What one can say with great certainty is that Inception inspires a great deal of discussion. It is a movie that, as Roger Ebert notes, is “immune to spoilers”. The entire movie could be summarized without properly relaying the experience, while the ending can be supplied without giving away anything. In a movie that is all about dreams, and toying with layers of reality – in a way the viewer comes out in the same sort of dream state. The movie, like some of the most vivid dreams – defies explanation, defies notions of space and time, yet are also crystal clear and sharply seen. What Nolan and his actors manage here is an act of narrative genius – telling a story that IS pure ambiguity and challenging fundamental notions of reality while staying resolutely within the rules of the universe. The plot is extremely complex and convoluted – but the narrative is very confident … the movie is about confusion – it is manifestly NOT a confused movie. Certainly there will be commentaries discussing the complex plot, and the ambiguities of the DiCaprio character – and even whether the movie in fact happened as it seemed, no matter WHAT it seemed – but what struck me was how effectively Nolan actually used classic Hollywood filmmaking to keep a potentially impenetrable movie completely comprehensible.
Describing the plot, one can see where Nolan’s narrative challenge lay. After all we have a man named Cobb, who has developed a business around invading people’s minds to pursue subconsciously housed information. A customer who can offer Cobb a chance to save his family thinks that if someone can extract thoughts, why can’t he implant a thought in the mind? So Cobb and his team have to enter a person’s mind, get deep into the subconscious and implant a suggestion. This is more than hypnosis, this is the replacement of essentially the sort of Freudian or Jungian sort of motivation for a basic human behaviour. Further complicated is this by the past issues Cobb has had with his own subconscious and the dreams and memories that he has had stowed away. At one point in the pursuit of the goal, we are in a dream within a dream. Indeed, an early scene between Cobb (DiCaprio) and one of his cohorts involves a shot with a barbershop mirror effect, and we recognize the multiple layers that we have to get in between.
This story is complicated already, dealing in dreams and reality – a mobius strip that is on par with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and certainly more complex than Nolan’s own Memento or even The Matrix. However, Nolan keeps us on track using frankly, some tried and true Hollywood formulas. Obviously, as the trailers point out, we are knee deep in the thriller generally. In classic thriller tradition, we see Cobb and his team in action attempt at an extraction in the opening sequence, establishing what they do in a pretty clear way. Obviously we can question the science, but the method is well defined and the actors establish instant credibility. He also hangs all this dream talk in what is basically a heist movie. In order for us to get more comfortable with the dream landscape, we see Cobb gather his team. He needs an architect to define the dreamscapes – so he meets an old mentor (Michael Caine – wearing erudition so easily) and his protege (Ellen Page). We meet a forger, and a chemist – and see how the team fits together. Essentially, these guys are there to pull a job – and the suspense generated from the heist formula drives the plot forward – even as the dream and multidimensional elements keep us (and the characters) in between layers of actual reality.
Nolan also employs typecasting and stars to keep us oriented, another way to keep the plot from potentially spiraling out of control. Actors are selected as much for their innate characteristics as their acting ability. Ellen Page, as a young college aged ingenue, is always smart and always convincing (and given her 4’10” sort of height, she will be playing these characters for a while longer). Joseph Gordon Leavitt, as one of Cobb’s associates, has the look of an assistant/operations man. He obviously has the boyish face, but hell, it feels like a dot-com sort of enterprise. When we need a menacing, mysterious sort of customer – why not Ken Watanabe who occupies the role with great presence and foreboding. The man whose brain needs to be infiltrated is played by Cillian Murphy, and he is convincing. More than convincing, the actors are all famous and recognizable enough that we can follow who is where at any given time. Given that characters are occupying multiple dimensions at the same time, it allows us to follow everything. At the center of it all of course is Leonardo DiCaprio, who continues his pattern of chasing extremely ambitious roles – and he shows the wear in his mind and both his skill and his torture. Finally, in the form of Cobb’s wife, Marian Cotillard is always mysterious – she could exist in a dream … absolutely she could.
All of this post has discussed the plot and basic nuts and bolts storytelling Nolan has used to tell his very ambitious, shape and time shifting story – but of course this does not touch the other major characteristic of Inception – the visuals. As a summer blockbuster, we expect a lot – and indeed Nolan delivers. Now, the effects are certainly not “realistic” – but within the logic of dreamscape, the effects that seem gratuitous in trailers becomes absolutely crucial. The spatial weirdness, the changing of axes is completely logical – our dreams are boundless, so consequently one expects the visual manifestation to follow.
Overall, Inception is totally enjoyable and I am still pondering its implications, and the dream state it so effectively evoked. I know I did not follow everything, and there were definitely a lot that was not explained. Did the time on the layers of dreams sync up? What sort of power did the Watanabe character really have? How does the DiCaprio character stay behind without getting placed in … well, there are a lot of questions. That said, none of these questions are really holes – I don’t think these are questions of explanations that Nolan ever intended to put in there. I guess you could demand an explanation – but that would fall in the category of criticizing the movie that one’s mind wants, not the movie that Nolan made. Personally, his narrative carries such confidence, that it is easy to give yourself to it, and the internal logic of the story is always clear. That is, the story is implausible – but within the rules established, the movie plays fair – and there is never a time when I was confused about why a character was doing some action at that point. The storytelling is clear – the story itself cannot be. Inception is like no summer movie I have seen in a long long time.