NOTE: Since I’m sure many of you have seen the movie by now, and since it is incredibly tough to go in depth in this movie without doing so, there are heavy spoilers in this review. You have been warned.
With an incredible record of box-office success, Christopher Nolan cemented himself as a premiere director in Hollywoodland by elevating a comic book movie in The Dark Knight past it’s established genre into something more. The two films in that series, the other Batman Begins, coupled with such thrillers as Memento and The Prestige have explored themes that seem unsettling and dark, psychological as well as visual, and they all seek to challenge the viewer with questions that aren’t easy to answer.
With Inception, Nolan cut right to the chase and set the film inside the minds of his characters, opening up a pandora’s box of new questions and ambiguities that the audience must wade through to find the story’s true perceptions and themes. And while other films of Nolan’s such as Memento and The Prestige also featured winding plots curving through a wilderness of ideas, would he be able to pull it off on Inception, a film that seeks to completely upend what we can perceive as tangible and objective?
The main themes that Nolan weaves throughout the visceral action and the sublime imagery are nothing new to the experienced philosopher. It was Descartes who first posited “cogito ergo sum” while trying to answer the questions of reality and existence. And while one may think and therefore be, the ability to prove anything more than existence “is” has long eluded the human race in the form of logic, mathematics, and even art.
Inception is a film that takes Descartes’ simple questions about dreams and reality and splashes their possibilities onto a canvas of massive scale. The story follows Leonardo DiCaprio as an “extractor” named Cobb whose job is to share dreams with subjects and steal secrets, ideas, etc. from their subconscious mind. And while the physical scale of the human brain remains relatively small, the scope of it’s imagination, especially when lulled into dreams, becomes larger than life with streets mirroring themselves or avalanches tumbling down snowy banks. Nolan takes no prisoners with making this movie big. This isn’t a dream about standing naked in a classroom – it’s the type of dream that everyone wakes up from and feels a bit like they went through a journey.
Assisting Nolan in achieving this collective odyssey is his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC, who also took the reigns of the camera for each Nolan film since the breakthrough Memento. It seems familiar territory then for Pfister to craft a world with depth that is changing and morphing through the subjectivity of the human mind. Pfister exploits the tone’s of his images and the dirtyness of film to create a subdued sense of place no matter how convoluted the plot gets (I’ll get to that in a bit). Using a combination of 35mm, 65mm and Phantom HD slow-motion cameras, Pfister captures the dreams not as rainbows and sunshine nor as dark and nightmarish but as something believable albeit strange. As Cobb says in the film, “it’s only when you wake up [from a dream] that you realize something was strange.”
This is the embodiment of Pfister’s cinematography, though it is much more realized in it’s strangeness. It has a quality that helps you accept the world the extractors are fighting within. It is only when something strange happens that you remember and are meant to realize the characters are still in a dream. A hallway tilts, or a van suspends in mid air for hours – these are moments that are surreal though not entirely out of the park. What helps ground these irregularities is they were also shot that way – Nolan took his $250 million to the screen with his film negative by sparring no cost – and it shows. CGI or heavy green screen work would not have suited this story well at all. And while computer graphics seem to be the best way to achieve a dream that is imagination, I would argue that dreams are far more visceral than is usually given credit. Where Gilliam sought to illustrate them as cartoons, Nolan and Pfister wanted to paint them as portraits.
This is important to the story which relies heavily on action, guns and fight sequences to raise the stakes over and over again for the characters. Nolan took 8 years to write the film and in doing so I think it is cleverly composed. The “rules” of the world become established nicely through Ellen Page’s character, Ariadnae, who the audience can relate to in her naivete. Another smart trick on Nolan’s part was to have her trained in the film bringing the audience along to help them recognize the dos, donts and cants of his extractors. The ability to dream within a dream or go deeper by a “level” is another good trick that serves to raise the stakes each time the characters go deeper. Especially when later in the film the audience finds out that going deep enough can result in a sort of coma of the mind, that while the time period may seem short on “the surface,” time can be excruciatingly long for the subconscious mind of the person in this “limbo.”
