Review (?): Inception.

Film Part of the entertainment in the run up to the release of Chis Nolan’s Inception has been watching reviewers attempting to write numerous paragraphs and offer well formed opinions but without giving anything away about the plot, even those who didn’t enjoy the film understanding that it’s best seen without any prior information. The apogee of this approach is in this month’s Empire Magazine, where Nev Pierce’s five star opus spends three pages making comparisons, talking about influences, mentioning legacy but trying desperately not to say very much about the story, but still I think inevitably manages to say too much.

Inception is a film which has to be approached cold. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, heard any interviews, you’ve probably seen and heard too much already. The enterprise was shrouded in mystery during shooting, like well, Cloverfield, only really becoming known when a very early teaser appeared online and baffled everybody. My own adventure began with that tease and from a glimpse of something in a corridor whilst flicking through the channels, my only exposure has been Mark Kermode’s review which again revealed just a little bit too much, but only enough to wet my appetite. Not until this morning did I really decide to attend, but only because I knew that my forced obliviousness would not survive until the dvd release.

With all of that in mind and before I launch into the mainstream of this symposium, imagine my utter surprise when, before the film began, we were treated to an advert for an entertainment website which included footage from the red carpet premieres of the new Twiglet film and Inception, with Leo being asked a facile question about the quality of the script and which included loads of footage of said film and him describing the plot. Luckily I managed to shut my eyes and put my fingers in ears before too much seeped out and in, but it’s almost as though the marketers are desperate to spoil a film no matter what.

Which is why I’m not going to join them and put the rest of this “review” behind one of those link things. Other than to say that all the self evident truths are in place. It's well acted, intelligently directed and is photographed beautifully, visually a masterpiece. And that it’s probably going to be one of the ten best films of the year and has various elements that have the potential to change the way mainstreams films are made, or at least what’s permissible in a mainstream film, in a number of ways, and that if you're a film fan of any description and don’t see it now, at the cinema, you’ll later regret it.

With my generally null state at the beginning of the film not really knowing what to expect (apart from Kermode's encapsulation ("Dreamscape with A-levels"), I was surprised to discover how seemingly conventional it is in terms of storytelling. In order to project his meditation on human psychology and the compartmentalising we all do in order to cope with the sheer weight of our emotions and memory, Nolan has produced a rather conventional heist film, even including safes as fiendish to crack as the security challenges under the casinos in the Ocean’s films, with psychologists rather than safe crackers and chemical engineers instead of bomb making experts (although in the dreamscape, they’re that too).

Of course the fact that they’re breaking into a subconscious to plant a suggestion rather than extract something valuable is what makes this different, but Hustle-like moral grey area of the endeavour and the mistakes – wrong bits of landscape or poor research as to the psychological security training – are precisely the kind of random variables that stand against the success in Soderbergh’s film. Ellen Page’s Ariadne is even fulfilling much the same role as Matt Damon’s character as the audiences eyes and ears in this strange familiar world just as Marion Cotillard is arguably same figure as the Julia Roberts role in Ocean’s Eleven, the emotional distraction that will endanger the mission.

Even Nolan, no doubt given some freedom in the wake of the Batman films understands that if he’s going to produce what amounts to a mainstream Charlie Kaufman film, he needs to give the crowd who wouldn’t be seen dead in Synecdoche, New York, something they can relate to (though thankfully with better results than the fictional version of him from Adaptation). In effect, Nolan’s spectacular achievement and what I think is the game changing element is to produce a film that has all the excitement of a typical summer action blockbuster but with all the intelligence and weight and beauty of a Tarkovsky film.

That kind of hyperbole isn't new and certainly surrounded The Matrix films even as they squandered their intellectual capital with each successive entry. But unlike the Wachowski brothers who were effectively bolting on Baudrillard to what turned out to be brilliant superhero fantasy, Nolan's process is almost the exact opposite, employing the genre elements so that he can have a budget large enough to present something rather more intricate; when Soderbergh remade Solaris, as he admits on the dvd commentary, despite his best intentions he still ended up with a £60 million art house film (with a box office to match).

What makes Inception special is that it manages to be both.

There are essentially two parallel stories; the heist and Cobb’s “emotional journey”. Nolan’s trick is that one group of viewers may consider the heist to be the main story, the dark romance the sub-plot. For the rest of us, it’s the other way around. So for some the story climaxes with Cillian Murphy’s reunion with his father creating the successful inception, but for others it’s not properly resolved until DiCaprio's character Cobb realises that Cotillard (like Hari in Solaris) isn’t really his wife and never can be, just a shade, a figment of his imagination and that he has to save Ken Watanabe.

I appreciate that for some it hasn’t quite worked. Viewers are complaining that Cobb’s exposition to Page about his relationship and the final conversation “go on too long” and stop the film dead, whereas others have suggested that they’re not enigmatic enough, that it’s all tell not show. But I was riveted; even in so called art films these days, its rare that a director, writer and actor would spend so much time, not least in the middle of an action sequence, simply storytelling, and not in order to flesh out the mythology of a world (see Morpheus in The Matrix) but the horror of a man’s life.

The other big surprise was how confused I wasn’t even as the dreams became dreams became dreams. I’m not sure if this is because I’ve studied film or particularly enjoy these kinds of elevator dream narratives (especially Existenz, but yes, even What Dreams May Come and The Cell), but I had few problems following the intricacies of the story, the different time scales, the maze-like architecture of the dreamscapes, exactly why Ken was an old man by the time Cobb reached him. Which is either a credit to Nolan’s lucidity as a filmmaker, that there was too much exposition and I’m giving him too much credit altogether or as I said I’ve seen so many films now that my brain is simply wired differently.

That’s perhaps why relatively early on I conjectured to myself that the world in which the action was taking place may have been in Cobb’s subconscious but that he wasn’t aware of it. Certainly the fact that in the duration of the film he rarely lets his totem spin long enough to reveal either way and that the rest of the characters are less complex creations than he is go some way in that direction. But then we plunge into the realm of asking how, in that case, Ariadne and the other characters can seem so apparently self autonomous but then counter that the security guards within the dreamscape also technically have those features. Plus they could exist in the real world, we're simply seeing Cobb's impression of them.

My theory? That at the close of business, Cobb is still in a dreamscape.

The maths of timings should indicate that to be impossible since it would mean that the time he’s spent in this top layer (assuming it is the top layer) should be passing even more quickly than the truck world, but since it’s his subconscious it could be creating its own rules to compensate. Everything is just a bit too perfect. It reminds me of the scene in Total Recall in which Quad’s Doctor (just before receiving a gunshot wound to the head) asks what's most likely – that he’s having an episode or that he’s an invincible secret agent being chased, like Cobb here, by a corporation. In the closing shot of that film, Quad wavers on his certitude and asks “what if this is a dream?”

If Inception has a twist, I think it’s that in reality it's only been accomplished once and on Cobb himself.


last year's girl said...

Really well-written review. I'm going to send this one on to the other half, who I suspect is still digesting the brilliance of this film.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thank you.