Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2010

Mind over matter

Nolan's 'Inception' superbly delves into the subconscious

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger and Michael Caine
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 28 minutes
Opens July 16, 2010
(out of four)

Author's Note: While I do not reveal major spoilers in this review, I do, quite necessarily, discuss certain narrative and logistical devices that are probably better off being unknown before seeing the film. My advice would be to see Inception and come back to the review later.

The collision of reality and dreams - or the coexistence of the two - is a subject that has been explored almost to the point of exhaustion. For decades, filmmakers have attempted to blur the line between what is real and what is not. The thing about dreams is you can approach them any way you want - from one film to the next, the dream logic will differ.

Christopher Nolan's Inception has been described as Kubrickian, but that isn't quite the comparison I'd use. To be honest, I don't know quite what is. While there are elements that could be traced to Kubrick, he thought in much more abstract terms than does Nolan. This film, while more philosophical than it may at first appear, isn't dealing in the kinds of abstractions we may anticipate. This may disappoint some, who don't expect (and can't accept) that the subject could be handled in literal terms.

But then, with Inception, that's kind of the purpose, isn't it? The characters are using the subconscious in primarily a functional capacity - theft - not as a canvas for interpretive thinking. We're not just talking about dream sequences here, but the bulk of the story taking place within various dream states. The symbolism that usually accompanies all that is not, in this case, the point.

Inception isn't so much about the nature of dreams, but about the ways in which the subconscious could be manipulated, subverted, commodified - revised, even. It is about characters who can literally control the mind, infiltrate it - through forgery, chemistry, architecture - and what happens when that control collides with the elements of the mind that cannot (or will not?) be controlled. If and when we lose that control over our - or someone else's - subconscious, will we even know it?

More than dreams, Nolan is examining the nature of memory, loss and deception (notably self-deception) - the constantly recurring themes of his work. Our protagonist is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) - sharing the same name as the thief in Nolan's stellar debut film, Following - a thief-for-hire who specializes in the subconscious. The process is called "extraction" - break into someone's subconscious, steal an idea, get out - and it's fairly commonplace. A bit more radical idea, however, is the concept of "inception" - or planting an idea.

That one's a bit trickier - even impossible, if some are to be believed. If an idea does not form organically, the brain knows it, and rejects it. Unless . . . well, unless you go deeper. Dreams within dreams within dreams. And so on. When a corporate executive, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires Cobb and his team for just such a job, Cobb initially resists, only accepting when Saito insists he can give him what he most wants - the chance to go back home to the States, where he has been exiled for . . . well, for something whose implications are far too complex for me to repeat here.

Inception is essentially a metaphysical heist film. The mark is a wealthy corporate executive played by Cillian Murphy, but the specifics of the idea that's being planted, and for what purpose, are just the MacGuffin. What Nolan is really doing is exploring the paradoxes and variables that come with penetrating the mind, especially as Cobb's own secrets - memories, emotions, projections - begin to disrupt the work.

One of Nolan's ambitious gestures in Inception is to navigate three different levels of dream reality - each one deeper than the last - within a single narrative event. The dream states are all occurring simultaneously, but operate on separate (and exponentially divergent) perceptions of time. What feels like five minutes in one reality feels like an hour in another. This presents a rather fascinating exercise in editing. The cross-cutting Nolan employs is an extremely common technique, generally used to manipulate our interpretation of time in order to ratchet up the suspense.

But with the multiple levels of subconscious in Inception, Nolan is basically able to have his cake and eat it, too. He gets to use the cross-cutting in the standard way - heightening the tension as the plot moves deeper - while also giving us a fairly literal depiction of the timeline.

It's a challenge Nolan pulls off to thrilling effect.

Inception is something of a puzzle - or maze, to use the film's own visual metaphor for the mind - but after taking it all in, certain things stuck with me. Without spoiling anything, there are two images that I believe hold the key - or at least a key - to understanding the film when all is said and done. The first is something Cobb jots down for his new dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as he explains to her the circular nature of the way dreams work. The second is a depiction of an already-famous paradox, the Neverending Staircase. Consider those two images when you're trying to piece the film together. Consider how they might reflect upon the way the film's whole narrative is structured.

Consider also the crucial scene on the balcony. Notice anything? I happen to think it distinctly parallels another important shot in the movie, and I happen to think that's very, very relevant.

But enough with the vague references. This is not a film that you can't "get" until you see it a second time, but it seems to demand repeat viewings nonetheless. Having just seen the film once, there are countless moments and details that already seem more meaningful upon reflection. I can't wait to go back and find more.

Truth be told, there's a bit too much expository dialogue in the film - I would imagine, in order to compensate for the gap between Nolan's big ideas and the big audiences he's expected to bring in for a $150 million picture. But nevermind that. The fact remains that Inception is a grand cinematic thought experiment, as likely to tickle the intellect as the senses.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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