Directed by Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 148 min.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a born filmmaker’s natural gift for detail, composition and movement, but on the evidence of his fussily constructed mind-game movies—Following, Memento, Insomnia and the new Inception—he’s definitely a born con artist. Who else could rook Warner Bros. out of $200 million to make Hollywood’s most elaborate video-game movie and slap on a puzzling, unappealing title?
Inception proves this is Nolan’s moment—a beginning-of-the-end moment for film culture, ha, ha—because it’s conceived to amuse an era hungry for hokum and a geek audience who, after his gross The Dark Knight pulled in $500 million, is primed for more baroque fantasia. It takes the form of a sci-fi adventure movie, updating the old Fantastic Voyage for the digital age, but instead of exploring the human body, Leonardo DiCaprio as dream extractor Dom Cobb goes inside people’s unconscious with the help of his young exploratory team: Joseph Gordon-levitt, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy.
“I am the most skilled extractor,” Cobb announces. “I know your mind better than your wife or therapist.” Mindfuck—Nolan’s specialty—is a perfect con-man’s scheme that involves undermining a mark’s confidence. As Cobb’s dream warriors battle inside one industrialist’s head and then another’s, Nolan’s narrative—essentially a tale of corporate intrigue—goes from reality to dreams, then dreams within dreams. Its essential con is that, as in Memento, Nolan ignores the morality of his characters’ actions; he accepts that they will do anything—which is the cynicism critics admired in Memento, the con-man’s motivating nihilism.
Stuck in film-noir mode, Nolan’s dark sentimentality may seem classical to naive filmwatchers. But the way his clichés manipulate viewers’ perception of the world and human behavior is merely timely, not profound. Like Grand Theft Auto’s quasi-cinematic extension of noir and action-flick plots, Inception manipulates the digital audience’s delectation for relentless subterfuge. Cobb never runs into paradisaical visions like What Dreams May Come—only terror, danger and violence. Nolan’s F/X set pieces are all large-scale fight scenes, like Gordon-Levitt levitating/grappling with anonymous henchmen or Page and DiCaprio observing various apocalyptic destruction scenarios.
Nolanoids have been faithfully awaiting a vision, and in these crystal-clear (fake) annihilation scenes, Nolan out-Finchers Fincher and seeks Kubrickian misanthropy—but there’s a simple-minded sappiness at the heart of this cynical vision. If anything, the time and consciousness tricks stolen from The Matrix make Nolan a bastard Wachowski brother, not a son of Kubrick. Despite its big budget (what Manny Farber would call a white elephant movie), Inception is full of second-rate aesthetics, yet when shoddy aesthetics become the new standard, it’s sufficient to up-end the art of cinema.
Inception’s gee-whiz tricks permit disbelief in reality. It substitutes fascination with exploring the physical and spiritual reality of the world (which the great critic Andre Bazin posited as the glory of movies) with an unedifying emphasis on shallow, unreal spectacle. Nolan’s fascinated by his cast of narcissistic criminals indulging their own treacheries—nihilism chasing its own tail. It distracts from how business and class really work. His shapeless storytelling (going from Paris to Mombassa to nameless ski slopes, carelessly shifting tenses like a video game) throws audiences into artistic limbo—an “unconstructed dream space” like Toy Story 3—that leaves them bereft of art’s genuine purpose: a way of dealing with the real world.
Reality is neither perceived nor penetrated in Inception. Cobb’s dream obsession suggests pop-culture addiction, mirroring how consumers habitually escape reality with video games and movies. But Nolan never critiques this as Neveldine/Taylor did in Gamer. Instead, gobbledy-gook like, “in dreams we create and perceive our world simultaneously,” or Matrix-isms like “the smallest idea is a resilient virus, it can grow to define or destroy you,” offer pseudo-distractions. This conceptual failure is apparent from DiCaprio’s glib characterization. Nolan finally has the budget to work with his look-alike (Leo’s an irresistible movie star), yet fails to write him a good role. Cobb suffers the same marital nightmares Leo had in Shutter Island; this isn’t depth, it’s morbidity and the confusion is all over the screen. Inception should have been called Self-Deception.