Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan | 148 min | Netflix and In Cinemas/IMAX
As part of a month-long retrospective look at 10 years of this blog, I’m rewatching a few films from a decade back.
I began writing FITI around Labour Day 2010, and though I’d seen Inception by then I never did a proper review. I mentioned it during a look back at the summer that was, and then amongst the year’s best films. I’ve seen it many times since then. As with all Christopher Nolan’s pictures, it has a wonderfully labyrinthine structure and grace in its filmmaking that elevates it above most fantasy blockbusters. Many spoilers to follow:
Inception is at its heart a heist movie, borrowing heavily from many of the genre’s best while adding a tricky, ephemeral element — much of it takes place in dreams. Many film writers have talked about how the movie is so busy explaining itself it too often tells rather than shows. I understand that critique, but don’t share it. Nolan works overtime to set his movie in real, recognizable locations without a lot of obvious CGI or artificial-looking sets and lighting. By rooting us in actual places, we buy into the dreamworld from the jump. After all, dreams seem real to us when we’re in them, right?
Inception has no opening credits. You’re just in it. Nolan’s dream heist movie regularly uses the language of cinema to evoke the illusion of dreaming in its audience.
So, we open on a beach with Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) waking up in the surf. He sees his kids on the sand. Or does he? Interesting choice: never show the kids’ faces. It suggests the idea that we can’t necessarily trust Cobb’s perspective. Later on we’re introduced to the idea that in dreams we often can’t remember how we got to where we are — those kinds of interstitial details are absent. Dream logic.
Cobb is taken by armed men to a shiro, a castle on a cliff, to meet a man with not entirely convincing old-man make-up, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who half-remembers Cobb from a dream.
Then we’re in the dream, at the same shiro years earlier, but Cobb is the same age. All seems to be going well with Cobb and his right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but for an appearance by Mal (Marion Cotillard), who is Cobb’s late wife haunting him in dreams, which complicates his work — to steal secrets from the sleeping minds of corporate grande fromages.
The dream starts to collapse and, almost immediately, the exposition gets slathered on pretty thick. Intercut with an apartment in a Middle Eastern city where riots out the window raise the stakes for the sleeping agents — we’re on the clock, folks. If that wasn’t enough, we cut away to the Shinkansen, speeding toward Kyoto, where the sleepers are in fact located. How many layers of dreaming was that, again?
And all this in the first 15 minutes. Yes, there’s a lot of exposition, but it’s through editing that Nolan demands our attention, and expects us to keep up with this mix of dream reality and actuality.
In terms of action cinema, Inception is one of the best there is; a heist movie, a shoot-em-up, a science fiction thriller, and a James Bond-esque spy picture, and that’s despite DiCaprio in the lead.
I’ve gone on the record as saying I’m not the world’s biggest fan of one of the world’s biggest movie stars — he’s good in certain roles, like Tarantino’s Django Unchained or Scorcese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, where our sympathies aren’t required. But as a leading man he’s too opaque and too vain, which means his Cobb, while managing to provide enough vulnerability to function in the role, never really makes us care. He’s got the air of capability, but he’s chilly and distant. Do we believe he’s any kind of a decent father to his kids, if they really exist?
The concept and set-pieces are executed with such grace, Inception is one of those movies when you just won’t care. Cobb lives in a kind of dream already — it’s fast trains, Japanese castles, private jets, and rooftop helicopters. If he’s James Bond, he’s a double-oh agent who regrets his identity — all he wants is the normal family life he’s being denied by the charge of a crime, keeping him out of the United States.
Then Nolan introduces the concept of inception. He’s showed us a team of dream warriors and thieves, now he suggests the real aim of the plot: insert an idea into someone’s head while they sleep. The mission is being initiated by Saito, the corporate mastermind who tested Cobb and his team with that first assignment. Funny that even while they failed he still wants them to do the job for him. I expect there aren’t a lot of people with Cobb’s skill set in the world.
We also learn what’s important about architects, totems, and Tom Hardy. The actor’s English roguishness as Eames is essential to bringing a little fun to bear. He’s found in Mombasa, and Nolan doesn’t bother showing how Cobb got there. Is this just another dream mission? The longer he’s there, the more people begin to look at him, and then there’s the shrinking alleyway — very dreamlike. Nolan’s set the rules, then sees if we’ve been paying attention.
In the basement in Mombasa we visit a group of shared dreamers. “The dream has become their reality,” says the old man to Cobb. “Who are you to say otherwise?” It’s worth wondering whether what Cobb really wants is to find a way to be with Mal again, as well as his kids.
What makes Inception so delicious are layers of meaning beyond even the complexity of the narrative. Nolan chose Marion Cotillard as Mal, the ghost of Cobb’s wife who haunts him from beyond the grave. She’s so dangerous it’s the reason he can’t build his own dreamscape. The “kick” that pulls the dream team out of their shared subconscious experience is the song, “Non, je ne regrette rein,” by Edith Piaf. It’s key to the movie’s structure, to the point where Hans Zimmer slowed it way down to use it as the score’s huge, doomy audio signature. And, of course, Cotillard won an Oscar for her portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose.
I think Nolan is saying the idea of cinema itself is a shared dream, and the casting and choice of that song is part of the broader, meta tale he’s telling.
The mark is the heir to an empire, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and once we get access to his subconscious, the action stakes kick up a couple notches and we descend further into dreams. Right away we find out that Fischer’s brain has been militarized and the dream team has been compromised. If they die in this dream, they won’t wake up — they’ll get lost in the lowest level of dreaming, limbo. It’s a good twist: right away their plan is endangered. Their only chance of success is to continue down and forward, stick to said plan, with the hope they can still accomplish what they set out to do in far more difficult circumstances.
This is where the exposition also doubles down. Characters like Eames, Arthur, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), start to spend much of their time explaining the dream rules. Inception starts to look and sound more like The Matrix, which is good and bad. It’s good because Nolan is as deft as the Wachowskis with effective action set-pieces to keep us distracted from all this explaining, but bad because it starts to feel like he’s making up the rules as he’s going along, which is a stakes killer. If the rules are constantly changing for narrative convenience, nothing matters — it’s part of what made the two Matrix sequels so disappointing.
But Nolan keeps the pace up so we don’t end up asking too many questions or pick apart his plot construction, at least not until after the movie’s over — like the finer points of dream rules, especially of the relative speed of time in the different levels.
What I like most, thematically, about this film is the question Cobb is presented by Mal more than once: If the dream is ostensibly better than the reality, why not choose the dreaming? Why not create your own world out of your hopes and your memories? You can see the appeal, especially when the real world is full of doubt and pain.
To bring it back to The Matrix, do you take the blue pill or the red pill? You think you know what you’d do, but you don’t, not really.
The film is also terrifying — the idea that you could go so deep inside yourself that you could get lost, lost in dreams, or lost in a madness and believe that the world is not real, like Mal.
The relief, and wonder, in the actors faces when they emerge in the cabin of the 747 about to land in Los Angeles. The amazement that they pulled it off. That’s where the emotion of the film delivers, and makes it a lot more than a blockbuster, a lot more than a genre exercise.
“Daddy, look what I’ve been building,” says the child, James, upon seeing his father, Cobb. “I was building a house on a cliff!”