The modern American blockbuster is without a doubt a hive of deplorable, inarticulate nonsense. In the past few years we’ve been “treated” to films like “Transformers,” “Twilight” and “2012.” These are event films – movies only meant to earn money by offering big budget effects and supposed escapism. It’s hard to say American audiences deserve a masterpiece blockbuster after spending so much money on garbage like this but this summer delivered the first major film of the decade with Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” The film has a wonderful case of classic cinematic ambiguity – something that has been thrown away by even the most artful users of its design (Martin Scorsese, we all saw “Shutter Island” – you can do better).
The film has a very intricate plot, involving a dream thief or “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio, in a role characteristically similar to his in “Shutter Island” but acceptably so because the character is much more deeply written and performed less extravagantly than in Scorsese’s flick) who, with a team of highly trained individuals including his partner-in-crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), will remove a simple thought or idea from someone by kidnapping them and then tapping into their dream. Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform inception – the seemingly impossible act of planting an idea in one’s head unconsciously (so that the receiver of said idea is unaware they are the victim of inception). Cobb hires a new team including Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) to research their target, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy), whom Saito wants to dismantle his dying father’s company. The team enters Fisher’s dream, but Cobb’s daunting past and inability to control his malicious dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from entering the dream turns the mission upside down.
The film is the third in a series of modern films about the dream. The first was the groundbreaking 1999 film “The Matrix” directed by the Wachowskis and the second was Michel Gondry’s mind-erasing low budget feature “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The Matrix was a cunning film, using the sleeping human mind as a metaphor for the many different ways we are unconsciously controlled by the world sociologically both by government and the media. The characters’ stasis resulted in their ability to control their environment based on their understanding of its rules and of their “programming.” In “Eternal Sunshine,” Gondry portrayed the effects of memory erasure and through both his directing style, Ellen Kuras’ underrated cinematography, Charlie Kaufman’s script, Jon Brion’s score and the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, he was able to show the unconscious psychological effects of dreaming and by its process that we make life decisions.
Nolan’s film feels like a lurid dream after a marathon of those two films. In “Inception,” Nolan uses the ambiguity of his ending (an open ending that questions whether or not Cobb has been dreaming the whole time) to create the mood and metaphors of his film. Is Cobb dreaming or not? In fact, are we dreaming? It is in this sense that Nolan is being compared to Kubrick in the way that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is able to break the barrier from questioning the film to questioning one’s own existence. Nolan performs inception through the act of making this film – by placing a simple thought into his audience’s mind, therefore changing the way we think about the possibilities of how we decode cinema. Last year, James Cameron successfully duped audiences all over the world into thinking he had created the new “2001: A Space Odyssey” with his unnervingly boring and useless “Avatar” (he even told Charlie Rose this was his intention), but little did he know that Nolan would beat him artistically by a long shot. “Inception” will last, “Avatar” will not.
Nolan has been getting compared to Kubrick, and for good reason. In films like “Eternal Sunshine” and Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” – the cinematography works with the concept of the film. In “Eternal Sunshine,” the camera is often set up in such an unorthodox way that it feels like you’re in a dream. The films feel like dreams or hallucinations because they are filmed as such, with characters often changing point of view. It breaks the classical style of cinematography in a way that we are able to delve into the concept of the film. This is Nolan’s fifth film working with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has always done an excellent job (his work on the Batman films in terms of their looks are impeccable and quite similar to Frank Miller’s comic style). In “Inception,” Pfister does not stray from his particular style of shooting. At first glance this could seem to be the film’s only problem – but it isn’t. Interestingly, this is where one can begin to question the ending of the film. Is the cinematography of the world we see within the dreams the same as the real world because the real world is a dream world? The beauty of “Inception” is its ambiguity and that the viewer has the choice in how they want to the film to end.
What’s interesting about Nolan’s film making style is that he doesn’t have Kubrick’s misanthropy – his style both works on a level that transcends the modern blockbuster in terms of the audience’s thought process and also in a way that embraces current trends through action sequences and big name stars. Nolan doesn’t have Kubrick’s madness and is working in a time where one’s artistic intentions must be held back if one has monetary expectations to fulfill. Thus his films will never be as consummately ambiguous but he really seems to be the only one who’s trying. Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” had the makings of being a modern day version of Jack Clayton’s unabashedly ambiguous “The Innocents” starring Deborah Kerr (which happens to be one of Marty’s favorites) but his adherence to the source material stunted what could have been his best work in years.
Nolan does take a leap of faith in the fact that these people are so incredibly able to control their dreams. Very few dreams allow the sleeper to keep such a focus on one idea, let alone completely several missions. We could assume that the devices that put Cobb and his team to sleep allow them to work at a different level of consciousness, but that is never addressed. When Page’s character Ariadne joins the team, she is almost immediately able to work seamlessly in the dream state. Again, this could lend itself to the concept of the ending of the film as the introduction to the film’s ambiguity. The team’s unbelievable ability to work within the dream could be a dream itself – conjured up by Cobb’s father (played by Michael Caine). Caine’s few scenes in the film – specifically placed – add another level of intrigue as to whether or not Cobb is in control.
There are several more reasons why the film works on so many levels. First of all, the music transcends the film world into the real world. In the film, Cobb and Arthur use Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” (translated roughly to “I regret nothing”) to alert themselves that soon they’ll wake into either the real world or another level of dreaming (if they’ve set themselves up to dream within a dream). A few years back, Cotillard won an Academy Award for playing Piaf in the biopic “La Vie En Rose.” Interestingly, Mal (Cotillard’s character) is a character whom Cobb feels great regret for and in his dreams it is her appearance that is the first sign of danger in the mission at hand. This motif is Nolan’s indication of the transcendent potential of film itself. Also interesting is Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. It consists of very loud and deep horns that rise up very similarly to John Williams’ “Jaws” theme. However, their similarity to the rousing open notes of Piaf’s number is eerily allusive. In fact, there’s a comparison that’s been floating on the internet that undoubtedly proves this determination.
