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September 2010

Scene4 Magazine - "Inception" reviewed by Miles David Moore - September 2010 -

by Miles David Moore

How can we be sure of what we perceive?  How can we tell the difference between dream, memory, and our experiences of the moment?  Native Americans believed there was no difference between the sleeping and waking worlds, and the shaman who dreamed a victory was even more a hero than the chief who led the tribe into battle.  In our last benighted century, dictatorships have used brainwashing techniques to impress their omnipotence on dissidents and enemy soldiers.  "I could float off the floor like a soap bubble if I wished to," O'Brien tells Winston Smith at a crucial point in 1984.  "I do not wish it, because the Party does not wish it."

People and ideas float like soap bubbles in Inception, Christopher Nolan's extraordinary new film, in which the protagonists use brainwashing techniques of an extremely innovative sort.  The problem they face is that, when you start playing with other people's dreams and memories, you risk deranging your own.

Lucid dreaming—the state in which the dreamer realizes he is dreaming and, in doing so, can control the action in the dream—is a phenomenon identified by psychologists nearly a century ago.  In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his associates practice a radical variation on lucid dreaming: for a suitable fee, they will enter the dreams of corporate executives and extract industrial secrets for use by their competitors.


Though lucrative, extraction is a risky profession, and Cobb—for reasons I won't reveal here, though many other reviewers have—faces immediate arrest if he sets foot in the United States.  Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese billionaire, makes Cobb a tempting offer: instead of extraction, Saito wants Cobb and his crew to practice inception, the implanting of an idea, in the mind of his competitor Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Fischer is about to inherit the world's largest energy conglomerate from his dying father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite), and Saito wants Cobb to implant in Fischer the idea that he should split up the company, thus leaving the energy market open to a takeover by Saito's firm.  If Cobb succeeds, Saito says, he will make sure all charges against Cobb are dropped.

Saito needs to make big promises to persuade Cobb, because inception is exponentially more dangerous than extraction.  Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb's second-in-command, lay out the dangers, both moral and logistic.  If you implant a foreign idea in a person's mind, Cobb and Arthur say, it can change the entire course of his life, possibly not for the good.  (They don't even touch on the morality of persuading one man to break up his company so another can create a monopoly, but then again they wouldn't.)  Then there is the difficulty of suggesting an outside idea.  The mind is designed to resist such invasions, and if at any time Fischer realizes he is dreaming, all is lost.

From this premise Nolan leads the audience on what Arthur calls "a merry chase," filled with wonders that engage the mind as well as the eye.  There's a lot of exposition as Cobb and Arthur set up their team: "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page), who creates a mazelike framework for Fischer's dream; "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy) who impersonates important figures from Fischer's life within the dream; "chemist" Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who creates sedatives powerful enough to keep Fischer, Cobb and crew asleep long enough to complete the caper. The exposition, though extremely intricate, is filled with enough fascinating concepts, Hitchcockian suspense and eye-popping special effects to keep even the most easily bored audience riveted. 


And the exposition, of course, is merely preamble to the dream itself.  You will see the city of Paris fold in on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing; explosions filled with hurtling stone and flying glass that swirl around the protagonists, leaving them untouched; and, as the really dazzling set piece, the zero-gravity sequence, which features Arthur floating through a hotel hallway and elevator shaft doing battle with various thugs.  These special effects put Avatar and all its 3D mechanics to shame, and they are all the more amazing for Nolan keeping CGI effects to a bare minimum.  (The story of Nolan's 360-degree rotating hallway, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing nearly all his own stunts, is a great read in itself; look it up online.)

Yet Inception blasts past all recent special-effect blockbusters by actually daring to presume its audience is willing to think.  The film's screenplay, which deploys abstruse psychological and philosophical concepts, is so intricate that Inception virtually requires multiple viewings to grasp it.  It portrays layers on layers of conscious and subconscious thought, down to depths in which the characters, in the words of Blake, experience "eternity in an hour."  A major theme in Inception is the effect that multiple dream escapades have had on Cobb's psyche.  Who is Mal (Marion Cotillard), the femme fatale who keeps intruding violently into Cobb's dreams? 


Who are the beautiful blond children who recur in Cobb's dreams, but always and only from the back?  And why does the film keep returning to a barren, rocky seashore, the characters floundering in the surf?

Inception is an unqualified triumph for Nolan, a director who first revealed his fascination with the pathways of the mind in his 2000 film Memento.  That film—about a detective (Guy Pearce) afflicted with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife's killer—achieved its enormous kick by telling the story backwards, mirroring the detective's struggle to puzzle out the mystery.  Inception is a puzzle on a much greater scale than Memento, exploring in every possible direction the minds of its characters, especially Cobb.   Those explorations are so convoluted, and the plot complications arising from them so strange, that at the end—again like an Escher drawing—the meanings fold in on themselves, and almost any interpretation of what you have just seen is plausible.  Dream, memory, and reality are almost inseparable by the end of the story. Such amorphousness sounds as if it should be disastrous, but in Nolan's hands, it's exhilarating.

Some critics have noted the parallels between creating the dream in Inception and creating a movie; Cobb can be seen as the director, Arthur the producer, Ariadne the production designer, Eames the star, Saito the financial backer, and so on.  But beyond that Inception touches on the very nature of movies, their relationship to dreams and consciousness, and how they influence both.  "How did you get here?" Cobb asks Ariadne at one point.  In dreams, he points out, you never remember the beginning or how you get from one point to another.  What Cobb doesn't mention, but which will certainly occur to viewers, is that movies—with their constant cutting from scene to scene, place to place—operate in much the same way as dreams.  How do Cobb, his friends and his enemies glide so handily from Tokyo, to Paris, to Mombasa, to Sydney?  We see only the airplane that takes them from Sydney to Los Angeles, and even that flight we must take on faith. 

How, then, do movies affect our dreams, and by extension our perception of reality?  How much of our lives are spent in a blur of getting from place to place, the hours of travel forgotten, only the destinations remembered?  And how real does it seem to us in retrospect? "A day of life," Andy Warhol said, "is like a day of watching TV."  In the reductio ad absurdum, we could end up like Chance the Gardener in Being There, clicking our remote controls helplessly at a gang of threatening hoods.

Nolan has spared no effort in making his dream as real as possible.  He assembled his own crew with the same meticulous care that Cobb assembled his; the work by cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and an army of special effects wizards too numerous to mention is as close to perfect as any audience could wish.  Special mention should go to composer Hans Zimmer, whose music enhances the movie enormously without calling undue attention to itself.

The ensemble cast—which also includes Michael Caine as Cobb's father/mentor, Lukas Haas as a failed "architect" and Tom Berenger as a business associate of Fischer's—represents one of the most brilliant assemblages of thespian talent of any recent film.  Simply knowing that DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Page, Cotillard and Caine were to be in the same film whetted my appetite to see it, many months before I even knew what the film was about.  It's too bad the screenplay does not afford the actors (except for DiCaprio and Cotillard) the big emotional scenes that attract the Motion Picture Academy's notice. 


Like a seasoned team of firefighters, the members of this cast perform all the tasks required of them—some of them even more difficult than the act of spilling your guts on screen—and perform them impeccably.  I'd like to put in a particular good word for Gordon-Levitt, a model of professional aplomb even when he's hurtling through mid-air colliding with bad guys.  But all the actors—like the film in which they appear--are just plain great. 


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©2010 Miles David Moore
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

September 2010

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