Dreams are certainly the fuel behind most significant art. Our subconscious is able to make connections between disparate, random elements creating entirely new systems of order and chaos at the speed of thought. One thing they are not, however, is stable and believably narrative. This, then, is the issue for filmmakers hoping to use dreams as the base material of their work: Unless you reduce them to Hollywood ready reality-lite, offering straight line narratives with a minimum of weirdness, you’re working with the slippery, surreal stuff of Un Chien Andalou, not the kind of thing you would usually associate with high-priced summer blockbuster. Enter Christopher Nolan. At his best, Nolan creates a kind of all-encompassing conceptual work, immersing you in his estimable vision. Since the brilliant Momento, his first feature back in 2000, we have been waiting for a comparable film, and here, possibly, we have one.
You could say the overwhelming success of his last film, The Dark Knight, allowed him to return to his roots — albeit with a high-wattage cast and about 40x the budget. Inception opens so quickly and without preamble, it feels as if you’re watching a trailer for a completely different film. Soon enough, you catch on, but it takes a couple of minutes to settle into the frantic pace and storytelling style for which Nolan is aspiring. Displaying suitable thematic harmony, the plot involves the way in which dreams can be infiltrated and the mind’s inner secrets stolen — or impacted — by special operatives trained to enter into them.
Cobb (Leo DiCaprio, knee-deep in what must be his mind-bent period) is one such agent, hired after a bungled attempt to break into the dream of a Japanese business tycoon, Saito (Ken Wantanabe), by the tycoon himself in order to attempt one last, massive gig: Infiltrate the dreams of a British energy maven, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy), and have him dissolve his father’s massive company. With his hand picked crew, long-time right hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), skilled dream thief Eames (Tom Hardy, in a suave turn), chemical expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and newbie dream “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), Cobb attempts the seemingly impossible task of going into a dream within a dream within a dream in order to sink down deep enough to impregnate Fisher’s mind with the notion to go a completely different path from his father. Cobb is, of course, hiding a pretty big secret of his own — his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), haunts his dreams and subconscious and seeks to disrupt everything he attempts to do on his own.
The end result is thrilling and wildly satisfying: The complexity of a heist caper coupled with an undergrad’s Jungian thesis. A thinking person’s summer entertainment, The Matrix meeting halfway with Dreamscape. Yes, the film’s glaring flaw is the oversimplified idea that dreams are, essentially, predictable narratives, sound and image in concert with a type of story, not taking into account the peculiar jumble of subconscious feelings, motivations and seemingly random elements. And, at times, you begin to lose track of how many levels down the characters all are, especially as Nolan jams them all together, simultaneously displaying the characters trials and traumas en masse, but so sure-handed is the filmmaking, you eventually give in to the film’s considerable grasp and don’t look back.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.comand his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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