Another interesting aspect of the film is its use of computer generated effects. Nolan is infamous for being very anti-CGI and in “Inception” he utilizes them in a very particular way. The effects are far from perfect, and like the camera effects used in “Eternal Sunshine,” they mirror the concept of the dream style cinematography. Visions within one’s dream are not entirely perfect and neither are the special effects of the film. They seem detached – like an unfinished thought.
The characters of the film are also essential, and the performances of the actors only rectify their necessity to the concept. Dicaprio is in top form – Cobb is probably his best role to date – not too understated, but still mysterious. Leo’s a master of the conflicted in that he never overacts. Dicaprio portrays Cobb on two main levels – one that is absolutely in control and the other that shows a distance, which may suggest that he in fact is not in control. Cobb is a very distressed man, who holds all of his secrets within. When Ariadne lets them out, all hell breaks loose. Page also creates a distance to her character – like someone thought up in a dream but that may also be more aware than the film initially suggests. Ariadne is hired as the “architect” of Fisher’s dream but soon becomes more interested in finding out what Cobb’s been hiding. It almost seems as if she has an alternate motive, in that she could be the one trying to attempt inception on him. That and her mysterious connection to Caine’s character are also conjecture toward Nolan’s big cinematic question.
Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are also superb in the film. While the performances of Dicaprio and Page are excellent – it’s these two who sort of ground Cobb and Ariadne’s laboriousness with a subtle sense of humor. Even Murphy’s performance is crucial – playing the same kind of familiar distance to Page and Dicaprio (in certain parts, such as the Hoth-like mountain base sequence, he seems to fit in the process just fine). It’s also apparent that Nolan, in his casting decisions, is very concerned with having only good-looking people in his films.
For all the reasons that the ending of “Inception” is seemingly explained by certain aspects, there is a major aspect of the film that denies the concept that Cobb is dreaming the entire film. The film goes out of its way to over-explain the rules of dream extracting. Both Cobb, Arthur and Eames have to educate the very new Ariadne on the guidelines of how they do what they do and how her job as architect is the most essential. She is tasked with learning how to make the impossible possible, through maze-making lessons with Arthur in which he teaches her how to construct Escher-like structures (an artist whose work strongly influences the film – to understand Escher is the first step in being able to conceptualize the film). Most of these scenes feature only Arthur and Ariadne. They are the few scenes in the film that do not feature Cobb at all. In all of best films of this sub-genre of the ambiguous film, the character whose sanity is questioned, such as Kerr’s Miss Giddens in “The Innocents” and Peter Weller’s Bill Lee in “Naked Lunch,” is in the film at all times. It is entirely shot in their character’s point of view. If Ariadne and Arthur were in on a conspiracy then it would be apparent in their interactions away from Cobb.
We also learn that Cobb’s inability to let go of his deceased wife becomes extremely problematic in the dream extracting process. However, it is never really a problem in the so-called real world. Within the real world, Cobb has Yusuf conduct dream tests on him so that he can try to keep Mal trapped within his dreams so they can’t infect the others’ during the missions. While Ariadne’s obsession with freeing Mal from Cobb seems almost too intense to not be intentional, it seems as though she’s so out of the loop that it would appear impossible for her to be the wiser. However this could all be controlled by a greater power and the only way to get Cobb to free himself is to make himself think he’s in a dream. Again, Both Page and Dicaprio’s performances subtly steer into both territories of the real and of the concept.
There is one small scene that is so ostensibly vague that it must be considered against all other arguments. After the first major sequence, we find Cobb sitting in a hotel room speaking on the phone with his children. The conversation is awkward, mostly about how Cobb isn’t sure if he’ll ever return home and that Mal is in fact dead. On the first level of the film, it appears to be a very heartfelt scene of a father trying to reach out to his children. If you look deeper within the concept of Nolan’s ending, the scene could imply it’s all part of Cobb’s dream – an insinuation of the control he may be under. However, the scene ends with Cobb twirling Mal’s spinning top (known as his “totem,” one of the main motifs of the film) and putting a gun to his head. If the top teeters and falls this means that he is in fact in the real world. If it continues to perfectly spin, he knows he’s in a dream. Cobb puts the gun to his head and then puts it down when he sees the top fall. It’s as if he subconsciously knows he may be in a dream. This suggests that he may in fact be more in control than Nolan is letting on through his concept. It could also infer that after the final spin of the top at the end of the film that it indeed does fall and Cobb has finally come home both mentally and physically.
“Inception” is a rare film for our times. It’s a high concept, Kubrick-style film disguised as a major Hollywood action thriller. Like a Kubrick film, it will split many audiences – but if the box office numbers are any indication of the film’s artistic success, it’s obvious that people might be ready for a little ambiguity in their local multiplex. Heck, even the porn version (“Insertion,” anyone?) of the movie would be more interesting than most of the shlock event movies that we are bombarded with every summer. This could be a major step forward in terms of left-brained film making in modern American cinema – a symptom that things could be looking brighter for a brand new era of young directors. Directors like Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) proved that there’s still artistic talent that is eager to step up to the plate. However, Nolan goes a step further – into territory no one expected. He might be the best thing we’ll get to our Kubrick – if he doesn’t go crazy.