Christopher Nolan has crafted an intriguing thriller with Inception but don’t expect anything deeper. It’s wonderfully trashy entertainment masquerading as intelligent fare. I don’t ask for depth from my action movies (though when they can provide depth I am greatly appreciative). I don’t enjoy Die Hard for any profound statement about terrorism and I didn’t enjoy Inception for any insights it might (but doesn’t) provide about the nature of reality and how our perceptions can change it. I enjoyed Inception because it created an ironically plausible world and laid down ingenious rules so fun characters could navigate through them packed with lots of action and suspense. Nolan is a director I admire. He consistently takes creative chances though I don’t think he has made a great movie yet. This is the closest he has come, but he hasn’t succeeded.
We enter a world where technology allows us to enter other people’s dreams. Since we are most vulnerable to giving away secrets in our sleep state, corporations routinely hire spies to enter the dreams of their competitors to extract company secrets. These extractors, however, do not just randomly enter dreams; they construct rooms, houses, and cities that will be most conducive for subjects to reveal their dirty secrets. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an extractor with a guilty conscious. Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) get roped into doing a complex and risky job. Saito (Ken Watanabe), the CEO of a Japanese energy company, wants them to plant an idea in the mind of his largest rival, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). Planting ideas in dreams to make people think they are having them on their own once they wake up, inception, is nearly impossible, but Cobb, against the objections of Arthur, consents.
Cobb hatches an elaborate plan to layer a dream within a dream within a dream. (Incidentally I used to think the whole idea of dreams within dreams was nonsense until I had a few within the last few years. Weird.) The idea is to suggest an idea from someone Robert’s subconscious would trust, the family attorney Browning (Tom Berenger), then go into a deeper level of subconscious (the next level of the dream) and shake his confidence in Browning, then move to an even deeper level where, they hope, his own subconscious will embrace the idea and suggest it back to him.
If this all sounds complex it is, but the complexity isn’t the worst part. Nolan has ingeniously set up credible ground rules for people navigating the dreams of others. It isn’t as easy as hopping in and getting what you want (like it was for Dennis Quaid in Dreamscape); the mind’s subconscious is ever vigilant against intrusion and will attack if intruders are sensed. All of those people milling around in the background of our dreams are projections of our subconscious and will attack anything or anyone that doesn’t belong. Someone can move through dreams unobtrusively without much notice, but the more changes and the more noticeable the subconscious will jealously attack. This becomes especially sticky for Cobb who is carrying around guilt over the death of his wife Mal, played by the always gorgeous and talented Marion Cotillard. His subconscious projects Mal into the dreams he hacks into and she works to thwart his plans. Cotillard does amazing things with a difficult part; she isn’t playing a character so much as she is playing an idea of a character filtered through Cobb’s subconscious. She delivers all the pain, suffering, and anger required without histrionics.
The defense of the subconscious is I think one of the best concepts of the movie, but it also leads to one of its biggest flaws. Here we are in dreams where anything is possible and we end up watching the same gun fights and the same car chases we would see in any action picture. And I get that the extractors construct the dream world so they would have control about what the subject is seeing, but the subject’s subconscious would still populate it. There were some fiendishly creative things Nolan could have done, but was probably afraid of skirting into the realm of cheese. My dreams have featured such diverse characters as a purple Frankenstein’s Monster with steam shooting from his neck, an evil baby with a unibrow, and a conjoined twin with the heads of James Franco and G. Gordon Liddy. (Am I giving too much away here?) These would be cheesy and inconsistent with the visual tone of Inception but Nolan balked at creating true dream worlds like the ones we experience. They are grounded in reality; why would projections of our subconscious be limited to people? Couldn’t they be anything? Animals, plants, inanimate objects? Or how about my purple monster? And even when Nolan’s dreams do begin to bend the rules of physics and/or logic, there are always reasonable explanations as to why. I am referring to the giddy scene where Arthur fights projections of Robert Fischer’s subconscious in a spinning hotel hallway without the benefit of gravity. That’s a great movie moment, but why aren’t there more like it, that avoid easy explanations the way dreams actually do.
Another place the movie falls short is the music. (Though, inexplicably, many people think it is just great.) Throughout the movie it was the one thing that had me squirming. I didn’t realize it was Hans Zimmer until I got home and looked it up but really I should have known since he and Nolan have worked together before (and I have been a Hans Zimmer hater for years). The movie needed a much more dynamic and creative score. There are hints of good in the relatively quiet opening of the score, but then it descends into the same standard big-summer-movie blaring, portentous nonsense. I wonder how much better this movie would be if the score had truly matched the inventive visuals. Music can enhance a movie more than most people realize. I wonder how scary Suspiria would be without the creepy score by the Goblins. And would anyone remember Chariots of Fire without Vangelis’ now iconic music? Zimmer’s score for Inception just falls flat. It evokes neither dreams nor wonder, just big action movie.
But in the end, that is all this movie is. I know it purports to examine questions about how we can create realities out of dreams and imagination, but there’s nothing particularly deep or insightful about that. I guess there is some big twist at the end which anyone paying attention can see coming so I didn’t really see the point of it. A good twist for me would have been that Nolan was telling the story straightforwardly. This sketch of a theme and the games played with the plot are window dressing for the action and special effects. Luckily Nolan does them well and takes the time to pepper it with engaging characters. We can accept it for being idealess because the premise is engaging and the characters are worth our time. (I haven’t even mentioned the effective supporting performances by Ellen Page and Tom Hardy, unrecognizable from his great turn in Bronson from a couple years back.) The way he handles this material convinces me that Nolan has a masterpiece in him. Who else could turn this into something so compelling?
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For a more detailed analysis of what may or may not have happened in the movie go to a fine essay at Not Just Movies.