Nov 12, 2020
Inception (2010): The joyless dream of Christopher Nolan
Upon release, Christopher Nolan’s Inception was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece that would reinvent filmmaking as we knew it. It earned $800 million worldwide, scored a Best Picture nom, and IMDb voters think it’s better than Goodfellas. And while it has all the ingredients for a great film—a high concept, a stellar cast, top-notch effects, clockwork editing—for me, the movie never rises above being a slightly better than average heist flick. Ultimately, it’s a cold, overblown ordeal devoid of heart and soul, with a filmmaker far too obsessed with crafting internal logic to invest his characters with actual personalities. And that, unfortunately, sums up the majority of Nolan’s filmography.
When I first saw Batman Begins, my assumption was that the over-serious, joyless nature of that film was just a reaction to the gaudy insanity of the Burton/Schumacher films. But as it turns out, that’s the way Nolan wants all of his movies to be.
Judging by everything from Memento to The Prestige to his Batman movies to this, Nolan’s desire is not to make films, but rather big, serious, complicated puzzles. And going by the box office returns, complicated puzzles have struck a chord with many. But I’d like to believe there are still surviving pockets of filmgoers who appreciate movies that work on both an intellectual and emotional level, and Inception is about as emotionally engaging as a two-hour game of chess. Actually, it’s more like watching an two-hour game of Jenga—the whole time you’re queasy, waiting for the giant, teetering construction to come crashing down under the top-heavy weight of its own exposition and world-building.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a member of an underground network of black-hat operatives with access to dream-sharing technology. Using a special dirty bomb-like device that fits in a briefcase, Cobb and his cronies can instantly fall asleep and walk around in each others’ dreams. These dreams look and feel just as real as reality, with the primary exception being that when you die in a dream, you wake up.
Despite limitless applications, Cobb uses this technology primarily for corporate espionage, assembling teams of mercenaries with job titles like “forger” and “architect” and “chemist” to enter the dreams of high-powered executives and steal business secrets. But an exec named Saito (Ken Watanabe) comes to Cobb with a different sort of assignment: Instead of stealing concepts, he wants them to enter the dreams of his competitor (Cillian Murphy) and plant a concept, a process known as “inception”.
Cobb agrees and gathers his crew, which includes previous accomplices Eames (Tom Hardy), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), along with first-timer Ariadne (Ellen Page). As the “architect”, Ariadne’s job is to design the maze-like dream levels, and it seems the chief requirement for being a dream architect is having a deeply symbolic name. “Ariadne” is not only an unsubtle reference to the Greek goddess of labyrinths, but also one of the most awkward first names ever spoken on film.
To properly plant the idea, the Cobb Mob must not only enter a dream; they have to enter a dream within a dream within a dream. That have to go three levels deep into their shared subconscious, with each dream “level” causing them to perceive time moving at different rates.
But it seems their target has been previously trained to “militarize” his dreams, meaning armed guards are waiting for them on every level. And so the dreams become more like the different levels of a first-person shooter: a street level, a hotel level, and a monotonous snowy mountain level straight out of James Bond Goldeneye for N64.
And there’s yet another complication: Years ago, Cobb dabbled in shared dreaming with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). When they returned to the waking world, she refused to believe it was real, killing herself so that she could “wake up”. Cobb took the rap for murder and has been hiding out ever since in countries with no extradition to the United States, longing to see his two children again. Meanwhile, his subconscious projection of Mal is running around in his dreams, becoming a thorn in the sides of the rest of the team.
If they complete this mission, Saito can make a single phone call and clear Cobb’s name and he can see his kids again. This is a curious concept. It’s akin to a CEO like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos making a single call to clear the name of a fugitive like, say, Roman Polanski, who could then board a flight to the U.S. and walk through customs without anyone raising an eyebrow. (It’s not a perfect analogy; Polanski was never accused of murdering anyone.)
That’s about as much of the story as I’m going to recap here, because a) everyone has seen this movie already, and b) I could go on and on describing this overstuffed plot and never hope to cover it all. This is a complicated film, to be sure, but not as smart as it thinks it is. The film’s complexity has often been used as a large stick to wield against its critics—If you don’t appreciate the sublime perfection of Inception, well, you’re just too stupid to understand it.
The truth is, this is not a difficult film to grasp. It spends the first half of its running time explaining the “rules” of the dream world (via endless expository conversations between newbie Ariadne and the rest of the team), and the second half slavishly following those rules. It tells you what it’s going to show you, then it shows you what it just told you. Understanding this movie doesn’t require intelligence, but rather rote memorization.
This is ultimately why the movie never quite comes alive. Having spent so much time explaining and re-explaining itself, and plotting things out to a mathematical certainty, there’s really no time left for anything else. Other than Cobb, no one gets much in the way of character development, making it hard to care what happens to any of them.
Also making it difficult to care are the low, low stakes. We’re ultimately watching an elaborate scheme to convince Murphy’s character to spin off his company into smaller companies. Nolan spent $100 million to make Divestiture: The Movie. There’s a moment in the film where the team thinks they’ve failed in their mission, and the reaction is mainly, “darn it.” Sure, Cobb really, really wants to see his kids, but they’re still young, and there’s no indication that this is his last hope for ever seeing them again. (Cobb’s father-in-law Michael Caine bringing the kids to France for a visit may be unlikely, but not impossible.)
