Friday, July 16, 2010


Christopher Nolan has always been interested in movie puzzles, movies which break apart expectations and examine why the pieces fit the way they do. His Memento follows a man with a brain injury that forces him to reconstruct the past from clues he leaves behind. The Prestige is about deconstructing magic, only to build it back up for a great twist. Insomnia is about a detective who finds that he is doubting his own memory of a shooting. Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight aren’t mere superhero exercises; they’re interested in the tensions between chaos and order, how the dynamics of modern urban societies both foster and reject vigilantism with equal force. Now, with Inception, Nolan has plunged boldly and audaciously into the biggest puzzle of all, the subconscious mind. He has emerged with what is perhaps his finest film.

Like all the best science fiction, Inception quickly draws viewers into its world, explaining the rules efficiently and easily. In the world of this film, almost entirely like our own, there is a secret technology that allows for dreams to be shared and constructed. Nolan uses this imagined technology to construct an elaborate boxes-within-boxes plot driven at its center by an epic, meticulous dream-world heist that seems to take up most of the run time. There are a team of characters that wish to enter the mind of a certain man (Cillian Murphy) through his subconscious, laying out a dream that they designed. They wish to escape with a secret buried safely in his mind. This is all played out in fast-paced, carefully designed detail that allows Nolan to stage action across varying levels of reality and unreality. Funnily enough, what would seem like cause for confusion is handled nimbly and clearly. Here, Nolan stages the best action sequences of his career.

At the center of the film is a haunted performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who has made a career out of infiltrating dreams. He’s a man who has been forged in the subconscious minds of others and yet is continually brought up short by his own. He’s haunted by memories, real and dreamt, half-remembered and half-invented. Every time he enters into another dream, he finds himself further removed from reality despite being fully aware of the artifice and possessing the tools to change the circumstances. Even his wife (Marion Cotillard) found herself seduced by the logically illogical fantasies of the mind.

DiCaprio grounds the film in an emotional truth, just as the heist plot keeps it hurtling forward. Through the planning of the heist, we get to learn how the creation of the dream-world will allow the characters to control to a certain extent the realities that they are creating, the stages on which their subject’s subconscious will play out his inner dramas and store his deepest secrets. Because the characters are enforcing their own vision on the subject’s dream, the film never tips into overtly symbolic psychedelic surrealism. These are professional people performing a job. They design a dream that will allow them to perform their task. Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao are excellent as the young professionals who set out helping DiCaprio, as is Ken Watanabe as their mysterious bankroll. Together, they add up to a formidable team, cool, smart and efficient.

Once in the world built for the heist, the film takes what we’ve learned about the rules, what we’ve seen the team planning, and throws in twists and swerves. It doesn’t all go according to plan, but because we are aware of the plan, and the stakes, it’s not so hard to keep track of the plot. Still, Nolan’s film requires concentration. It’s constantly on the move; there’s no easy spot for bathroom breaks. Nolan is not interested in holding the audience safely in a comfort zone, excessively explaining every plot detail. Here he is only interested in providing a hugely entertaining rush that is proudly imbued with the potential to baffle.

While Nolan arranges the pieces of the puzzle he is building, he keeps the pacing relentlessly exciting. This is one of the most endlessly thrilling action movies I’ve ever seen. The editing and style are energetic and slickly rewarding. The levels of reality, and surreality, involved in the physics and locations are convincingly real and satisfyingly odd. Staircases turn into M.C. Escher mazes; a train roars through a traffic jam; gravity slides; cities fold in on themselves. There are great unexpected twists to the action, like a very slow-mo fall that serves as a countdown clock of sorts, a sudden ambush on an packed city street, and an incredible sequence of hand-to-hand combat in a hotel with a suddenly constant shifting sense of up and down. I usually hate it when a critic falls back on the metaphor of a roller coaster to describe the experience of seeing a movie, but this one fits the description.

Through the unrelenting action, woven with deep emotion, Nolan creates a film with considerable power, both as an intellectual puzzle and as a feat of sheer filmmaking prowess. The cinematography presents a vision of industrial dreaming, of glossy specificity to this real-world artifice where the dreams are all the more unsettling for being so close to how we experience what we call reality. These are not loopy, wildly colored and bizarrely populated dreams of the kind we are used to seeing represented on screen, and it’s all the creepier for their relative sane insanity. The film creates clearly delineated levels of existence, of sleep and wake, or experiences both real, remembered, created, dreamt and suggested and then proceeds to push even further, blurring the lines in subtle ways. And yet the editing keeps things totally clear. It’s unceasingly exciting, hurtling through its complicated plot at breakneck speed, but I always understood where we were and what reality was understood to be. I think.

The film moves with a visceral velocity. I felt like I was being pulled forward by the force of the filmmaking. I found myself leaning forward trying to catch every detail on the screen, straining my ears to better hear. Like the victim at the center of the film, Nolan had me totally immersed in his fiction, in this world of his creation. It has the kind of great sci-fi hook that is used as a starting point for exploring deeper concepts and harsher truths, all the while thrilling with fantastically gripping action. It so thoroughly transported me that I hardly realized time had passed before the credits appeared. As I walked out of the theater my mind was racing and my heart was pounding. And when I walked down the hall to my apartment, for a brief, fleeting moment, I thought I could feel the walls move and gravity shift. It’s been a few hours now since the movie ended and I’m still racing with excitement. Inception is the biggest thrill of the year so far.

No comments:

Post a Comment