Film Introduction: Inception (2010)
The following is the text of the pre-screening talk I gave on Inception at Derby QUAD, on Wednesday 21st July 2010.
Intro to Inception (Christopher Nolan 2010)
Since its announcement last year, the buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan’s Inception has grown to deafening proportions. Not because of the usual sound and fury of Hollywood’s marketing machine. In fact, quite the opposite. This is a film so shrouded in mystery that an entire cottage industry has emerged online trying to second guess Nolan’s plans, with every cryptic utterance – especially the one where Nolan talked about the film being set “within the architecture of the mind” – pounced upon, debated and deciphered by bloggers across the world.
Why has Inception captured the imagination? For some, it might be the sheer novelty of a genuinely unknown movie, made on the widest canvas and yet defying contemporary commercial logic by being neither sequel, remake nor comic book adaptation. For others, it’s probably those tantalising trailers, suggesting a film that is both brain-teaser and thrill-ride, with pyrotechnics to rival James Bond and trippy fight sequences that recall the ‘bullet time’ of The Matrix. Many are no doubt attracted by a quality cast headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio.
But, I suspect, for a lot of people, the big draw here is the name of the director. Christopher Nolan is fast becoming a household name to rival Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Tim Burton. Yet, unlike those blockbuster titans, Nolan’s work is also a badge of quality, a promise of meaty intellectual ideas and elaborate themes better located in the art-house.
Suffice to say, I’m not going to talk about Inception tonight. If Nolan doesn’t want anything to be given away prior to people seeing the film, that’s fine by me. Instead, in the style of Nolan’s own films, I’m less interested in discussing the present than Nolan’s past and future.
Put simply, Christopher Nolan isn’t your average Hollywood hack. In fact, he’s only half-American, the other half coming from a little closer to home. Because Nolan was born in London, and raised in both the US and UK, giving him a rare dual perspective that it is tempting to read into his films. Is he an action movie aficionado who prefers to populate his films with brittle British psychosis rather than wise-cracking muscle-men? Or is he a kitchen sink realist who likes blowing up the kitchen sink?
This much we know. Nolan had his targets sighted on America from the start. True, his debut, 1998’s Following, was a zero-budget black-and-white thriller shot on the streets and in the bedsits of London, but it was merely a stepping stone to Memento, his first American movie and his career calling card. The two films share similarities. A fiendish, convoluted time structure, flashing back and forward through time. Driven, obsessive protagonists operating outside of the law. A succession of narrative rug-pulls that leave your mind battered and bruised. But it was Memento, with a story that famously starts at the end and works backwards to reveal what’s already happened, that saw Nolan acclaimed as one of the great hopes of American cinema for the new century.
Apparently, even as early as 2001, Nolan was interested in making Inception his next movie, but with Following so under the radar it remains largely unseen to this day, he only had one cult hit to his name. Clearly, nobody would trust him with the budget required for Inception’s elaborate set-pieces. So Nolan served his apprenticeship, remaking Swedish thriller Insomnia, and ‘rebooting’ the much-maligned Batman franchise with Batman Begins. The first confirmed Nolan’s muscular, steely filmmaking style and ability to draw great work from stars like Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The second was a revelation, a Bat-movie free of camp and laced with deadly intent.
A sequel was quickly green-lit, and The Dark Knight duly went on to become the hit of 2008; it’s still the third highest-grossing movie at the U.S. box office and an Oscar-winner to boot, courtesy of the late Heath Ledger’s astounding performance as the Joker. But unlike his contemporaries Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, maverick talents who got stuck making back-to-back superhero movies, Nolan served notice that he had bigger ambitions. Between the Batman movies, he quickly made The Prestige, a characteristically complex tale of obsession and fractured chronology that manages to combine bizarre fantasy, evocative period piece, and even pitch-black comedy.
So, after The Dark Knight’s success, Warner Brothers has willingly bankrolled Inception, the kind of personal project that only the biggest directors can get made. And, make no mistake, Nolan is big, casting a shadow comparable with the greats of Hollywood history. For a while, it looked as though Nolan was well placed to become the new Hitchcock – the well-dressed British prodigy able to serve up sleek, smart mainstream entertainment. Now, Warners seemed to have taken the view that they have the new Kubrick on their hands, a monolithic figure working in secrecy but capable of pushing the boundaries of movie-making.
Hitchcock and Kubrick – not bad touchstones, eh? Amazingly, though, Nolan is still only 39, the age Hitchcock was when he went to America to make Rebecca, the age Kubrick was when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. Consider the films those directors made in later life, and clearly there’s plenty of time for Nolan to get even better.
But therein lies the danger. It took time for Hitchcock and Kubrick to become regarded as cinematic legends. In contrast, audiences already expect greatness from Nolan – both The Dark Knight and Inception opened to glowing, even fawning reviews. Four of his seven movies lie comfortably inside the Internet Movie Database’s Top 100 movies, the popular arbiter of film lovers’ tastes – and a fifth, Batman Begins, is just outside at #109. It’d be all too easy for Nolan to get complacent, and to continue to make films with the cold metallic shimmer and pumped-up action of his most recent hits. Down that path lies the threat of diminishing returns. It’s easy to get trapped by a reputation, as M. Night Shyamalan could tell you. Once, like Nolan, he was a great hope for the future, today he is a pariah and a laughing stock.
Even the perfect filmmaker would struggle to overcome those burdens and Nolan isn’t – yet – perfect. For starters, there’s the sneaking suspicion that Nolan takes himself far too seriously. His rare but calculatedly gnomic interviews, his English gent’s insistence on wearing a suit on set even in blazing heat, are commendably idiosyncratic traits, but could easily become pompous affectations. Remember that, for all their apparent fastidiousness, Hitchcock and Kubrick were jokers, capable of counterpointing or enhancing the darkness of their films with bone dry wit and vicious satire. Only in Ledger’s scenes in The Dark Knight, and The Prestige’s tit-for-tat cycle of revenge and retribution, does that kind of humour even threaten to break the severe, serious surface of the film. And, for all Nolan’s unflappable reserve, his private life is currently governed by the cruellest of jokes. While he enjoys near-universal praise from peers and punters alike, his elder brother Matthew has spent time in prison over suspected fraud and murder. Nolan has the life experience and narrative instincts to make a truly twisted comedy to rival Psycho or Dr Strangelove – but only if he can lose that buttoned-up reserve.
Yet his biggest flaw, ironically, is that Nolan is obsessed with achieving perfection. He has the telltale mark of a brilliant but insecure talent who demands we notice his brilliance. It’s there in The Prestige, where the insistence of dotting every “i” of the fiendish plot threatens to reduce the last act’s thrilling revelations into a check-list of clever tricks. It’s there in The Dark Knight, where characters are prone to deliver on-the-nose epigrams about the film’s rich themes. Things that could easily be implicit in Nolan’s films tend to get spelt out. Maybe that’s the price of operating on a big-budget studio project, where ambiguity is frowned upon. Or maybe it’s the writer in Nolan, unable to trust his abilities as a director to show, don’t tell.
That would be a shame, because Nolan is a genuinely brilliant director, whose intricate compositions and whip-smart editing are about the best there are in today’s cinema. As Inception proves, Nolan is at the top of his game and streets ahead of the competition. He is tantalisingly close to being one of the all-time greats; he just needs to stop trying so hard to persuade the audience of that.
As to what I actually thought of the film, read my Inception review!
(C) Simon Kinnear 2010. Published with kind permission of Derby QUAD.