Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's All a Dream: On the Okay-ness of 'Inception'

Reviewing Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) in the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton compared it (unfavorably) to an Olivier Assayas thriller, and there are some notable similarities between this film and Assayas' demonlover (2002), one of my all time favorites. Both films tell stories about corporate espionage that shuttle between Tokyo and Paris, and each has a scene in which a character is drugged during an international flight. However, where the infernal fantasies that eventually take over Assayas' film are terrifyingly real, and the movie's implications are deeply political (like Charles Chaplin's no less misanthropic Monsieur Verdoux [1947], it links big business with murder), Nolan's film is resolutely apolitical, and philosophically speaking, it's closer to a virtual reality thriller like David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) with its suggestion that nothing is real.

As some one who's favorably predisposed towards movies that attempt to represent the world we all live in, the more political the better, I'm not the ideal viewer for a film like Inception (or eXistenZ, for that matter), whose primary objective is to make me forget about that world for a few hours to the point of suggesting that it's no more real than the fantasy world onscreen. If I slightly prefer Cronenberg's film, which still seems to me a long way off from his best work, it's simply because he's a better filmmaker than Nolan. In contrast with eXistenZ, with its backwoods setting and the ooey-gooey organic-looking quality of the special effects, neither Inception nor any of its characters ever seem to have any blood pumping through their veins. The settings are all anonymously upscale (a Marienbad cocktail party in a Japanese palace; an expensive hotel in Matrix City; a spic-and-span Paris in which no one is ever heard speaking French), and the photography tends towards commercial-slick high contrast lighting. At one point, Ken Watanabe (Hollywood's all-purpose Japanese guy) gets shot in the chest--in a dream, of course--and thereafter, some one will periodically lift open his suit jacket to reveal a tampon stain-sized pool of blood on his shirt so as to remind us that he's dream bleeding to death without anyone having to get their hands dirty.

The plot has no connection with reality, even in the sense that dreams are a part of real life. The protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCapprio), is a corporate spy who enters into peoples' dreams in order to steal their secrets. (Unless I missed something, the film never explains how he's able to do this, but really, who cares? Could there be any explanation more satisfying than, "It's a movie, numb-nuts"?) Living in exile after being framed for the murder of his wife (Marion Cotillard), Cobb, like Homeless Dad, just wants his kids back (they're back in the States with Granny). As the film opens, Cobb and his team botch a job, and their intended mark, a Japanese CEO, Saito (Watanabe), decides to make them a counter-offer: If Cobb can place an idea inside the mind of a competitor (Cillian Murphy), Saito will make the murder charge disappear with a single phone call. (If only Roman Polanski had his connections.) But to accomplish his goal, Cobb will have to confront his own personal demons.

The film tells us that implanting an idea in some one's mind is more difficult than extracting one (which is already impossible), and to do the job, Cobb and his team devise a plan involving four levels of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, reminding one of the cons-within-cons in David Mamet's House of Games (1987). And Nolan cross-cuts between parallel action in all four levels like D.W. Griffith on mescaline (alas, none of Nolan's razor-flat images has one-tenth the wonder of Griffith's gargantuan Babylonian sets in Intolerance [1916]). This proves to be a pretty nifty means of cranking up the suspense, with an SUV full of dream thieves on the top dream level plunging ass-backwards into a river in super, super slow motion. Since the further down you go into dreams-within-dreams, the greater the feeling of time expands (one waking hour at the bottom level feels like fifty years), the action in the second, third, and fourth levels all happens in the time that it takes for the SUV to hit the water. As I said, this has nothing to do with actual dreams as they're experienced by human beings, but as a variation on the ticking clock (i.e., the characters have to get in and do their thing before the car hits the water, waking them up), it's pretty neat.

As accomplished as the film is as an SF thriller, I can't help but wish that Nolan had found space in this two and a half hour movie to give his characters a reality beyond their function in the plot. Sometimes typecasting fills in the blanks (DiCapprio is traumatized by the death of his wife and living in a dream world for the second time this year; Michael Caine is fatherly and distinguished for about five seconds), but the younger actors, like Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, simply draw a blank. The former plays an architecture student, Ariadne, who's tasked with designing the levels of the dream world, but her real function in the film is to discover things about Cobb that the rest of the team is unaware of. Gordon-Levitt fares even worse: They post his character, Arthur, on the second level of the dream to distract the Murphy character's subconscious, which has Matrix-like goons chase him around a hotel with guns, while the other characters venture deeper into the mind to do the real work. When the SUV in the first layer goes off the bridge, this disrupts the gravity in the second layer (but not the third and fourth) so that Arthur spends most of his scenes floating in mid-air, like Kier Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

If the story, particularly the ending, contains echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), Nolan's high-gloss style and intensified continuity cutting are as far from the authentic griminess and meditative rhythms of Tarkovsky's work as one could possibly get. Of course, some one will point out that Nolan's film is essentially a fast-paced thriller, and wouldn't be well served by Tarkovsky's heavy, long take style. Still, I find it slightly ironic that, as the characters move "deeper" into the second and third levels of dreams-within-dreams, the film becomes increasingly reliant on external violence, as opposed to Tarkovsky's film, which is all talk and no action. Also, I wish... well, I was going to say, "I wish, for the sake of realism, that everything didn't look so gosh darn clean," but then I realized, just as I was about to type it, how utterly absurd the phrase "for the sake of realism" was in this context. This is what I meant about me not being the ideal viewer for this movie.

Rather unfortunately, in a farce resembling the plot of Life of Brian (1979), Inception was appointed, even before it opened, to be the film that saved the summer--which surely says less about the film itself than the overall wretchedness of most Hollywood movies that, when a moderately ambitious blockbuster does come along, it's praised well out of proportion to its modest but very real virtues. Much the same thing happened when Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight (2008), appeared two summers ago. Faced with a prosaic, noisy, and undistinguished action movie, and a hammy performance by a recently deceased Heath Ledger, the critical community lost its shit, as if a girl who should really know better suddenly decided to drop her panties for the biggest schlub at the party. The film was widely read as a complicated political allegory, and Ledger's performance was praised as the greatest piece of screen acting since Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). I suppose it all depends on what you go to the movies looking for. And speaking as some one who'd generally rather see a film about something real, like Pedro Costa's movies about the slums of Lisbon, or demonlover for that matter, I can't see too much reason for getting so excited about a movie defined by its unreality, no matter how skillfully made it is.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice summation of all that's inconsequential about Inception. I don't think it's pointed out enough that the film is two-hours of a fantasy world, and your jab at the "upscale settings," while justifiable in the context of the film, really further aggravates that point in a critical way.

    I also thought of Stalker during the film. I agree you're not being unfair in the comparison. Both are, for all intents and purposes, far-fetched, bare-boned and essentially preposterous sci-fi stories at the service of allegory and emotional metaphor. Inception has every right not to be a Tarkovsky film... but it also completely misses its point by trying so hard to convince you everything makes sense at all, and like a big video game.