Win Movie tickets:Enter the Inception contest
The relationship between movies and dreams has always been ? to borrow a term from psychoanalysis ? over determined. From its first flickerings around the time Freud was working on The Interpretation of Dreams, cinema seemed to replicate the uncanny, image-making power of the mind, much as still photography had in the decades before.
And over the course of the 20th century, cinema provided a vast, perpetually replenishing reservoir of raw material for the fantasies of millions of people.
Freud believed that dreams were compounded out of the primal matter of the unconscious and the prosaic events of daily life. If he were writing now, he would have to acknowledge that they are also, for many of us, made out of movies.
And movies, more often than not these days, are made out of other movies. Inception, Christopher Nolan?s visually arresting, noir-tinged caper, is as packed with allusions and citations as a film studies term paper.
Admirers of Ridley Scott?s Blade Runner and Stanley Kubrick?s 2001 will find themselves in good company, though Inception does not come close to matching the impact of those durable cult objects. It trades in crafty puzzles rather than profound mysteries, and gestures in the direction of mighty philosophical questions that
Nolan is finally too tactful, too timid or perhaps just too busy to engage.
So Inception is not necessarily the kind of experience you would take to your next shrink appointment. It is more like a diverting reverie than a primal nightmare, something to be mused over rather than analysed, something you may forget as soon as it?s over.
Which is to say that the time ? nearly two and a half hours ? passes quickly and for the most part pleasantly, and that you see some things that are pretty amazing, and amazingly pretty: cities that fold in on themselves like pulsing, three-dimensional maps; chases and fights that defy the laws that usually govern space, time and motion; Marion Cotillard?s face.
Cotillard, her most famous movie role evoked by occasional eruptions of ?dith Piaf on the La Vie en Rose soundtrack, is the film?s principal enigma and its chief signifier of emotion.
She is not, however, exactly a character in Inception. Rather, at least as far as a first-time viewer can guess, she is a projection in the subconscious of her husband, a specialist in corporate mental espionage known as Cobb and played by Leonardo DiCaprio with some of the same twitchy melancholy he brought to Shutter Island.
To say too much about their marriage would be to risk compromising some of the pleasures of discovery tucked into a carefully crosshatched, multilayered story.
Better to explain what Cobb does for a living, since that exhaustive enumeration of the metaphysical rules of his profession occupies an awful lot of the dialogue in Nolan?s script.
Using a combination of drugs, wires and other vaguely Matrix-y methods, Cobb and his co-workers penetrate the minds of their slumbering targets, usually for the purpose of extracting hidden information.
But a wealthy client named Saito (Ken Watanabe) induces them to try the much more difficult trick known as inception, which involves planting an idea in someone else?s mind that will bear fruit in the real world. ?That?s impossible!? more than one person has occasion to exclaim.
In any case, Cobb and his team are trying to induce a young man (Cillian Murphy), whose father (Pete Postlethwaite) is a business rival of Saito?s, to break up the company he is about to inherit.
This bit of commercial intrigue provides the fairly banal material foundation on which Nolan?s phantasmagorical world is built. The pursuit of competitive advantage by well-dressed, emotionless men is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of, Humphrey Bogart?s observations at the end of The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding.
And the content of those dreams, once Cobb and company have dropped into their mark?s sleeping mind, is often curiously pedestrian.
Most of the time, one group of guys with guns chases another, in cars across the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles, on foot through the corridors of a retro-elegant hotel, and on skis and snowmobiles through an icy Alpine landscape from which James Bond might recently have departed.
A lot of this is ? what is the critical term of art I?m looking for? ? pretty cool. And the heist-movie cast of mind-cracking technicians is also cool.
Dileep Rao is the shaggy, anxious nerdy one. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are a pair of wisecracking specialists in something-or-another, and Ellen Page is the architect. This means that she designs the physical environments in which the dreams take place, and also that, like a precocious sophomore in a graduate seminar, asks the right questions and spells out the obvious connections.
She also notices that Cobb?s personal issues are clouding his ability to work, and putting the rest of them at a vaguely defined but serious risk ? a graver danger than just waking up. (The conceit that they?re all dreaming takes some of the edge off the movie?s violence, since it?s hard to grieve for extras who are just ?projections? in some else?s mental theater. On the other hand, that is pretty much what all movie characters are. This is what I meant by overdetermined.)
Cobb, whose life depends on suppressing emotions and memories that he cannot control, is thus a typical Christopher Nolan hero.
His air of guilt and sorrow ? the sense of unfinished psychic business pushing against his conscious intentions ? marks his kinship with Christian Bale?s Batman, with the detective played by Al Pacino in Insomnia and with the anguished amnesiac played by Guy Pearce in Memento.
DiCaprio exercises impressive control in portraying a man on the verge of losing his grip, but Nolan has not, in the end, given Cobb a rich enough inner life to sustain the performance.
The accomplishments of Inception are mainly technical, which is faint praise only if you insist on expecting something more from commercial entertainment.
That audiences do ? and should ? expect more is partly, I suspect, what has inspired some of the feverish early notices hailing ?Inception? as a masterpiece, just as the desire for a certifiably great superhero movie led to the wild overrating of The Dark Knight.
In both cases Nolan?s virtuosity as a conjurer of brilliant scenes and stunning set pieces, along with his ability to invest grandeur and novelty into conventional themes, have fostered the illusion that he is some kind of visionary.
But though there is a lot to see in Inception, there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Nolan?s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness ? the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity ? that this subject requires.
The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears.
If Nolan can?t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.
And the limitations of Inception may suggest the limits not only of this very talented director, but also of his chosen art form at this moment in its history. Our dreams feed the movies.
The movies feed our dreams. But somehow, our imaginations are still hungry.