A caper film to dream about: Director Nolan unleashes exhilarating mind games in ‘Inception’
The good news about Christopher Nolan is that he seems happy to have a break from the grand shadows of Gotham City. “Inception’’ looks as much like a blockbuster as “The Dark Knight.’’ It also feels like one. But it’s free of doom. For better and worse, it weighs nothing, which is not the same as saying it means nothing.
Nolan’s primary subject here is dreams, and it’s exhilarating, this world he’s imagined for us. In “Inception,’’ it’s possible to access the dreams of others, and within these dreams it’s possible for an entire block in Paris to fold calmly over itself, creating a kind of living Escher lithograph. It’s also possible for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to swim through a hotel corridor and along an elevator shaft like a dapper astronaut, while conducting thrilling, elaborately choreographed fights.
Nolan uses cinematic devices to evoke or rework the mechanics of dreams. So if a van plunging off a bridge in, say, a Tony Scott movie takes only a few seconds, here that same shot becomes ballet. The van takes the better part of an hour to hit the water. It’s being held aloft by the amniotic fluid of slow motion, and the cuts back to its suspended descent are as close to Zen as a Hollywood movie is likely to get.
Why the van goes over the bridge and takes its time hitting the water is a separate matter. If entering someone’s unconscious seems perfectly natural in “Inception,’’ then what interests Nolan is the criminal enterprise that springs up around it. This is basically a caper film. Instead of robbing a rich man’s casino, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his extraction team raid the man’s subconscious. Saito (Ken Watanabe), the Japanese businessman from whom Cobb and his partner, Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) just tried to nab top secrets, proposes an impossible mission — inception. They would all enter the mind of the heir (Cillian Murphy) of Saito’s business rival to plant a crucial thought rather than steal a secret.
The plan necessitates the hiring of Ellen Page, as an architect of dreamscapes; Dileep Rao, as the group’s anesthesiologist; and Tom Hardy as Eames, a sort of dream-time impersonation artist. It’s fun watching these people feel each other out. Page is perfectly cast, but as sharp as her wit can be, you forget how well she holds a close-up.
The job presents an opportunity for Cobb to return to the children he had to leave for rather complicated reasons, which have something to do with the volatile, late wife Cobb’s subconscious is having a terrible time suppressing. Marion Cotillard has fun playing the sketches that constitute Mrs. Cobb. It’s likely she’s zoomed through the subconscious of many a man.
The stakes here seem a trifle low. For such a visionary director, Nolan, who also wrote this movie, turns conventional on such standard issues as love and guilt and longing. He tries to turn his caper into an odyssey. But home — where two cute kids keep their backs to the camera of Cobb’s memory — looks like a Hallmark nightmare. Not to mention that we just watched DiCaprio go through the same domestic woe in “Shutter Island,’’ which, like “Inception,’’ concludes on a note of “Twilight Zone’’ ambiguity.
Nolan’s is the better movie. He expends less effort than Martin Scorsese, even in the orchestration of the film’s great heist. It lasts for about 80 minutes (the movie is almost 2 1/2 hours), involves at least two dreams within one dream, and goes off with nary a hitch on Nolan’s part. He dances between the falling van, the disappearance of gravity, and an avalanche that could be out of the Bond picture of your choice. And yet, the dreamscapes are oddly sane, sanitary places — no crazy sex or shocking repressed memories. Instead, the subconscious proves curiously hospitable to action-thriller staging.
I suppose this is what we get for spending so long in the mind of an executive. Nolan’s two Batman movies were also about the troubled psyche of a wealthy man. He appears to find the challenge of applying his imagination to corporate culture one worth pursuing.
One of the best things about Nolan as a director is that he’s not self-conscious. His movies unfold and fold in on themselves without the strain of labor or flash. But that lack of self-consciousness is also Nolan’s downside. While “Inception’’ grows more complicated, it doesn’t gather substance. You feel the movie gliding, floating forward or down, but the depths feel only directional, never psychological. The many layers turn out to be an arrangement of surfaces. We’re not inside a mind so much as an enormous boutique.
Of course, these are other people’s dreams, and they present to Cobb the same physical challenge they do to Nolan. How do you pull this off? Namely, by hoping your audience is too dazzled to ask.