Monday, July 19, 2010

Love: Inception

When Christopher Nolan isn't bothering with Batman reboots, he just loves to tackle the terrain of reality fluxing mind- fuckery.  Memento, The Prestige, all those little make-you-think moments of Nolan's celluloid "ah ha" trickery have grown up in the wake of The Dark Knight's spectacular payday to become high-powered action flick Inception.  Those who have experience with slippery cinema realities will see through Inception in its first few moments.  Without knowing the ins and outs of character and plot, a film embedded so firmly in a dream within a dream can really only end one of two ways (I firmly believe that that is not a spoiler), and if you know Nolan, the map of where you're headed should be drawn within seconds.  Do I need to rehash the plot of Inception?  I don't think so, but I will anyhow.  For a film that was initially so shrouded in secrecy and speculation, the construct has become fairly common knowledge:  Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his rag-tag ensemble of extractors and architects (those who construct the dream environment), are masters of the dreamworld.  They deal in the procuring of information from the subconscious (or should it be unconscious?) minds of their targets.  It's risky corporate espionage, essentially, and becomes all the more so when wealthy executive Saito (Ken Watanabe) strikes an deal with Cobb in the event that he succeeds at the reverse of their usual mental hit and run: inception.  That is, the seemingly natural placement of a thought in the target's head.  Cobb assembles a team of dapper, super slick men and one young student (Ellen Page) to tackle the task head-on, no holds barred, as far as they have to dip into the target's (Cillian Murphy) consciousness.  

The clever architect can re-design Nolan's maze outright, but the joy (and the frustration) is in the journey.   Whether your mind is blown or not (admittedly, mine wasn't), there's rarely a dull moment as Inception tunnels deeper and deeper towards the muddled brink of oblivion.  
As with every passing summer of sequels and "based-ons", there's much ado about Inception as the bright spot of originality on the scorching blockbuster calendar.  The flip side of the coin is that there's conversely also a fuss over Inception's pastiche of influences.  Can it be called wholly original?  Yes, but that originality isn't delivered the way you might hope.  Inception is not foreign terrain.  It's re-processed material.  Though you've seen it all before, this is a film where you will nonetheless see it all.  Whether you first cling onto the Matrix-like grasp on the concept of "the Real", the Kubrickian hallways, Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf connection, a love affair recalling those empty salons, corridors, salons, or something as simple as, "jesus. h. christ, Leo, between this and Shutter Island you're slipping into a niche"...Inception becomes its subject matter.  It is all of these things and more; and in that way, the film exists as a literal waking dream in which the context is alien but everything is startlingly familiar and referentially layered.  You know this movie.  Though it meddles in complex philosophical concepts it's strikingly simplistic.  You don't need the the cliffs notes to parse through what Inception is offering because it doesn't matter, you're comfortable, you've seen it before.  It's a smash and grab job just as it's a tangled web.  It is exactly all those other books and movies and ideas just as it isn't any of them at all.  This is Inception's greatest success: that as you watch it, it does indeed feel as though you (as viewer) are interfering (just as the characters are) in the process between perception and creation. 

