There has been a cultural tidal wave that has come through recently. One film has caught a tremendous amount of attention from both film-go’ers and critics. That movie is, as you may already know, Inception. The first original script from director Christopher Nolan since his debut feature Following, it is as huge in its scope as his massive hit The Dark Knight ever dreamed of being. What has drawn audiences in however hasn’t simply been the fun escapist plot that so many summer movies often carry with them, it has been the pure imagination and utterly maze-like story that seems so easy to grow lost within. Although normally our time here on Rogue Cinema is divided between the independent and the thoroughly obscure, Inception is a film that takes qualities from Christopher Nolan’s independent film roots and mixes them up with the big budget Hollywood techniques that he has learned in recent years. The result is a film that breaks through all borders, so why not our own? I have read some criticism as of recent from fellow like-minded film geeks who make the claim that Inception, while good, is only viewed as a ”great” film due to the lack of quality in so many recent Hollywood productions. This is a legitimate point of view, not one that I share, but it is a legitimate point of view. While I am not here to attack it like a rabid wolverine, I am here to say that I disagree and I will make my case on just why Inception is indeed a “great” movie.
Continuing on in the direction that Christopher Nolan established with his first two feature films (Following, Memento), he is once again back in the drivers seat and manipulating film narrative. There were hints of this to be found in Batman Begins, where we slipped in and out of time periods within Bruce Wayne’s formidable training, but one assumes that studio involvement could have put the kibosh on any serious attempts at deconstructionism. After the massive hit that was The Dark Knight, we see Nolan unleashed with a budget and zero restraints. Inception, if you are not aware, is the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is a corporate spy for hire along with his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt). They are spies of the mind, who use a device that allows them to go into the dreams of various corporate leaders to steal their most hidden thoughts and knowledge. When a job goes bad inside the mind of a Japanese business man named Saito (Ken Watanabe), they are left running for their lives because their employers will now surely kill them. Saito approaches the two however and offers them the chance at a fortune, and something more important for Cobb… a chance to head back home to America to see his children, a place he hasn’t been in a long time due to legal issues that prevent him from stepping inside of the country. They are asked to do the impossible. Go into the dreams of another corporate giant and not just remove thoughts, but to actually plant an idea inside of his mind that will cause him to destroy his own empire. Now it is up to Cobb to build his team and prepare for the most dangerous heist of his career.
Inception may be the largest jump in creative use of narrative that we have had since Pulp Fiction or possibly even Nolan’s very own Memento, depending on how well you regard that film. Although there are touches of that “out of order” non-linear thought process that Quentin Tarantino made so popular during the mid-to-late nineties, the true jumping points for Inception come in the form of its “dream within dreams” style of logic. Crafting a series of dreams where we are given very particular ways to enter and exit them, Nolan is able to take us on a controlled vision that feels like utter chaos. Nolan deftly maneuvers between these dreams, leaving characters behind as things progress only to come back and re-visit them while they attempt to complete their very own missions. The final ninety minutes of Inception are a culmination of Nolan’s greatest work and all of his major influences. There is the tense editing of Alfred Hitchcock, the painted blues and stark action of Michael Mann and there is of course the warped and perplexing plot of Christopher Nolan’s very own work. I mention Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) in passing, but I don’t want to get the two filmmakers crossed. While both filmmakers are most assuredly technicians who are very logical in their progression of plots and ideas, Michael Mann is often criticized for his lack of emotional attachment to his characters. Often times his work seems to come across as very emotionally despondent. This can be an interesting quality at times, by giving the film a very meditative quality, but it can also turn off audiences. Christopher Nolan on the other hand… this is a filmmaker who loves pathos.
