Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Leaving Inception yesterday, my cousin and I made for the Exit door immediately below the screen. Walking briskly down the subsequent staircase, we found ourselves finally at an Emergency Exit door that wouldn’t open. An architectural dead-end.
Inception–sort of a millennium generation answer to The Matrix– is about fantasy worlds within the mind, and the tenuous grip that people who indulge in fantasy maintain on reality. In the requisite exposition-heavy section of the movie, as Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explain the rules of Inception‘s world to newbie dream-architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), they demonstrate how the architects of their brand of manipulated dreams cut corners through spacial paradoxes and architectural dead-ends. Much like the hidden limitations of a video game world, the horizon isn’t infinite.
Unfortunately, Inception later abandons a number of the rules it takes great pains to set down in the first third of the movie, either for expediency or heightened drama–a practice George A Romero would refer to as lying. When, at the outset of trouble in the movie’s centerpiece dream-caper, Cobb reveals to his team that in this dream (as opposed to all others) dying means dying in real life, not just waking up, one can’t help but think that Mr. Nolan didn’t know how else to up the stakes. When Cobb admits that he couldn’t have convinced his team to attempt the job with all the facts, the issued apology from the filmmaker rings as empty to the audience as Cobb’s does to his team. No one likes to be artlessly manipulated when they’ve committed themselves to be at the mercy of a boss’s whim–whether the boss is Mr. Cobb, or Mr. Nolan–for so long, and at such considerable expense (to say nothing of the people who ponied up for the IMAX experience). A few similar loopholes–those nagging why didn’t they just’s–inevitably become the fodder for the car-ride-home conversation. Cinematic dead-ends.
Inception is a very engrossing and entertaining few hours. Luckily, Mr. Nolan’s characters eventually stop talking and get to work, at which point the movie becomes far more appealing–and, I might add, beautiful. The normally stellar Joseph Gordon-Levitt–who, having obviously been instructed to talk in his deepest, suavest voice, comes off as a little boy in DiCaprio’s clothes–gets the best of this silent time; a lengthy balletic sequence in which he fights his way through a gravity-less hotel is really the high-point of the movie (indeed, Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s character grows on you every moment he’s not speaking). Like The Matrix, Inception revels in showing its audience just how constructed movies really are–and Mr. Nolan is more than a match for the Wachowskis as a magician of film time and space.
The shortcomings of Inception are oddly similar (although much less grave) to those of Avatar–namely, artless dialogue and wooden acting muddying a film with unparalleled visual and technical virtuosity. This is the current state of the blockbuster–filmmakers dream bigger and bolder, at the expense of other concerns. Unlike Mr. Cameron, Mr. Nolan still seems to cater to intelligent, film savvy viewers–hence Hollywood’s jumping on the Christopher Nolan bandwagon with such fanfare. He’s the Steven Spielberg of this colder, darker era, producing smart, hypnotic moneymakers.
The architectural limitation of Inception is in its impact. Inception–the planting of an idea in a sleeper’s mind–is difficult, Cobb explains, because for a planted idea to take hold, it needs to appear to arise organically, and carry some emotional weight. Mr. Nolan has no trouble planting certain images in the audience’s mind, but he has more trouble when it comes to convincing his audience to care, because his films feel neither organic, nor emotional. Inception is a movie you begin to forget as soon as you leave the theater. Unless, of course, you don’t leave the theater.
My cousin and I turned around to climb back up the stairs (we’d passed a second-floor exit on the way down to the first floor), and discovered we were leading some twenty people. By the time we pushed open the second floor exit–to reveal a different set of stairs–we were leading forty or fifty. This second flight of stairs led on for some time–to another flight. It smelled strongly of urine. We turned around, fighting our way through at least sixty people, having decided to go back to the theater exit. Which was locked. We looked up at the stairs that rose above us, and seemed to go on ad infinitum. Only my cousin’s vaguely horrified look told me that I wasn’t going crazy, or at least not alone. We banged on the door until an unnerved theatergoer opened the door and was surprised to find seventy or so people, trapped in a dream. We were happy to leave.