All right, Christopher Nolan, consider my mind blown. I’m picking up pieces of my skull as I’m writing this, certain I’d never seen anything quite like Inception before. Sure, there have been plenty of sci-fi heist movies and stories about the perils of dream invasion, but how many unfold in such a clever manner, toying not just with surrealist imagery but with the very mechanics of storytelling? Three quarters into the motion picture, I realised my cheeks were hurting because I’d been smiling the whole time.
I was tempted to end the review here. So much has already been said about Inception, though supercilious cinephiles apparently disagree as to the film’s true meaning: “Clearly, Nolan is using metafiction to discuss his own creative process”; “Clearly, this movie is about drug abuse and the effects of LSD”; “Clearly, the writer-director is criticizing the Hollywood hype machine, and no other understanding is worth consideration.” Clearly, we have different definitions of the word “clearly”.
To me, Inception is clearly about a corporate spy named Cobb (Leonardo DiCapprio) who specialises in shared dreaming: the process of navigating a person’s subconscious while he or she is asleep. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a powerful industrialist, hires him to plant an idea into the mind of Robert Fisher Jr (Cillian Murphy), heir to the world’s leading conglomerate. As far as the world’s concerned, such a feat is impossible. Cobb knows better, but his emotional baggage threatens the mission in very literal ways.
The rules of shared dreaming are intriguing in that they seem designed to circumvent the more prominent clichés of the subgenre. A dream architect creates the landscape, and the subject populates it with his or her subconscious thoughts, extras acting as psychic white cells, should something feel off. That means the heroes (and filmmakers) must keep their surrealist flights of fancy to a minimum, grounding the set pieces in relatable physics. To those who view this imposition as a lost opportunity, I submit Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) and its visually arresting anti-climax.
Another movie Nolan knew not to imitate is Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which popularised the whole “dream death means real death” gimmick. The plot device, I admit, never made tremendous sense to me. I’ve croaked in plenty of dreams, and I’m still here, gathering skull bits in a tidy container. In Inception, dream death merely jolts one back to reality. That is, unless the body is unable to wake, in which case one’s spirit is propelled deep into psychic limbo, where a single second can feel like fifty years, kind of like watching Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).
All these concepts are covered in the first half of the film, as the dream raiders train their newest recruit, Ariadne (Ellen Page). The exposition generator also doubles as Cobb’s reluctant conscience, though that’s pretty much the extent of her personality. In fact, one could argue Cobb is really the only character in Inception. His decisions alone drive the story, and his obsessions give it texture. The other boys and girls are mere props in his metaphysical psychodrama.
Fortunately, the supporting cast consists of experienced actors who can evoke full beings even with sparse material, allowing the narrative to take vital shortcuts, given the runtime of roughly two and a half hours. Consider the way Watanabe hints at altruism despite his character’s obvious self-interest. Saito, his performance suggests, believes he’s doing the right thing, preventing an energy monopoly at any cost. This is crucial, since we have to trust he’d honour his end of the deal, should the heist succeed.
Ah, the heist: it’s a doozy, all right, taking place over four layers of reality, each with escalating consequences, by which I mean a speed bump in the first world can cause a small earthquake in the second, an avalanche in the third, and so on. The Freudian symbols follow the same pattern: a safe represents a secret in one layer, a hidden truth in the next, and flat-out denial in the last. Add to that the notion that time moves at a different pace in each plane of existence, and you get the most exciting variation on parallel editing I have ever seen.
My only qualm with Inception is the final shot, which was beautifully paced and executed, but the concept left me a tad underwhelmed. It’s the sort of ending for which every movie dealing with these themes tends to go, and I was on such a high after watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt battle psychic white cells in a hotel corridor with shifting gravity that I expected—nay, craved—something more decisive and original.
Then again, I have no doubt the film’s conclusion helped inspire the ridiculous amount of conjecture regarding its deeper significance, and, as any reviewer knows, the greatest gift any piece of fiction can give its audience is that of a riveting conversation. Perhaps that’s the true inception at the heart of this cinematic experience, as Christopher Nolan clearly… Crap. I’m doing it too.