Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page
As the van which is holding the inception team and their mark tumbles, so too does the gravity change in a hallway where Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) is fighting a manifestation of Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious. The two of them come closer to falling up than anyone I’ve ever watched. Arthur runs across the walls, which are sort of halfway between the typical floor and the typical wall. He’s shot from behind, dead-on, and he’s slipping on the floor as his feet hit the wall that would, from our perspective, be on his left hand side; he finds his man, delivers a punch, throws him against the wall, gets on top of him to strike more blows…and then both men are floating in the air. It looks totally unreal, like someone broke physics on the set that morning and didn’t tell anyone about it until it was too late, but it is in fact the result of spectacular set construction and rousing success of imagination. At its best, this is what Inception accomplishes: it is a technical tour de force unmatched by all non-Avatar films this century, in many ways even more impressive for its ability to inspire a reaction of “that’s CGI” or “that can’t be real” for shots that are just that. Later on, that van will go into the water; the shots of the actors “asleep” in the water are not CGI’d at all; they were really in a van in the water. That one’s scarier than the hallway fight, but all the same we’re discussing absolutely sensational camerawork and design, infusing distinctive moods and recognizable hues into the sets.
Inception isn’t quite Blade Runner for the smart 21st Century sci-fi fan, the way we all thought it was when it came out, but in terms of technical prowess and striking visuals, it’s hardly blasphemous to place it in the same sentence as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Like Blade Runner (here I go again), Inception is masterful at creating just as much as we need to understand about the world it builds. It hardly matters if Inception has a college freshman’s understanding of psychology or if its understanding of dreams is even more fraught with weirdness. (Wesley Morris, who is always right, has the last word on how facile Inception is at heart: “Nolan’s vision is incomparably vast: With him the surfaces go on forever.”) What matters more than anything is that it is fundamentally consistent, that the laws of the universe are obeyed. The suitcase-with-button mechanism for a real corporeal person entering another real corporeal person’s dream and interacting with it defies all possibility in the first place, and no one tries to give an explanation as to how that works. No one needs to, and no one should. It simply provides a visual we need, every bit as necessary as the transition words between paragraphs. The split between the conscious mind and the subconscious is simple, but the film doesn’t cross its wires there, and the way that it uses the subconscious to create Mal (Marion Cotillard) over and over again is fairly reliable. “Limbo” is fairly ridiculous as a concept, but it’s used the same way. Dying to wake up from a dream, beginning in the middle of a dream, using a locked place to keep secrets mentally, extraction, inception…they’ve all become part of our cultural language in much the same way that “replicant” and “blade runner” and “tears in rain” have because their meanings are so consistent with the world that’s been built up by the film. Once more, for the people in the back, Inception is nowhere near being the equal of Blade Runner. But both stand tall in the catalog of non-space opera sci-fi flicks, and for that we can thank the screenwriters.
The great triumph of the screenwriters is the name of the film. One could reasonably think of what Cobb and his team are doing – placing a foreign idea in the mind of an unknowing, unwilling target and hoping that it grows from there – as a particularly rough form of conception rather than inception, seeing as the idea is the result of more than one person. There’s a solid argument that Robert does it all himself, for he is the one who finds his own pinwheel locked away in his own mind, but I would counter by saying that he could not have come up with “his own idea” without the efforts of half a dozen other individuals who have entered his mind. Without them, there would be no pinwheel to find in the first place. Conception as a film title would have been a dramatic failure, though; there’s too much Miracle of Life in that name. Inception, while it is less accurate, turns out to have been the kind of title that rolls off the tongue and inspires interest. Yet for all the loveliness of the name or the smoothness of what could be a totally impenetrable plot, one wishes for a named female character whose name isn’t purely symbolic, as if woman could only be symbols. “Mal” speaks for itself – it’s too much to hope for that Cotillard’s character was named “Mallory” – and Ariadne (Page) has been entwined with mazes since Ancient Greece. One could probably go looking for symbolism in “Dominick Cobb” or “Arthur” or especially “Eames” (Tom Hardy), but no man has a name which so baldly tells us what he’s there for. On the other hand, the women in this movie are more interesting than the men. The rivalry between Arthur and Eames has a little zest to it because its genesis is never explained, and Robert is, if not precisely compelling, much more than the blank slate we might have expected when we first run into him. Cobb is meant to be a man of mystery himself. But I find Mal, whose life is utterly destroyed by her husband, to be a particularly moving person. For one thing, we never actually see her in the same way we can say we’ve seen Cobb or Ariadne; Mal is dead for the entirety of the movie, and what remains of her are Cobb’s subconscious projections and his memories. Our entire perception of her is informed by two men. The first, Cobb, creates her in much the same way that God created Eve from the rib of Adam; if he were to die, then Mal would be vaporized almost totally. (The people who remember her, like Arthur and even her father, played by the man who is father to us all, Michael Caine, aren’t affected by her death in the same way he is. Of course, neither of them can reasonably claim responsibility for her suicide.) During the film, it is revealed that the reason he knows inception is possible is because he…incepted? inceived?…her. As it is in so many Hitchcock movies, it’s difficult not to read a story of violence against women, and especially against women’s bodies, into this film. Mal jumps from a window to her death, lies with her head against railroad tracks waiting for the train to come, and is shot. Even the story she creates to try to force Dom to kill himself with her is one of a massive fight and then a murder. There’s at least one man who can cop to the latter two, but the men live to tell the tale. The only real person – not some subconscious projection – who bites the dust is Mal. And in a movie about two hyper-capitalists and the most grandiose coporate espionage ever conceived, she is the person who creates revulsion when she appears on screen. She is the danger, but at least she is conceptually interesting. One doesn’t mind Ellen Page as the audience surrogate in the film; in truth, I think that the 2010 version of Page is one of the more amiable, trustworthy screen presences we had to choose from back then. Yet the breakdown of “men think, do, and blow things up, women take care of men’s emotions” beat is painfully dull.
In another twenty years, when the ice caps have melted and we have plenty of time on our emergency houseboats to reevaluate movies, I can’t help but think that we’ll look upon Inception fondly as the perfect marriage of corny and uber-serious. The sleek settings of the film and the grand declamations of the cast members are abetted by specialized new jargon and sensational special effects. Who could possibly think of this movie as profound or intellectual? And who could possibly keep themselves from getting sucked into its plot which, if it is nothing else, remains new. Inception is an original, the kind of film that comes around only with the perfect confluence of a bankable director, an eminently bankable cast, and a zeitgeist for the audience which longs for 150 minutes of something which is just a little old but now and again – as it did in that rotating hallway – is totally unique.