even stop entirely. It’s the type of action-movie ambition that is seemingly inspired by a few stray lines from Richard Linklater’s own dream-opus, Waking Life, where Ethan Hawkes and Julie Delpy’s Before Sunrise characters cameo to speculate on how long one can live in a dream.
But no matter how much he raises the stakes in his cinematic shuffling of the deck, he still owes a large debt to Lucas’ initial experiments in conditional set-piece building, and by extension the pioneering efforts of Fritz Lang. As the director of The Dark Knight, he betrayed a strong influence from Lang previously in the Joker’s unmistakably Mabusian tactics, but it’s in this film that he shows his fullest debt to Lang and his geganspieler narrative outlook, constructing the plots of his films as deadly games of cat-and-mouse between two rival sides, “opponents at play”. Being a director of the video-game generation, like the Wachowskis and to a certain extent Cronenberg (recall those Atari joysticks on the living television set of Videodrome, precursors to the flesh-pod consoles of eXistenZ), Nolan goes further and deeper with the notion of narrative as a game in the past tense, spending roughly half his movie setting up elaborate sets of rules in the first two acts in order to play with them as freely as possible in the third. At times, one might wonder if he’d chosen the right metaphor in dreams when previous experimenters of the puzzle-film genre have tended towards games and virtual-reality as literal extensions of realities fabricated by man, rather than his subconscious. The “dreams” his characters construct certainly make far more linear sense than anything from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, probably the best modern film to tackle the subject. There are no non-sequitors, no surreal moments beyond those that are outlined in the expository phase. Freud, Jung or any scientists of REM sleep might have trouble even recognizing them as dreams at all. Indeed, all of his rules are followed to the letter. Even lucid dreams aren’t this lucid, but games are.
As a game-designer myself, I find these new footholds of conceptual power upon cinema as encouraging, yet at the same time somewhat frustrating. Despite its faults, Christopher Nolan has delivered a piece of experimental blockbuster filmmaking well worth watching and even enjoying with Inception, but still, I can’t help but feel that so many of the same ideas and substance that he plays with on the screen here are perhaps better served by the medium he and his generation have gleaned so much from. If you want an experience that bends time and space with the same expert manipulation of origami, play Valve’s Portal or Jonathan Blow’s Braid. Or if you want to see M.C. Escher optical illusions come to life in twisting series of primrose staircases, play Sony’s Echochrome. If you want yet another Orphean attempt to resurrect the beloved dead through Hollywood fantasy/action set-pieces that would make Peter Jackson or James Cameron blush, play Fumito Ueda’s Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Or if you want to feel the gestalt-thrill of sneaking past enemy agents in elaborate, reality-bending existential espionage (complete with snow, but without the skis), play Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games. Still, there’s a sign of hope to be found in the way that Nolan has at least somewhat successfully been able to coin an original currency in the creatively bankrupt marketplace of Hollywood, and with any luck perhaps we’ll see the ripple-effects of this cinematic bombshell up and down the nested dollhouses of studio and indie dreamers alike. As above, so below—if it’s turtles all the way down, maybe it’s also turtles all the way up.