By Amy Nicholson

Posted July 15, 2010 in Film

When you sleep, cautions Leonardo DiCaprio, there are only two ways you can prove you’re dreaming. First, you don’t remember how you got where you are—where were you before this cafe, this hotel bar, this endless, circular streetscape? And second, you can clutch a totem, a small, unique reminder of the real world that only you know the weight and feel. 

You see, in Christopher Nolan’s imagination, we can plug in and share dreams. In fact, it’s a business that affords for DiCaprio and partner Joseph Gordon-Levitt to fly private jets and casually drop by Mombasa and Buenos Aires. They are extractors, or really, extraction-protectors. Like bank robbers turned guards, they know all the tricks of breaking into a brain.

They’ve done well enough hacking into Japanese tycoon Ken Watanabe’s subconscious that he’s hired them to do the impossible: plant an idea in the head of rival Cillian Murphy that will inspire him to destroy his company. This is a heist film where breaching security means psychoanalyzing Murphy’s feelings for his dad. But mental sowing—or inception—nearly never takes. “True inspiration is impossible to fake,” cautions Gordon-Levitt. And Nolan, a writer and director of dastardly inspiration, throws that line out like a gauntlet.
Fake his blockbusters? Impossible. After he threw Batman on the psychiatrist’s couch, every screenwriter in town desperately gave their superheroes daddy issues. With The Dark Knight, he raised the ante with an action film structured by Nietzsche. But before the Hulk spouts Camus, Nolan’s racing ahead with an extravaganza where intellectualism isn’t just the bones—it’s the film’s meat and pulse.
Notice I didn’t say heart. Inception is a chilly trick, a film whose source inspiration is a book of logic puzzles. Nolan hasn’t written characters; he’s simply inserted Xs and Ys, actors alive only as word problems where John and Jill wonder when their speeding train will break the sound barrier. Nolan is so uninterested in creating real, rounded people that he names Ellen Page, “Ariadne,” to underscore that her young dream architect is the princess of the maze. (You won’t see that name popping up at yuppie primary schools.)
Clinical, yes, but what a marvel. The film is talk, talk, talk and then—kapow!—a visual that knocks you clear off your chair, say Paris folding in on itself like a box, or an anti-gravity fight that leaves you breathless and tired. In seconds, you’ll forgive lines like, “Shall we take a look at some paradoxical structures?” Inception has the same $200 million price tag as Transformers 2, but here it’s money well spent. Michael Bay spent a small nation’s GDP on junkyard fireworks. This is movie magic—big, beautiful stunners designed for awe and applause.
And Bay fans will have to bring their mental A-game to a movie with the ambition to layer five true and faux realities at its climax, and the assurance in its audience to trust they’ll keep up. You can’t warm to Inception, but you can chase after it in its wake and cheer it for fighting the tyranny of the lowest common denominator. Nolan insists that people who go to big summer movies deserve a full body and brain invocation. And ticket sales back him up, even if other studios aren’t listening.

But Nolan doesn’t live up to his own ambitions. He wants our money, mind and heart. In his final act, he thumps the grand philosophy that reality is better than a dream. He’s got what looks like an argument—DiCaprio’s wife Marion Cotillard chose dreaming over doing, and at night he chases after her in his sleep—but his film itself cares so little about reality that we’re unmoved.
Like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, the movie is a Russian nesting doll of wants and hopes and all the conflicting layers that make us human. Nolan and Kaufman are the only directors audacious enough to try to explain the meaning of life in under three hours. Only Kaufman loves the imperfections: the failures, the dead ends, the dust bunnies. In Synecdoche, having kids means sacrifice, stress, love and (daringly) apathy. In Inception, kids are a platonic ideal. DiCaprio will do anything to get back to his son and daughter, and we’re meant to care simply because they exist, even though they’re nothing more than some pretty blonde curls.
Inception is beautiful and bloodless. Like a dream, it doesn’t care how you got to this moment in the theater. It doesn’t challenge who you were going in, and it doesn’t implant ideas you’ll carry with you outside of the multiplex. But for two and a half hours, it’s the perfect, hermetic fantasy—in the light of the lobby, it hurts when that bubble pops. “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange,” says DiCaprio. And the only way to slip back into Nolan’s strange, short-lived spell is a second ticket.


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