Perchance to dream
The movies have produced one of their rare works of great art, disguised as an action thriller—a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation disguised as a con game carried out in a dream …within a dream … within a dream. If artist writer-director Christopher Nolan—of whom much is always expected, now that he’s already made Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight—ever tops this masterpiece, he will be a rare and great filmmaker indeed.
Inception begins with a shot of rolling surf, a run-of-the-mill idea for an opening shot, but one that somehow—is it the angle, the lighting, the rumbling blare of Hans Zimmer’s music?—suggests the epic sweep of what is to come. It ends, two and a half incredibly short hours later, with one of the great closing shots in movie history. The shot poses a lady-or-the-tiger riddle that will be discussed, debated and argued for generations to come. (Unless Nolan makes a sequel, which would mean having to answer the riddle. That would be foolish, and my guess is that Nolan is nobody’s fool.)
In between those two shots—the subtle twist on a standard opening and the unanswerable question at the end—Inception is a story of psychological espionage. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of “extractors”—agents who can enter a person’s mind during a dream and remove secrets hidden there. First we are in on an extraction that goes wrong; since we’re not sure what’s happening, we’re not sure how things go awry. But Cobb and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) end up in a helicopter with Saito (Ken Watanabe), the subject whose dream they’ve just been in. The extraction may have failed (and put Cobb on the very-bad side of his former employers), but Saito was nevertheless impressed with their work, and he wants to hire them.
What Saito has in mind isn’t another extraction but something different: inception. Rather than removing information from a subject, inception means planting an idea—so deep in the unconscious that the subject thinks it’s his own. It’s a concept so difficult that it’s widely believed to be impossible, but Cobb knows that it’s not. And to induce Cobb to undertake planting an idea in the mind of Saito’s chief business rival Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Saito offers to clear up the mess that for some reason keeps Cobb on the run, outside the United States and away from his children.
Cobb and Arthur recruit a new team for Saito’s assignment: an “architect,” Ariadne (Ellen Page), to design the structure of the dream to be inserted in the subject; a “forger,” Eames (Tom Hardy), who can shape-shift in the dream to represent different characters; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist who devises the sedative that enables the team to dive as deeply as they must into Fischer’s subconscious.
Along with all these comes an uninvited character, literally the phantom at the feast: Mal, Cobb’s wife (Marion Cotillard). Or rather, Mal as Cobb remembers her—she intrudes into his mind, sometimes as femme fatale, sometimes as damsel in distress, but always as an unknown factor in the equation; she was, in fact, the reason the Saito extraction failed. Will she do the same again?
A simple synopsis of Inception is impossible, and would miss the point anyway. The beauty, the sheer elegance of the movie is the way the story carries forward on so many different levels at once, forcing us to be completely alert and observant. We don’t realize how often movies let us slip our brains into cruise control until one comes along that won’t allow it—then the screen, the audience, the very walls of the theater seem to tingle with new life.
Inception includes plenty of gun battles and chases, as the subject’s unconscious senses the intruders and creates literal defenders to expel (i.e., kill) them. Those are standard ingredients of summer movie fare, but Nolan uses them as hooks on which to hang his meditation on conscious reality and unconscious fantasy, the way the clichés of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy were molded into the life-and-death enigma of Hamlet.
Good grief, did I just compare Christopher Nolan to William Shakespeare? Oh well, so be it. Shakespeare in his day kept cranking out the hits, giving them his own brand of poetry for those in the audience who could grasp it, and so does Nolan.