Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Come Again?
(Inception, 7/26/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

So you're dreaming you're on a beach in Portofino, strolling with Monica Bellucci. You've got your arm around her waist, and you're savoring the memory of Christopher Nolan's psycho-thriller Inception, because in a summer full of dumbed-down movies, it actually seems to have required some thought to put together. You tell her you loved the visuals—the zero-G gymnastics Nolan exploits better than anybody since Kubrick for 2001. You love the image of Paris physically folded upon itself, as seen in the preview. And she agrees, nodding in the wind as she tucks a raven-haired lock behind her ear...
      And yet, something's bothering you. Something that, in the back of your fevered brain, doesn't make sense. You're about to put your finger on it, to share your precious insight, when Monica breathes "Let's go up for a Sambuca, darling." And then you're down in the pillowy white sand, lulled by an anise-favored haze, falling asleep...
      Now you find yourself in Chino State Prison, facing off against a hulking inmate armed with a sharpened icing-funnel. With your fellow prisoners cheering him on, he takes a stab at you, and snarls, "You better have liked Inception, motherf---ker! It's the coolest movie of the summer!" And twisting aside, you find yourself sticking to the guns you never realized you had: no, Inception is not a particularly good movie. Your opponent halts, and with a sneer, demands "Well then, do explain!"
      First let's back up, because it's kind of complicated. Nolan (Memento, Batman Returns) has written a script about a band of industrial spies who steal secrets by tapping into the subconscious minds of their victims. In a nutshell, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, et al. create a dream for their target to "live in", and then, by watching him behave within the artificial dream, learn whatever he's hiding. What they call "inception" is the supposedly more challenging reverse process: inserting an idea into somebody's head, and having him think it is something they thought of themselves. In the story, Leo needs to perform "inception" on the bitter son (Cillian Murphy) of an dying industrial magnate so he can earn the opportunity to go home to his family...or something like that.
      Now you'd think you wouldn't need all this fancy psychotech just to make somebody believe your crazy idea is theirs—artists perform this maneuver all the time when they steal from each other, as does Glenn Beck with his fans. It's called "rhetoric"—otherwise known as "convincing somebody they want something they didn't know they wanted". The technology is about 2500 years old.
      But besides the over-complication of something that's actually pretty common, Inception is possibly the least imaginative dream movie in history. It's supposed to take place in that subconscious place where everything and everybody and every time is instantly accessible—thereby offering Nolan literally infinite storytelling possibilities. Yet the dreamscapes are pretty dull: just contemporary streets, and some kind mountaintop prison you might see in a first-person shooter game. Indeed, there is a whole lot of shooting, as in The Matrix—yet never does a bad guy's gun turn into a latex pool noodle, or does Leo DiCaprio ever find himself pointlessly falling, or any of the other bits of irrationality you might see in a genuine dream. What Nolan calls "collaborative dreaming" is, in fact, just Matrix-like virtual reality, which is not the same thing.
      More troubling, though, is the muddle Inception ultimately makes of its own premise. Too often does the viewer have to take himself out of the action and ask himself, "Now whose dream is this, now?" He wonders, whose "subconscious projection" is actually shooting that Uzi, and why should this even be in question, given the "rules" DiCaprio patiently lays out at the outset? Why, exactly, does somebody dreaming a dream within a dream need to wake up from the dream-within-a-dream if he's awoken from the dream that frames it...?
      No doubt, respect is due for Nolan's ambition. Along with the interesting motif of recursion he sustains through this film, Nolan manages to cross-cut the action between various stories nested within each other, each unfolding at different speeds—something he manages to make much easier to watch than it is to explain here. But the fact remains that, though they didn't make nearly as much money as Inception will, movies like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Nolan's own Memento have done a much better job of getting at real subjectivity, in all its ineffable strangeness.
      Just to be clear—it's not necessary for any movie to reflect the facts of history, or the laws of psychology or physics. That, of course, would be dull. What we should expect is that the script remain self-consistent, following the internal logic it has set for itself. In that sense, Inception is one big cheese, breaking its own rules simply to juice its appeal. The Matrix was a certifiably cool movie that made you think. Nolan has made a too-cool-for-school movie that makes you think "Wait, huh?" And that's not cool.

Contact Nicholas Nicastro at his Facebook author's page, Books by Nicholas Nicastro.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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