Living in a Dream
Previous to Inception, Christopher Nolan has directed six films, none of which I dislike, and three of which I outright love, including his last two, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. His movies are often puzzle-like and require great cerebral attention, which is part of what makes his works so rewarding to watch. But one might hesitate to call them "entertaining" in the common sense of the word. Nolan's films often reach into the dark recesses of men's minds, and the view there is so pessimistic and gloomy that it wouldn't be a stretch to say his movies are missing a "feel-good" quality. They're cool, even slick, but could they be called fun?
With Inception, Nolan finally lets loose that fun side. Let's not be mistaken -- the seriousness of tone still remains, and the main character, Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio; the character's name refers back to Nolan's first film, Following), is haunted throughout by the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) -- but the draw of this movie involves its realization of concept. Simply put, the world of Inception is one where people have found ways to visit and infiltrate other people's dreams; thus, much of the movie takes place in dreamscapes, and, as we know, inside the mind anything goes.
Nolan thus takes the opportunity to give us his version of dream worlds, and it's actually quite unique. He resists random disorientation, preferring to place his dreamers in fabricated, but mostly grounded, worlds. Once inside such a space, everything that happens appears relatively believable, but shifts in reality can occur, and it's the shock of those shifts that provide the impact to the dreamer -- and the audience. Inception's dream worlds are tightly wound, and when shifts happen, they are intriguing, anticipatory. They can lead to bursts, which are cathartic, thrilling. And just getting to play around with such a set up provides a lot of, yes, fun.
The movie features many moments of build-up which find their payoffs in some wonderfully playful visuals. Most of the time, the dream worlds are destroyed through spontaneous bursting, as objects and buildings around the characters pop, crumble, and explode. There are moments of controlled surrealism, such as when the populace in a dream all at once decide to look at the dreamer, or when the landscape visually defies normal physics. I think the most entertaining set piece involves gravity changes in a hotel corridor. Watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt battle an opponent hand-to-hand while walking up walls, falling on the ceiling, and being hurtled towards the elevator might easily be one of the coolest movie scenes of the year.
If Inception feels slightly lacking in anything, Nolan would have no one to blame but himself. His previous movies appealed greatly to me because they were about men making choices, breaking moral codes, and dealing with mostly internal consequences. In comparison to his past works, Inception's main story is pretty straightforward. The external story involves Cobb and his team of dream infiltrators working on a job to get inside the head of the heir of a powerful businessman, but the internal story is about Cobb's dealing with the loss of his wife. The danger here? His unresolved feelings have a way of intruding in the dreams he visits, manifesting themselves as antagonistic entities. Although this part of the story falls in line with some of Nolan's usual themes of men willfully deluding themselves, and of the relativity of guilt, it was better explored in Memento and here seems more casually employed as an emotional anchor for the main character (on a side note, poor DiCaprio -- that's two movies this year in which he plays someone crushed by the tragedy of losing his wife).
However, I think we can forgive Nolan for being more interested in exploring cool effects and inventive visuals this time. It's the first of his films that I would call flat-out fun, from the tricky opening to the coolness of the cast (a great group of actors including Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy) right down to the smile-inducing teaser ending. The movies have a proud line of dream explorations and unreal worlds, from Spellbound to Dreamscape, Dark City and The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to almost anything by Luis Buñuel, David Lynch and Satoshi Kon. Now Inception can be proudly added to this list of places we might never have been able to go to, but are now privileged to be able to revisit again and again, thanks to the dream-like imaginations of intelligent, creative directors like Nolan.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG-13" for sequences of violence and action throughout.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.