The character of Cobb is simply another in the long line of haunted men as painted by Christopher Nolan. The character has roots in all of Nolan’s films, all the way back to his introductory feature where there was actually a character that went by the name of Cobb. Both characters are thieves by their trade, with the differences being night and day between the two. The character of Cobb in Following is ruthless in his wit and feels no sympathy for what he does and takes delight in adjusting other people’s lives. He breaks into a persons home and then dumps out a box full of personal photographs, just to let that person know that he has been there and seen a glimpse inside of their personal self. However, our Cobb in Inception lives his life out of a tremendous guilt for playing a similar game. It is interesting that in both films the general crime film motif of “a box” (as in a safe, a vault or a lockbox) is used more as a representation of something much more personal than material possessions. In Following it is stated that ever person has “a box”, a place where they keep photographs and documents hidden from the outside world. A place that is as hidden as our own internal monologue it would seem. With Inception we are shown that in our dream reality our subconscious automatically builds a vault, a safe or a box that holds our own personal secrets so as to protect them. With Inception Nolan is able to further explain man’s nature and our own internal structure of retaining secrets, even from our own selves.
Nolan loves to deliver pathos and guilt and it has shown in all of his work. The psychological damage of past traumas and their effect on man is a big part in much of his work. Inception delves back into this theme yet again and ultimately delivers his most satisfying portrayal of this condition. With his previous work, he has focused on men who have been haunted by their past and are spurred into violent action. In Memento the character of Leonard shared his entire world with his wife and when both she was killed and he was left with no memory, he had nothing left but his vengeance. We never question Leonard’s love for his wife because the anguish of his character is at all times palpable. When Nolan was brought on board to direct the Batman series, it at first seemed like a odd choice but he was able to spin the emotional trauma of Bruce Wayne psyche into something that had not been seen in the film versions of this character yet. The emotional core of Bruce Wayne was brought to the forefront and we finally understood why this character does what he does. He is a man deprived of his childhood, who knew only his parents during his formidable years. When they are taken from him, he is left with nothing but his ethics and his vengeance. This establishes the character arch of ethos versus vengeance that was thoroughly explored in Batman Begins, but with Inception there is no vengeance. There is only man’s internal conflict and the character of Cobb must do battle with this. The guilt and the anger is no longer placed on a outside entity, but on his own self. Within the world of dreams, Cobb brings forth his destructive conscious. The enemy lays dormant inside of his mind willing to strike out, and the forgiveness that this character must find within himself is the replacement for vengeance. Love replaces violence and Nolan crafts his most ingenuitive plot devices, in what could only be described as the most intense and intellectual summer picture ever made.
Featuring a plot that one needs a map and a compass in order to find their way around, there is certainly a fun quality about the picture that endears itself to almost all audiences. I have no doubts that some simply scratch the surface of the picture and enjoy the tricky puzzle-like qualities that the script has to offer. For some, simply watching the film will give them a feeling of accomplishment that they “got it”. This in turn will of course turn off some viewers. It can feel like a trick, that the film establishes itself as a technical achievement that is intentionally difficult to master and absorb. This is not the truth however. Nolan takes the heist drama as his starting point for exploring these science fiction issues, because it’s like Nolan has said: the heist movie is the only genre where exposition is actually treated as entertainment. To get inside of this world, with this new technology and with so many twists and turns to the logic, the filmmaker intentionally chose a genre that would allow him to explain all of the little vivid details before showing us the actual story. Everything makes sense in Inception and understanding the technical plot simply means that you aren’t riddled with ADD. However, there is a great deal more going on below even the technical merits that Inception rattles you with. To understand it, means to study it.
Where Memento, at the time of its release, was often accused of being a parlor trick. An elaborate take off on Tarantino’s non-linear storytelling. Inception tells us a linear story that delves heavily in the philosophical and grandiose. Through the use of editing he reminds us, right in the midst of our world within worlds, that there are others progressively moving our story along. The finale for Inception is a quadruple split narrative, a feat within itself, that takes place within dream upon dream. We lose characters along the way, we cut back and forth to them and our editing progressively moves faster and faster until it is breathing down our neck like a panting animal. We rush to keep up with the plot and we follow along for the ride, but ultimately this is Nolan’s fantasy and we are all just taking part as observers. In the midst of the catharsis of our characters and the twists and turns of the plot, some are lost. However, for those who are willing to stick it out – it may be the most important Hollywood film in years. It could even be considered a game changer, but unfortunate for us most aren’t even playing the same sport; much less playing in the same league.