There are undoubtedly people, as there are with all films, who will question the movie’s logic as it pertains to these “rules.” But in a film about dreams with a sort of Macguffin technology that is eluded to only once as a military experiment, the audience is put in a hard place to question anything. Nolan states quite clearly an exception to our world – that this technology exists – and then plays by his rules that he bases in what he perceives dreams to be. It’s hard to argue against any claims of what dreams are or how they operate when little is known about them and little is remembered within them. To me, to question these rules is understandable, but I think the disbelief ultimately must be suspended.
If there is any aspect of the film that seems over-the-top, it would be Hans Zimmer’s score, though I’m not exactly sure it’s a bad thing. It is so pretentiously loud, so attention grabbing and so intense that I loved it. Normally, I’m not one who likes film scores or soundtracks to call major attention to themselves but instead to accent what is already emotionally relevant in the film, but Zimmer stays really low when he wants to and brings it in rough and loud during the action. Those overtones of harsh bass and guitar that start the movie blast the audience forward in their seats taking their ears to the same level of intensity that their eyes are at as well.
For the rest of the film, it’s hard to turn away with Pfister’s powerful camerawork and the cast’s irreconcilable charisma, especially Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon Levitt who steal the show from more serviceable acting by Page and DiCaprio. That’s not to say the two lead actors are bad, they just turn in performances that fit so well they blend in like pieces of the set or entities of the world already. Hardy and Gordon Levitt, however, have a fun rivalry and deliver the most powerful action sequences and I must say I was impressed by JGL’s ability to hold his own in this film. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to.
But in the end, it’s DiCaprio’s Cobb who opens and closes the emotional arc of this story. The man with a problem who seeks to solve it in the end. And that’s the killer for many audiences – the end. What does it mean? Does the top keep spinning or does it fall? I laughed, like many others in the theater, when that last shot cut off, but I think it was out of expectation. How else can you end that film? It doesn’t seem fair to give an answer that is so entirely inconclusive.
There is one theory I have heard/read that I quite liked. That the end of the film, or the entire film, is inception itself – Nolan takes us on a two and a half hour journey to set up that last shot and cut it off therefore placing the idea in our mind that reality might not be real at all. Perhaps this is a dream, perhaps Mal was right and enlightenment comes from “waking up.” And while I certainly think that Nolan planned to plant said ideas in the minds, I don’t think the ending serves this sole purpose.
For myself, I think the ending, and the last shot, are never meant to go on. The top neither falls nor does it keep on spinning. It is what it is – forever questionable. The statement Nolan makes by ending the film where it ends is to say that the question of reality vs. dreaming, of the psychological mind vs. the physical world, it can never be answered. It’s a question that nobody can answer. And were meant to ask it until each individual person can conclude with some confidence their own interpretation. You can side with Mal, who claims that death will enlighten us to reality – and perhaps she is right. Perhaps death in this world brings us into a higher reality of the next. Or Cobb could be right, that this is it. Reality is now and death brings absolution to that. But can we know? Will we ever know? Were not able to and neither is Nolan. He simply wants to present both sides of it to the audience and give them a hint of what it could be. His job as an artist was never to answer these questions, but ask them himself, provide some greater insight, and leave the tools of thought in the mind of the viewer.
If there is one thing this film has going for it it is the ability for audiences to remain with the film long after walking out of the theater. The themes, the action and certainly the strong visuals of the cinematic experience hang with them. Word-of-mouth has been strong on Inception and Nolan has proven once again that he can bring art house storytelling to the blockbuster genre. That stories don’t have to be based on existing properties and that there are sparks of originality that still exist. And while I don’t think the film is completely mind blowing or mind bending as many have claimed – after all, Descartes lived hundreds of years ago – I do think the movie presents an amount of intellectualism to Hollywood that has been missing in the majority of films since the French New Wave inspired a new generation of filmmakers in the 1970’s.
When all is said and done, Inception is a film that provides great fun, inspiring thoughts, and questions the audience to think more about their surroundings. Is it perfect? It’s hard to say. Films can rarely be fairly evaluated without the test of time, but history says no film ever is perfect. But it certainly is great. It certainly is the biggest combination of action and philosophy since The Matrix changed the game in 1999. Inception is no different, it is sure to set the bar even higher for what audiences expect from big time directors playing with big time money. And fancy this – it wasn’t even in 3D.