Film Of The Day: Inception (2010)
I think this film is still on somewhere in cinemas…
Note: while I wouldn’t say there are any major spoilers here, it’s kinda “spoilerish,” so tread carefully if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know anything.
(Christopher Nolan, US, 2010)
Forget what you’ve heard. Ignore the people saying that Inception is the smartest blockbuster of the year, an eye-popping, mind-bending feast of sleek action and vertiginous imagination. Disregard the glowing reviews, the gushing blogs, the sheer numbers of bums-on-seats suggesting that this is, yes, a pretty substantial triumph. Yes, all of these things are true – but they’re a smokescreen. The dream of a superlative Hollywood hit is simply that. A dream. The reality? It’s even better than anybody’s letting on.
I’ve had my doubts about Nolan in the past. The playful, peverse The Prestige aside, I’ve found him to be an amazing craftsman, faultless in technique and form, and brimming with narrative ambition, but somewhat cold and aloof, so eager to please he’ll spell out the ambiguities and themes that, while they’re impossible to miss, his films become less interesting in the process. I even stood up on stage and admitted this scepticism immediately prior to watching Inception. More fool me.
On one level, Inception is exactly the film that Nolan tends to make: an exquisitely carved, dazzling jewel, something to covet and admire but fundamentally useless beyond its being looked at. In a telling detail, this is a film about dreaming that insists on replacing the random chaos of dream logic with manufactured, knowable infrastructures, created by people known as Architects. These elaborate, Escher-like labyrinths are paradoxes of unreality…yet their purpose is to make the dream safer for the story’s team of dream-thieves, whose job is to infiltrate the subconscious. The effect is akin to the Wild West being tamed with a roadmap, and no matter where the story goes, the audience’s place within it is always explained and explicable. Lynch and Bunuel, this isn’t.
It’s a glorious roadmap, admittedly. Nolan is a narrative cartographer, and he grasps the lay of the land with precision. A long preamble explains the rules of extraction (the stealing of secrets from within a dream) and the grail of inception (the placing of an idea inside the subconscious) by means of vivid symbolism and hallucinatory flourishes. All of Nolan’s perfectionist hallmarks are here: from the immaculate tailoring to the superb casting, with cheeky chappie Tom Hardy and a very un-Juno-like Ellen Page the most likely beneficiaries. Even the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, engaged in some serious soul-searching that might just jeopardise his very sanity, makes this an unexpected but satisfying companion piece to Shutter Island. Two films in a row where Leo is losing it big-time; is he OK?
So far, so excellent – but predictably so. It’s only with the inception itself that, having established these rules and the risks involved in breaking them, Nolan gives himself space to exploit them. The second half of the film carpet-bombs his landscape with all kinds of delirious entertaining tricks. Some visceral: the thwack of an express train smashing through rush hour traffic. Some surreal: the blink-of-an-eye globe-trotting from a modernist hotel to an Alpine Bond-villain lair. Some old-school: the noirish presence of barmy-eyed femme fatale Marion Cotillard.
And, in doing so, Nolan breaks free of his perennial faults with – as his characters remark – a leap of faith. It’s the entire story, satisfyingly thorough though it is, that’s the Macguffin here. [Arguably, nothing we see is real, since the ‘real world’ is so hermetically sealed it consists of little more than the same anonymous corporate gunmen who populate the dream-world.] It’s simply an excuse for Nolan to prove himself a master filmmaker, and what better way to do that than to make a masterpiece about the making of a film? The parallels between dreams and cinema have often been remarked upon: the flickering weirdness of those giant faces looming towards us in the dark; the ability to transport us through time and space in a single cut – and Nolan exploits them with a rhapsodic beauty that few have mustered.
The final act, as we reach the centre of Nolan’s labyrinth while simultaneously remaining at every point along the route, is a staggering achievement, a cross-cutting between multiple levels of reality that defines and then transcends the possibilities of cinema. (Prediction: if nothing else, the Oscar for Best Editing is in the bag.) At once, we’re watching a floating, graceful anti-grav ballet; a crunchy, pyrotechnic dust-up in the snow; a macabre melodrama of grief and loss; and – most bizarre of all – the exaggerated slo-mo of a van in free-fall, the kind of abstract image more commonly associated with the avant-garde. A symphony of parallel movement, it’s both grounded (by the cleverness of the storytelling) and ethereal (bobbing along on the glacial wash of Hans Zimmer’s career-best score). It goes on for ages, too, but warrants the indulgence: how often do you get to see four layers of narrative unfold simultaneously?
Better still, the genre-clash both supports and subverts: a patient vigil is as significant as bone-crunching mayhem; love is more deadly than violence. Even as the story plays out with conventional ease – in character beats, this is as linear as Nolan has got – the juxtapositions throw up ideas that stay hanging long after the credits, because those ideas are part of the fabric of the film itself. Aptly, for inception to work it requires only that the seed of an idea is planted, to gain full bloom outside of the dream. That process of subtlety and implication is at odds with Nolan’s prior modus operandi, yet he’s grasped the requirement here. The film itself is an inception, the idea taking form only when you’re outside the cocoon of the cinema’s dreamworld, breathing in real air and blinking in real sunlight. And the idea, like all great ideas, is a simple one. Why can’t all films be this ambitious, thoughtful and thrilling?