Inception is not a perfect film, but it is set up masterfully in terms of plot and substance as that which cannot lose points for plot weaknesses or cracks in its steely veneer.  If it were an action film situated in reality,  detractors would decry the floating logic and lack of explanation employed to move from point A to point B.  In truth, there's a fair amount of things that don't quite add up.  How do the machines work?  How can one person construct the environment for another's foreign consciousness?  Why does Saito want Cobb to work for him after he just failed his previous mission?  Why does Saito have the power to clear Cobb's records overseas?  Why exactly is Cobb assumed guilty for a crime that seems fairly straightforward as, well, not much of a crime at all? These are just a few.  In lesser films these nitpicky little pieces would grow and expand into something impossible to ignore.  Inception dodges that via dream logic.  It is, as you know, a film literally about dreams.  In dreams, we are allowed to glide effortlessly between events.  This is how things progress.  They happen, they materialize, you don't know how, you don't know why.  In Inception, it's the same.  When you don't know where the lines of reality have been drawn, you can't fault the story for not delving deeper into the minutiae.  Thus, when Nolan tells you that this is how something is, you have to believe him even if you'd rather fight him for stringing together pieces so knotted or abundant that you'd rather not give him any credit at all.  When his dream world is a projection of blase reality instead of a fanciful, strobing mass of leaking colors: you can't call him uninspired.  Inception is a bit on the spartan side, yes.  It's beautiful, but in a way derived purely from literal architectural lines.  The spaces are constructed in blueprint topography instead of acid colors.  But, after all, these aren't your dreams: they're the approximations of an actual reality rendered by (what seem to be) supposed architecture students.  Inception is just a reality that can be readily manipulated by what lies beneath Ellen Page's forehead or DiCaprio's furrowed brow.  For some, this will be disappointing. 
For me, my enthusiasm for this world was lessened largely by the insistence on making each scene a trigger to a new shoot-out scenario.  Inception wants to be a cerebral action movie without sacrificing any of the action.  This worked with The Matrix, if only because the reality created was one reliant on gaming culture.  We expected heavy artillery in our RPG program.  In Inception, that is, in dreams, we do not.  The conventional violence here is the bit that feels forced and heavy handed.  There's no need for a good 45% of the firepower.  The flimsiest bit of dream logic in the film will have you believe that in the mind's adaptation of reality,  the mark's 'subconscious' is represented via projections of normal human beings.  These are just folks walking down city streets, driving cars, etc.  The more things are changed (like glitches in the matrix (i'm sorry, but mentioning the two together may be obvious, but it's also inevitable, and that film capitalized on pomo philosophy in a way that Nolan can't even compete with)), the more aggressive the projections become towards the person they deem responsible.  They are, as noted in the film, basically white blood cells. 

Sometimes, if the mark has been trained to defend themselves against extraction, their projections are more militant: snipers, SWAT teams, military, etc.  The result is, of course, that as Cobb and others invade the mind in search of information, they are routinely under siege by nameless, faceless armies of gun toting projections.  In moderation, this is a completely plausible dream device. Yet, Inception clatters noisily through extended clattering scene after explosive scene, detracting from the most intriguing aspects of its plot to attend to a seemingly mandatory quota of summer thrills.  Don't get me wrong...I love a good action movie, and Inception is definitely a good action movie.  But if there's reason for the aesthetic choices of the dream world itself (which there is), there isn't really a great explanation for why the defensive mechanisms within the dream aren't built into the landscape instead of deriving from crude weapons and repetitive stand-offs as the clock ticks down, down, down.  There was enough action pre-established in the story's own labyrinthy caper before the use of so many blanks.

Nolan piles on quite a bit with Inception.  In many respects, the things he piles make for a stunning accomplishment.  It's well cast, well shot, gives you a good deal more to ponder than the usual popcorn flick and is beautifully orchestrated in terms of impermeability and pastiche.  On the other: it hits one note with its destructive action and there's something a little strained about its range of emotion.  Though watching it is an effortless task, and certainly an enjoyable one, it's less mentally taxing than just sort of frustrating for no reason at all.  While I liked Inception quite a bit, I was not excited about it as the credits rolled.   This wasn't disappointment, but something more like ambivalence. I didn't walk out raving or run to tell anyone how awesome it was.  It was sort of similar to what I experienced with The Prestige.  I just sort of shrugged, decided that it was good, and left slightly less than thrilled but not quite reaching the point of thoroughly underwhelmed.  See Inception.  You're going to want to say you have, if only so you can know where you're going when the debate as to its status as contemporary "masterpiece" begins.

PS: Did anyone else notice that parts of Zimmer's Inception score were remarkably close to bits of David Arnold's Quantum of Solace score ("A Night at the Opera")?  I spent a huge portion of the movie trying to figure out where I'd heard it before...


  1. Glorious pictures.Nolan’s script keeps the parallel narrative threads concise, and through gorgeous cinematography by Wally Pfister and sharp editing by Lee Smith.


  2. i hate sequels but i need one!


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