I am an admirer of Christopher Nolan, so I was interested in Inception from the beginning. The natural follow-up to his first two films, Following and Memento, Inception was Nolan’s baby for a decade. As the marketing machine went into gear earlier this year, the question wasn’t whether or not Nolan made a good movie, but whether or not audiences would be able to comprehend it. Then came the salivating critics, heaping praise so high on it that I started thinking, It can’t be possible. It can’t be THAT good.
Well it is. It really is THAT good.
That said, is Inception perfect? No. There are some issues, some quirks of a director still fiddling with the knobs, such as a slightly bombastic score and a middle that drags a bit with too much exposition. But there is Nolan’s power as a filmmaker, which I believe he is only just truly discovering. Each film gets better, each one takes us deeper into his ideas on identity and memory, and I don’t believe we’ve begun to see Nolan functioning at his highest ability yet. I don’t think he’s quite in his prime, which is mind-boggling when you think about what he could achieve once he discovers exactly the right combination of script, talent, and technique to tell his story. Nolan may still be tweaking elements such as music, but his strengths–casting and storytelling–have never been better.
Absolutely spot-on perfect casting. I am not normally a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but having seen Inception, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Cobb. The right amount of desperate and determined, DiCaprio made Cobb not only sympathetic but likeable. Think about it—Inception is a heist movie and Nolan and DiCaprio have us rooting for the thief. We want him to get away with his crime. Cobb’s crew is made up of his second-in-command, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer), Ariadne (Ellen Page, Juno)—a cleverish bit of nomenclature, Ariadne being the ancient Greek “mistress of the labyrinth”—who Cobb trains to be the architect of the dreamscapes in which he commits his crimes, chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao, Avatar), and master forger Eames (Tom Hardy, RocknRolla), who is able to assume identities within a dream and portray different characters to aide in manipulating the victim’s subconscious into betraying its secrets. Tagging along to ensure that Cobb is successful is Saito (Ken Watanabe, Letters From Iwo Jima, Batman Begins), a businessman Cobb failed to extract information from. Saito hires Cobb to implant an idea in the mind of his rival, energy conglomerate heir Fischer (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins).
Fischer will have his life irrevocably altered by Cobb’s interference; he will lose the legacy his father built. Yet we’re more than willing to sacrifice Fischer’s future for Cobb’s. And still, Fischer is not an adversary. We like Fischer nearly as much as Cobb, thanks to Murphy’s sensitive, insecure portrayal of the son thrust suddenly into his powerful father’s shoes. Pete Postlethwaite, most recently of Clash of the Titans, has a brief cameo-plus role as Fischer’s dying father. Tom Berenger (Training Day) is the Fischers’ attorney, whom Cobb and his team use in Fischer’s subconscious to plant the seed of the inception. Michael Caine, too, has a glorified cameo; he seems to always be the voice of reason in Nolan films. And if you don’t blink, you’ll catch Lukas Haas (Witness) at the beginning of the film, as the original architect on Cobb’s team. Nolan’s films derive a lot of their richness from having intelligent actors play even the smallest roles. Check out this interview with Rao—not only has he given a lot of thought to the world his character occupies, but he’s come up with theories of his own, contributing to the Inception Theory Madness.
And then there is Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies, La Vie en Rose) as Cobb’s late wife Mal. She’s an unusual villain in that she isn’t a real person, but a construct of Cobb’s subconscious and memories. Yet as sad as she is, and Cotillard succeeds in creating a lot of sympathy with the audience, I was kind of glad when Cobb finally shot her. She was always popping up and ruining everything, the ultimate representation of the guilt and regret that is slowly destroying Cobb. Cotillard was fantastic and I’m glad her English is good enough that she can cross over and be in English-speaking films as well as French ones. Several excellent French actresses have faltered in America because of the language barrier (Audrey Tautou comes to mind), but Cotillard once again holds her own against one of our most admired actors.
Visuals and direction
Well I think Christopher Nolan is a genius, no secret there. And the praise for him on Inception was largely in the same vein, though some critics did say they found his direction too logical and “joyless” to make a truly great dream film. I understand the criticism, but I do disagree with it. First, Nolan’s overall style is built on his careful planning and his insistence on realism. If the script calls for scenes set in Southeast Asia, they go to Southeast Asia. If the finale takes place in the Yukon, they go to the Yukon. There is no standing-in in a Nolan film—if it looks like Japan, it is Japan. It only makes sense for that same sense of realism to carry over to Nolan’s ideas on dreams and the subconscious. It doesn’t eliminate the possibility for the extraordinary, though.
