Directed and Written by Christopher Nolan

Memento had a glint, a loony glee, a grasp of the long con. A movie played backwards is bound to test anybody's threshold for gimmicky,sure, if not wear it down, but Christopher Nolan used to love playing us like this and I used to love him for it. That was before those lumbering, humorless, overpraised, frankly awful superhero farragoes swallowed him and his sense of mischief whole. His oneiric and spry new piece of high pulp, Inception, is his attempt to rescue his aesthetic ethos, his DNA signature as a filmmaker, from the shadow of the Bat, from the Ninth Circle of A-list anonymity. He revisits his old tropes - - - the persistence of memory,the illusory fabric of reality - - - and reheats others that aren't his - - - idea-as-virus memetics is nothing new to anyone who's ever answered an internet meme or read Grant Morrison - - -then reverse-engineers nearly everything that's taken on similar modes of dreamwalk and mindfuck, from Philip K. Dick to Jorge Luis Borges to Alain Resnais to Charlie Kaufman to, more tellingly, Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective and Satoshi Kon's Paprika not to mention the exploding sequence in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and the encrypted character-naming the Wachowskis were so fond of (Mal, Eames, Robert Fischer and a girl named Ariadne who draws mazes (get it?)), then metastasizes his influences and makes it wear an oldish suit but sharpened and buffed to a newish sheen. Inception is where Nolan gets to show the world what he can do when more or less left to his own devices with a trustfund to dip into. It is also where he possibly regains a little bit of his soul.

Leonardo DiCaprio is like a high-end corporate spook slash cat burglar here but it's people's dreams he breaks into and it's their vital secrets he steals. His murky backstory - - - he's the only one with a backstory,murky or otherwise - - - involves a bounty on his head, estranged children whose faces he can't remember and a dead wife who keeps dropping in while he's at work and whose ghost he really needs to give up because it's starting to become hell on the career. And he's assembling a team - - -and recruiting a new member so he can have someone to bounce exposition off and possibly mediate his secret turmoil - - - to take on that old saw The One Last Job which,of course,comes with a catch: this time, he has to break into someone's dream and put something in. That something would be to stop world domination by market share - - -the mark is the heir of an energy empire. Inception is essentially, and quintessentially,a caper film with all the givens and a lot on its mind, a REM-sleep Rififi but on a cocktail of placebo smart drugs: more clever than intelligent, more mechanism than fugue, more prudish than diabolical.

And like all caper films, it's all about the team dynamics and the precision planning. The first half is almost pure crackle. And this is where Inception comes most to life, in the recruitment and the debriefing, in the architecture and the walk-through, in the build-up and the prep, and with an almost fetishistic ardor for geometry and clockwork and a visual energy you're not used to from Nolan at that - - - that hallucinogenic city folding into itself and that Escher by way of Tati office building are trumped only by that maddeningly disorienting zero gravity set piece that comes much later. Also, there's a tiny scene tucked into a shadowy corner of the plot inside an opium den for dreamers that's not only a tantalizing germ of an idea in and of itself but the pivot point to a possible alternate ending. Oh, you knew there would at least be one of these. Like Memento, Inception is a puzzle nerd's sex toy, playing into the seeing of things that aren't there and the poring for clues on its surface, and Nolan has custom-built his contraption to provoke that specific misdirection, layering in red-herring teases in the already hectic matrix of its surface, except that what all these will augur if pursued is merely that at some point the real world ends and the dream world begins and it's not where you think it does. All this is juicy enough over a few rounds of beer but isn't particularly complicated nor profound nor even necessary. Who's incepting who? Good question. But don't ask. Nolan's not telling anyway.

The ability to dream within a dream within a dream within a dream is a wondrous conceit and the editing is so fiendish and crisp in the multi-leveled second half it enables that it would do Nolan and his editor Lee Smith, not to mention your own brain, a disservice to be confused. It's RPG gameplay, no more ,no less. And with none of the team nor its mark nor the world in any real danger and with its de facto enemy being a figment of the imagination, it has the fundamental empathic and emotional disconnect of an RPG,too. See, nobody dies in a dream. You die in one you just wake up. Go deeper,though, and dying means you get trapped in your dream and lapse into a semi-vegetative state in the real world for what could be years, meaning your body may be in a coma but in your head you could be having the time of your life, and that's closer to bliss than doom. Perception is reality, after all. Choose your own adventure. Right there is everything Nolan wants to say here. And in the push-pull between art film and event movie, he gets to choose his own adventure,too. By blowing things up. But he gets feverish with the propulsion and viscera of fulfilling his vision on the scale with which he gets to do it that his enthusiasm bleeds all over the propulsion and viscera of the spectacle he straps it on. And much as it isn't as terribly mysterious nor as terribly cerebral as head trips go, as no-brainer theme park mission movie, Inception rides. Like a dream.


Noel Vera said...

Do, your prose is such that the movie you're describing is a helluva lot more interesting than the movie I actually watched. Your enthusiasm colors the view of the film we saw, and that's not a bad thing at all.

You're right tho--the planning sequences are probably the best, and Kon is a touchstone, though I think Paranoia Agent is the better metaphor. Not for some reason a great fan of Kon either, which probably colors my view.

And--mischief and humor? One character in Memento aside (and I suspect Pantoliano improvised heavily, as did Heath Ledger), I barely saw any humor. It was straightforward as an arrow, albeit backwards. Again, those damned coal-colored glasses.

dodo dayao said...

It's a half-smile's worth of humor, Noel, this is Nolan after all. :) My chief problem with him has always been his lack of humor - - -a recent interviewer said he never smiled during the whole Q & A , and this was at a comic convention,too. He exudes so much gravity,you'd think he was Bela Tarr (which he isn't even if he probably thinks he is). This, like Memento, is a gimmicky little contraption and that's where I get that sense of play, I guess. Granted he doesn't use these gimmicks to say much, or anything at all really, but between this and his first breakthrough hit, I've sort of missed it,specially when he got to those Batman movies, which I thoroughly dislike.( I was going to name-check The Prestige as another movie of his I like but I just recently realized I was remembering Neil Burger's The Illusionist. )

I like Inception fine but two weeks after seeing it, I don't have any desire to see it again, which is not something I could say for lesser films like the first Matrix sequel, for example, which I went back to for the highway sequence. Inception has no set piece as fun in my book.

On the fence about how much I like Kon's ouevre myself. I like everything he's done but Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress are probably the only ones I love. I still have two DVDs of Paranoia Agent to go through, so maybe the number'll change.