And so, the movie tries to artificially raise the stakes through the concept of “limbo”. No one can die in a dream, but if someone dies in this souped-up multilevel dream, their mind will instead end up in limbo, AKA “unconstructed dream space”, which sounds pretty intimidating. Except, it turns out that it’s not all that hard to get yourself out of limbo, either: It seems to mostly involve the same trick of killing yourself. And while Saito experiences the equivalent of decades in limbo, it doesn’t appear to have any lasting negative psychological effects on him, since he doesn’t skip a beat grabbing his phone to make that all-important phone call.
And even with all the time spent making this movie’s concepts airtight, the story still doesn’t add up. I can easily suspend my disbelief and accept the existence of a Whatever Device that can instantly sedate people and create a shared dream experience. But within the dream, there’s a duplicate of this device, and the characters must connect themselves to the dream version of the device in order to be sedated again and enter a deeper level of the dream.
How does this work, exactly? A device in a dream can only work through the power of subconscious suggestion. It works because the dreaming mind believes that it works. But we’re dealing with a group of individuals who are aware that they’re in a dream. How could a machine in a dream possibly work the same way as a machine in real life?
At one point, the mission is thrown into serious jeopardy when Saito is shot. He’s slowly bleeding to death. How is this even possible? If I’m shot in a dream (despite never having been shot in real life), my mind might convince itself that I’m bleeding out, and I might slowly “die” in the dream. But again, Saito is fully aware that he’s in a dream. Can’t he simply tell himself that he’s not bleeding, or that he wasn’t even shot in the first place?
And if he can’t convince himself he’s not dying, then… why does it take so long for him to die? Why doesn’t he die instantly? What’s causing him to linger for as long as he does?
The only explanation for all of this is that, in the universe of Inception, people and objects somehow have a physical presence inside of a dream. The dream body has dream organs and dream blood pumping through its dream veins. The dream gun has dream bullets that can pierce those dream organs. And when you dream, your unconscious mind can contain an entire city populated with living, breathing people, even in the parts of the city you never actually see in your dream. It’s complete hogwash, but it’s the only way the movie works.
And the intriguing notion that you can consciously change your surroundings, even in someone else’s dream, is mentioned and quickly forgotten. At one point, Eames utters the now-famous, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” and pulls a grenade launcher out of Hammerspace. But nothing like this happens again. Why not dream up a tactical nuke and completely obliterate the bad guys? Why not dream up super-advanced technology that doesn’t even exist? Like, say, a portable skin-graft machine to instantly heal Saito’s wound?
This is hand-waved away with the explanation that you can’t change too many things in someone else’s dream, otherwise the person’s subconscious will attack you. But the target’s subconscious is already shooting at them. How much worse could it get?
You might be saying to yourself that this is all Fridge Logic. As in, plot holes that don’t occur to you until long after the movie’s over. No film, especially a high-concept one like this, is ever going to have bulletproof logic. But even while watching this film for the first time, I could feel that things weren’t adding up, even if I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was missing. What I was experiencing was the result of a filmmaker trying too hard to do too much, and losing sight of what a movie’s supposed to do: tell a compelling story.
It’s obvious Nolan saw The Matrix and decided he really wanted to make a movie just like it. But to avoid being accused of ripping off that movie, he replaced the virtual reality simulation with shared dreaming, thus removing the key element that made The Matrix internally consistent.
The “dreaming” in this movie certainly seems more like a VR simulation than dreaming, at least as most of us experience it. Other than a few minor bits of strangeness, like the sudden appearance of a train barreling down a city street, the dream levels are completely ordinary and unremarkable. And after all the exposition and rule-building and Paris folding in on itself, it’s a huge letdown to get routine shootouts with anonymous goons that could just as easily have happened in any other heist film. Was it really that hard to come up with more creative and visually compelling dream worlds, especially with the massive budget Inception had?
And then there’s the ending with Cobb’s spinning top, which I doubt needs any explanation, since it was the subject of incessant discussion after the movie’s release. But I can’t think of a more predictable way to end this thing. I was actually waiting the entire film for some type of “what you thought was the real world is actually a dream” plot twist, and was disappointed that it didn’t happen until the very final shot.
I will give the film credit, in that it has one sequence that’s actually engrossing. There’s a flashback sequence where we learn about Dom and Mal’s time in limbo together, which felt like 70 years to them, but in reality happened in one afternoon. It’s the only part of the movie with any heart, and one of the most emotional segments in any Nolan film. This is the movie he should have made: a married couple experiment with shared dreaming, end up experiencing the equivalent of a lifetime together, and then have to deal with the psychological consequences of returning to the real world. But I doubt a metaphysical sci-fi romance would have appealed much to Batman fans.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the score, especially since it’s still being imitated in other movies and trailers to this very day. It’s not hard to see why: they could have played Hans Zimmer’s music underneath DiCaprio eating a bowl of Cheerios, and it would still come off as tense and exciting. But one has to wonder if Inception would have worked at all without Zimmer’s score.
Unfortunately, Nolan’s worst tendencies are only being encouraged by the huge amounts of money his movies make. As a film buff, one is sort of obligated to see his movies, primarily because they’re Big and Important these days. But to me, they’re not enjoyable. I actually had some hope, despite all I’ve said above, that his latest Interstellar would actually work on some human, emotional level, but the early reviews, while mostly positive, suggest it’s more of the same.
Yes, an overambitious movie like this one is still far preferable to all the generic comic book movies getting cranked out these days. And yes, there’s no question Inception is technically impressive. Getting all the dream levels to sync up perfectly is surely a modern marvel of editing. So give Nolan a medal, already. To me, films should be more than academic exercises, and Inception is a movie primarily about its own arbitrary rules, and not much else.