As Christopher Nolan’s Inception is all about dreams and the persistence of memory, it’s entirely fitting that my feelings about the film changed as time elapsed after it ended. Immediately after leaving the cinema, my overall impression was that I loved the experience and wanted to watch (at the least the beginning of) the film again, preferably in an IMAX cinema. However, after a couple of days’ reflection, while I still would happily recommend the film as one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen this year, the flaws of the movie became increasingly apparent.
One of the main themes of the film is the seductive nature of subconscious fantasies, and indeed the world(s) the film presents are often beguiling, and the audience enjoys being immersed in them as much as some of the characters do on screen. However, while Inception is laced with great (if familiar) ideas, their strength and novelty diminish as the film progresses.
The plot of the film, which presumably is set in the near-future - although only the concept of the technology, which allows people to share their dreams, is futuristic, not its rendering, which looks like a 1980s child’s toy - is about corporate espionage, with characters entering the minds of CEOs to steal secrets and subvert their future decision-making. Corporate espionage was fairly common in late 20th-century speculative fiction, but hasn’t really taken off in the cinema outside of films such as Cypher (2002) and Largo Winch (2008), which both deserved greater attention but slipped under the radar of many genre fans. Indeed, in a world where corporate interests have greater power than national ones, it’s surprising that, in contrast to cyberpunk fiction in print, films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999) have focused more on protagonists struggling to define their humanity under the onslaught of technology rather than on man versus (evil) corporations. Perhaps as big-budget films are financed by corporations, filmmakers might be worried about biting the hands that feed them.
Inception is basically a cross between The Matrix (1999) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), with a touch of Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001) thrown in. Like The Matrix, it presents us with imaginary worlds that allow the protagonists to perform heroic deeds, kill bad guys with no consequences (as they’re not real) and manipulate the world around them on a practically quantum level - such elements as gravity and architecture being vulnerable to manipulation. A Nightmare on Elm Street lends the idea of a nemesis from beyond the grave, who can trap our heroes in the dream world, leading to their (brain) death in the real one. Ocean’s Eleven and the briefly resurrected heist movies of the last decade lend the idea of a group with different attributes who team up to perform a scam/break-in for financial reward. In fact, this is pretty much a magpie’s nest of a film, including imagery from MC Escher prints and James Bond movies, with echoes of other films that have similar plots from Total Recall (1990) to Dark City (1998).
However, director Christopher Nolan just about pulls it off. The various characters in the movie are well cast and not so two-dimensional that you don’t enjoy their company, even if only really the lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has anything to lose (and that’s somewhat debatable too). This is cinema as spectacle, and having honed their art on the 21st-century Batman films, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister are exemplary creators of films that feature great locations, intriguing set pieces and plenty of things blowing up. The film is constantly exciting, entertaining and impressively mounted. The cast, featuring a trio of veterans from the director’s first Batman film (Watanabe, Caine, Murphy) alongside relative newcomers to the action genre (Page, Gordon-Levitt and Hardy) are all extremely engaging, to the extent that the attraction of the ensemble alone makes the idea of a sequel welcome, albeit one that would focus more on character development.
The slickness of the first third of the film, cut to a relentless Hans Zimmer score as if it was a trailer, is initially off-putting, suggesting another Michael Bay-style experience. It’s a film that never lets you think about the ideas it’s presenting while it cuts from one beautifully constructed scene to another. As we enter the dream worlds within worlds within worlds, the initial complexity of the various narratives running concurrently makes you occasional want Christopher Lloyd to come along with a blackboard and explain what’s going on. However, while the narrative seems overly complex at times, in the style of the more baffling entries in the Mission: Impossible franchise (which this film also evokes, both in terms of a team of spies and the impersonation of one character by another), the plot is actually quite simple. In fact, this is storytelling on the level of computer games, with different scenarios - city-based car chase, Bond-esque Alpine battle, terrorists in a lush hotel - starring the same characters taking place at the same time rather than in sequence as in most other movies. This is entertainment for people with attention-deficit disorder, and it makes Hollywood appear one step behind computer games, which already provide changes of genre or location twice a minute in products such as Pix’n Rush or WarioWare.
In the late 1980s, I saw a terrific animated short called Rarg about a dream world where the inhabitants become aware of the nature of their existence and their impending doom when the dreamer wakes up. They travel into our world and do everything they can to stop this happening - they turn off his alarm clock, fluff his pillows, put earplugs in his ears - but haven’t taken account of the consequences of what might happen if he just started dreaming about something else. In the 23 minutes of that film, the writer-director came up with a tighter and more memorable scenario about dream worlds than Nolan does in two and half hours of Inception, which makes you wish the latter had allowed more collaborators in at the scripting level.
Inception isn’t nearly as dumbed down as many of its peers and is the first ‘virtual worlds’ blockbuster that’s been attempted that is, in many ways, as good as the original Matrix. This being a film about dream worlds means Nolan can create any scenario he wants for the characters to visit, but that’s a double-edged sword. An early scene has a dream ‘architect’ played by Ellen Page bend the landscape she and DiCaprio are walking in through 180 degrees so that the land also becomes the sky (a scene that has been recreated, albeit differently, for the film’s poster). Later on, as all the oneironauts are trapped under gunfire for the first time, one character says to another (who is using a machine gun), ‘You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger’, and blasts away at the bad guys with a grenade launcher. However, unlike the protagonists of The Matrix, these heroes don’t choose to fly (except when the entire building is in free fall) or shoot impossible weapons, and so the film, having teased us with the idea of impossible worlds, rarely presents them again, except for one further use of Escher’s endless staircase.
Perhaps this is both the film’s blessing and its curse: Nolan’s cinematic success has allowed him to make a multi-million-dollar movie where he can basically put anything he or his characters can dream of on screen, but he and they come up against the limits of their own imagination. If other movies hadn’t already tackled this subject - Dark City, perhaps, most provocatively so - then this film would be a ground-breaking masterpiece. However, as a compilation of the best bits of the last 30 years of action cinema strung together, it’s merely a good, entertaining film.