In one of his final films, master auteur Akira Kurosawa created an anthology of his dreams. The substance of this film, fittingly called Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990), was meditative reflection upon his eighty years of imaginative life. One thing the film’s eight vignettes reveal is Kurosawa’s possession of a surprisingly linear and moralizing subconscious, as if his superego were the official director of his nocturnal reveries.
Kurosawa’s film is just one remarkable example of an often-explored sub-genre—the dream movie. Since the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have recognized that a succession of moving images sutured together bears a distinctive formal kinship with the visions we have while sleeping. Buster Keaton’s comedy Sherlock, Jr. (1924) contains a still unsurpassed depiction of how dreams fuse with cinema. In a more serious vein, akin to Kurosawa’s use of the genre as subconscious autobiography, the newest film by Christopher Nolan explores the dream-film with incredible verve but much less depth. Inception is finally a nifty puzzle box with under-nourished dream theories, spectacular but often-toothless action sequences, and a rich but clumsily developed alternative universe.
Nolan has a knack for selling complex narratives to mass audiences. Where brain wrinkling thrillers like Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) or Erik van Looy’s Memory of a Killer (2003) remain strictly art house fare, Inception is the biggest hit of summer 2010 and a healthy follow-up to his previous movie, The Dark Knight (2008) which is the third highest grossing domestic film of all time. Nolan has often been called a “thinking man’s action director,” which simultaneously discredits action films and thinking men. But, this moniker describes his ability to lure the “shoot ‘em up” crowd in droves while still tantalizing explosion-weary critics.
The premise of Inception is really just one science fiction idea: Someone has invented a machine that allows ingenious, highly skilled people, whose talents miraculously combine engineering, architectural design, neuroscience, gunslinging, and martial arts, to infiltrate other people’s dreams. There in the unconscious these infiltrators may manipulate the dreams, though the degree of manipulation fluctuates considerably and forms one of the many inconsistencies that mar the film’s imagined world. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of an outlawed team paid by mysterious corporate thugs in excellent suits to steal vital trade secrets from competitors. The huge paychecks seem to be only partly for their technical know-how and legal risks. Double and triple crosses, mistaken or switched identities, and psychotic breaks are all occupational hazards for DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the rest of the crew. Additionally, it appears that every dreaming person had watched a Matrix marathon right before bed in order to fill their subconscious with anonymous, well-clothed, well-armed, kung-fu fighters prepared to annihilate our heroes.
I realize that this sort of premise is enough to turn away many serious cinephiles. One friend told me of her “active dislike” of Inception and that just as with the final battle scene in Avatar, she fell asleep during Inception’s major action set-piece. The litmus test here might be deciding how much pleasure you derive from seeing beautiful people diving through the air in slow motion while firing guns in both hands. Against my own best snobbery, I find my tolerance for “cerebral” action thrillers to be embarrassingly high. Nolan’s latest ends up being engaging, sometimes thrilling, and deeply flawed—and I was never tempted to snooze.
One of the key difficulties with science fiction premises is establishing the rules of the world before finding ways to exploit them. Nolan showed that he could maximize this type of structure in The Prestige (2006), where the three parts of a magic trick become a narrative device, a philosophy, and ultimately the distraction which prevents the audience from guessing the secrets of the Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale characters. Inception has a few too many monologues about characters’ motivations and desires and the rules of their sci-fi world. Especially clumsy is the terribly unsubtle, Screenwriting 101 use of Ellen Page’s character as a “window” into DiCaprio’s thoughts and the workings of the dream machines. Additional ham-fisting occurs in her character name, Ariadne, an over-determined, “on the nose” title for a genius architect responsible for building the web-like mazes of the dreams and who assists with clews but is finally abandoned by her leader. Not calling DiCaprio’s character “Theseus” must count as authorial restraint.
The film’s rough edges seem to cry out for another draft at the writing desk, which is a curious fault given that Nolan supposedly has been fiddling with this pet project for a decade. Yet despite these shortcomings, Nolan provides superb payoff for the elaborate premise with an extended action montage that functions on (at least) four separate levels of reality. Characters in one dream are put to sleep so they might enter another and solve a problem in the first—and this process repeats several times. Nolan’s technical skill is unrivalled as he keeps a furious yet not quite incoherent editing scheme alive, juggling several different action sequences. As he ratchets up the intensity and spectacle of each sequence, the number of faceless bad guys, flying bullets, and things going boom reach preposterous levels that undermine their threat—literally, a case of overkill. Nonetheless, this section of the film is expertly designed to get us reaching for several boxes of popcorn at once.
