What happens when you’ve directed one of the biggest critically and commercially (not adjusting for inflation!) successful movies of all time? Apparently the studio gives you carte blanche to do whatever you want. And what do you do with that opportunity if you’re the frustratingly-handsome Christopher Nolan? You assemble one of the most intriguing casts of the year and make a summer blockbuster that is so complex and intellectually-charged that that it teeters on the brink between being almost unfilmable and career-destroying box office poison. And it ends up being one of the crowning achievements of modern cinema.
I’m not even going to hide my opinion of Inception. It’s brilliant. I knew I would probably fall in love with it the moment I saw the first trailer with the bending cities and tilting rooms. I trusted in Christopher Nolan to not deliver a film that was akin to intellectual masturbation, to not make a film that was simply a personal indulgence, although it’s clear that Inception is a sort of dream project for the man. It’s a culmination of almost every theme and subject that Nolan’s flirted with since the start of his professional film-making career.
Nolan concerns himself with artifice, with the appearance of things hiding their true nature. His debut, Following, started what turned into his signature flourish of non-linear storytelling. A crime caper hacked into bits and rearranged out of order, it was mainly an experiment with narrative: how far can you stray from linearity and still have a strong story? He followed this up with a fairly-improved effort, Memento, which retained the non-linear hook, but also played with concepts of memory and reality. How malleable are a person’s memories? Is reality only what you perceive it to be based on what you remember? Insomnia was a study in guilt and perceptions, how moral choices can haunt a man to his grave and how a single act can stain a man’s entire existence. Then came Batman Begins and afterward The Dark Knight, movies about crime, the darkness of human nature and how a man can transform completely into artifice, into a symbol. Crime stories on their simplest level, but beneath the surface searches for identity in a corrupt world. Between the two, there was also The Prestige, a cinematic sleight of hand that celebrated the artifice of the magician, and again plunged into the psyches of obsessed men, sacrificing their own lives in the pursuit of the ultimate illusion.
Inception calls back to practically all of these ideas, in most cases cranking it to 11. To sum up the plot of Inception would be unwise for a few reasons. If you’ve already seen it, it’s unnecessary. If you haven’t seen it, it would be to spoil the discovery of watching it spool out before you. To reduce it down to bullet points would be to misrepresent the density and complexity if the ideas it presents. If it must be described, Inception is a crime story, wearing its influences from Heat and so forth on its sleeve. It’s also a work of science fiction that touches upon dreams, the nature of reality, the perception of identity, the power of human imagination, time dilation and the joy (and danger) of artifice, illusion, trickery.
After seeing this film, it’s clear Nolan loves puzzles and mazes. About half of his filmography has been given over to narratives where the story has been fragmented into puzzle pieces, and when viewed strewn across the table as Nolan presents them, they’re frustrating. It’s only when the participation of the viewer enters the equation that the merits reveal themselves; a film from Christopher Nolan is not a film to be idly watched. Inception itself epitomizes this philosophy. It puts its identity as a maze/puzzle hybrid front and center, making it into a plot point. The plot of Inception seems inspired by Russian dolls, layers upon layers revealing themselves as viewers go down Nolan’s rabbit hole.
Using such narrative trickery, it may seem apt to compare Christopher Nolan’s approach to film-making to another high-profile director: M. Night Shyamalan. The troubled auteur has seen a career that opened with The Sixth Sense, a high point that could never be duplicated. After a decade of steadily diminishing returns that personally turned me off somewhere around The Lady in the Water, he seems to have reached a nadir with this summer’s The Last Airbender. The trailer for his next movie this autumn, Devil, was met mostly with derisive laughter when his name appeared on screen. While the plots of Nolan’s movies may twist, he never seems to be aiming for something as petty as a “GOTCHA” moment, as seems to be the case with Shyamalan. His movies also stand on their own without using the twist as a crutch, instead of Shyamalan who seems to think of twists first, then movies to build around them.
Instead, I would say that Nolan shares more in common with an auteur halfway around the world: Satoshi Kon. Hailed as one of the greatest talents in Japanese animation post-Miyazaki, Kon also concerns himself with artifice and the malleable nature of reality. His directorial debut, Perfect Blue, played with the fabricated image of pop stars and film actors, the creation of personas and self-delusion that makes the world in front of and behind the camera start to blur. Millennium Actress was also an exploration of the fabricated world celluloid creates, mixing it with the memories of the old woman who lived her life in front of a lens. His latest, Paprika, was (like Inception) an exploration of the dream realm, and the insecurities and fantasies that are given expression through the subconscious. Both men seem to genuinely love cinema and make movies for people who love movies as much as they do. The two seem to come from the same place, thematically, but diverge into different directions when it comes to styles. Satoshi Kon seems to be the embracing the chaos that the bending of reality allows. Christopher Nolan, however, seems the quintessential control freak. Kon feels more comfortable exploring the raw emotional cores of his stories, whereas Nolan errs toward the intellectual. His films seem as immaculately-constructed as the pomade-riddled hairdos of the protagonists in Inception. Not a speck out of place.
That precision in both storytelling and cinematography works beautifully. There’s never the feeling of being on a runaway train that doesn’t have brakes, as Paprika felt like towards the end. You can trust that Nolan spent a long time thinking about how to construct his dominoes, and that the flourish when they start to fall one after another will be suitably satisfying and gorgeous. Not only is the cinematography of Inception beautiful, at times what you see on the screen takes your breath away. One of the best things you can do as a film-maker is to give the audience something they haven’t seen before, and I guarantee that Inception has at least one of those moments, if not more. The visual creativity is second, perhaps, only to the Wachowskis, who seem to have had trouble telling a story as coherent as even some of Nolan’s more confounding efforts. The story of Inception is also as astounding an achievement as the eye candy. There’s so MUCH going on here, yet it’s all corralled into a two and a half hour movie that feels more like a breathless ninety minute thriller. By all means, the byzantine nature of the plot should have collapsed in on itself somewhere around the two hour mark, yet it all hangs in there up to the very end.
As I mentioned earlier, the cast is simply intriguing for the summer, including next to none of the expected names movie goers associate with popcorn fare. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is slowly but surely proving to audiences at large that he’s a fantastic actor, despite missteps such as Cobra Commander. Marion Cotillard surprises in the first role I’ve actually seen her in. She’s seriously wonderful. Leonardo DiCaprio angsts it up as is his specialty. Cillian Murphy shows up to delight with his distracting/mesmerizing pillow lips. Even Ellen Page isn’t smug and is actually sympathetic for the first time I’ve seen! Sure, most of the characters might seem to be ciphers in comparison to DiCaprio’s lead, but that could also be a part of the plot, too.
Really, beyond the fine acting and jaw-dropping cinematography and effects, what wows me about Inception is just how smart it is. It’s brilliant! It’s relentlessly creative! And it’s a big budget Hollywood movie! Those are like oil and water! It’s simply mind-boggling how many people are going to see a movie of this caliber just because they were lured in by explosions and CGI. Hell, the most visually impressive, visceral set pieces in the movie don’t involve CGI at all. Even though probably 90% of its dialogue is expository, Inception never tells the viewer what to believe. Right up to the final frame, we’re left with as many unanswered philosophical questions as the characters. Nolan wants us to navigate the maze for ourselves and come to our own conclusions in the tradition of some of the best science fiction, such as Blade Runner (before all the ambiguity was ruined in that). We finally have a grown-up making big grown-up movies for other grown-ups. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.