For example, in Fischer’s deepest level of dreaming, he opens a safe which will expose to him the “real truth” (of course the untruth that Cobb is suggesting to him) of his father’s last moments. On one side, Fischer is opening a vault in an industrial sort of hospital/fortress. Once the door opens, though, there is a vast negative space and a little corner which is how Fischer Senior’s room actually looked. I think that’s a plausible structure for a dream, and that’s the key to Nolan’s concept of dreams. For Inception, these are not the wild anything-goes kind of dreams, but structured worlds built by Cobb to represent whatever it is he wants you to think about. These dreams are made. So I accept Nolan’s logical approach to dreamscapes as part of the idea that someone outside the dreamer has constructed this world.
As for the charge that his visuals—cities folding in on themselves and elaborate Japanese fortresses—are “joyless”, I would answer that this is not a light-hearted movie. Inception is about loss and grief and regret, and the protagonists are criminals. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt provide some deft comic touches in their bickering, but by and large, Inception just isn’t funny. Nor is its goal to amaze you with visions of grandeur. The ideas behind Inception are very complicated—this is not the Philosophy 101 of The Matrix but some very deep notions on the nature of subconscious and memory—and Nolan keeps his visuals appropriately serious. There are some moments of amazement, such as Gordon-Levitt’s zero-gravity fight sequence, but at no point does Nolan allow his visuals to overpower his story. And maybe that’s the key. We have become so used to sweeping, dramatic visuals that mean nothing that we don’t trust a director who uses visuals not to shock us but in service of his story. The complaints against Nolan’s visual style seem less to do with his technical ability than how he uses it.
One of the best things about Nolan is that he writes his own material. He is in total control of the story. He isn’t interpreting someone else’s vision, he’s translating his own thoughts to the screen. That kind of control is necessary to keep a complicated plot like Inception’s on track. Yes, this movie is complex. Yes, you have to pay attention to everything, and yes, it will take repeat viewings (like Memento did) to fully understand what is going on. But audiences didn’t cower from Inception. In fact, its $62M opening weekend shows that if the movie is actually good, audiences are willing to try an esoteric original concept. And Inception is about as esoteric as it gets. Nolan is on very good terms with Warner Brothers, but I imagine the pitch meeting was still a bit, “I’m sorry—what?” Can you imagine? “I want to make a heist movie but all the crimes happen in dreams and we’re stealing ideas. And we’ll need $160 million to make it.” And then, “I’m sorry—what?” The real story of Inception, though, is not Cobb and his team planting an idea in Fischer’s mind, but that of Cobb letting go of his late wife, Mal. Cobb and Mal spent fifty years (which based on dream-math is something like an hour in the real world) in their own shared limbo. Mal loses touch with real reality and Cobb has to convince her that killing themselves in their subconscious is the only way to return to the real world. Unfortunately, Mal brings that mental break back with her, as well as Cobb’s suggestion about killing themselves, and Mal kills herself for real this time (deluded into still thinking she’s in her subconscious). Cobb is left holding the bag, wanted for her murder, and so he flees, effectively abandoning his children.
The crux of Inception lies on Cobb’s desire to return to his children, so when Saito, a businessman Cobb failed to extract information from, offers Cobb a chance to clear his name, Cobb leaps at the chance. Literally, “leap of faith” is a phrase that gets repeated throughout the movie. In fact, there is another phrase, “Do you want to become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?” that Cobb and Saito repeat back to each other throughout the movie, which has many people thinking that the real inception is taking place in Cobb’s mind, in order to free him from Mal’s destructive memory. That’s a great theory, but I have one problem with it. It would mean the whole of Inception is just a dream, and there’s no bigger narrative copout than to go, Surprise! It was just a dream all along! Nolan is above that sort of thing—it’s too simple for such an elegant construct.
Much more complex is the ending Nolan gives us. Cobb, reunited with his children (who haven’t noticeably aged from his memories, hmmm), spinning the top that lets him check in with reality. If the top stops spinning, he is in the real world, but in a dream it would continue to spin ad infinitum. The final frame cuts off with the top just maybe kinda sorta possibly is-it-or-isn’t-it wobbling, but it never falls. OF COURSE. No neat bows with Nolan. I want to believe the top is actually wobbling, that it will fall and stop spinning. But Cobb’s kids are exactly as he last remembers them, even dressed the same. And my friend B’s friend noticed that everyone at the airport was staring at Cobb—in a dream, the “people” are really subconscious projections and if they sense an outsider in the dream, they will stare at that person and eventually attack, like white blood cells fighting an infection. And I noticed we never see Cobb or Saito wake up in the van, the first layer of Fischer’s constructed dream. Everyone else revives after the kick, so it can be assumed that they all wake up in the real world (right—we can assume that, right?), but Cobb and Saito are never pictured waking up or on the shore after escaping the sinking van. So…
Did the top ever stop spinning?