Much has been written about the convolutions of the plot, especially the “ambiguous” ending, as critics like the AV Club’s Tasha Robinson call it. I hesitate to be more explicit about these elements. Even calling the ending “ambiguous” is a kind of spoiler, since there are several components to the narrative’s palimpsest frame, and the end of the movie plays on the viewers’ anticipation that one of these levels will be the last layer of the onion skin. Given the success of this film, as well as the “gasp/groan/what?/c’mon!” response from the row behind me at the final shot, I foresee swarms of internet discussion boards devoted to parsing Inception’s final meaning for years to come. Rather than giving away any more here, I will just say that I think the key to the whole film is Michael Caine’s character who appears briefly and incongruously and is my vote for the plot’s mastermind.1
Inception also succeeds at displaying how a director’s personal interests and pet themes can emerge through the diffusion filter of the Hollywood machine. Nolan’s first feature, Following (1998), was an ultra low-budget thriller about voyeurism and home invasion that gained a great deal of traction from its jigsaw narrative and gestures toward philosophical heft. The struggling writer who is the protagonist in Following gets sucked deeper into spying on his London neighbors when a burglar named Cobb shows him how to steal even more private information through breaking and entering. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception is also called Cobb and is also a metaphysical burglar—one of several references that the current film makes to the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre. The tricky plotting of Nolan’s breakout hit Memento (2000) features a hero with a tortured past and limited short term memory who compensates for his disability by tattooing into his own flesh whatever important information he uncovers in the mystery. Dom Cobb, the hero of Inception, also pursues a mystery with a solution just beyond his imperfect grasp of reality and memory.
Like most action directors today, Nolan is obsessed with neo-Byronic heroes who are dark and brooding, who soldier on carrying sinister and overwhelming secrets, and who are self-destructive yet somehow lovable. Few lead roles for men in Hollywood seem free of these traits, which even crop up in fluff like Avatar or Indiana Jones and kids fare like The Incredibles and Kung Fu Panda. Christopher Nolan’s particular fascination with this character type in everything from Following to Insomnia (2002) made him a perfect choice for the Batman reboot, and his record breaking grosses for The Dark Knight opened the way for Inception, which naturally extends his preoccupations with memory, identity, and audience-goosing. Your overall pleasure with Inception may rest on how engaging you find these themes, how quickly you are willing to swallow the film’s absurdities and infelicities, and the height of your threshold for intricate narrative trickery with orange fireballs accenting the visual décor.
But a question remains: what does this film have to say about dreaming? Perhaps not much at all. David Denby’s complaint in The New Yorker was that Inception “is an astonishment, an engineering feat, and, finally, a folly” because it “exploits dreams as a vehicle for doubling and redoubling action sequences” rather than for some worthier message. For something weightier dealing with dream-life, we have many options: Kurosawa or Luis Bunuel’s surrealism or Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001). As one character (who might just be dreaming) tells another in the Linklater film, you know you’re in for boredom when someone asks if he can narrate a dream he had last night, and Nolan certainly escapes this problem. Nolan may not have given us the lasting richness of Kurosawa, Kubrick, or Bunuel, but his dazzling, multi-layered thrills amount to somewhat more than folly.
Charles Andrews is Assistant Professor of English at Whitworth University.
1. Spoiler-averse readers might want to skip this footnote before seeing the film. Caine’s character apparently pioneered the dream infiltration machine that establishes the film’s plot. He taught DiCaprio how to run its programs and to create the alternative dream fantasy maps where characters walk. This role—the “architect”—is unsuitable for DiCaprio’s damaged psyche and Caine offers Ellen Page as a replacement architect. Caine’s daughter is Marion Cotillard who has married and then “been killed” by DiCaprio. And, most importantly, Caine appears at the airport in the film’s final sequence, somehow back in the United States even though he was presumably unaware of DiCaprio’s plans to travel. Page alludes to the unlikelihood that a man like DiCaprio would be constantly on adventures performing dangerous espionage for anonymous, fantastically wealthy corporations. If there is an outer shell to the convoluted kernel of the film, then Caine is on that outside, pulling DiCaprio’s strings either to heal him or to exact some kind of vengeance.