By Nicholas Nicastro
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
visualsthe 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
Now you'd think you wouldn't need
all this fancy psychotech just to make somebody believe your crazy idea
is theirsartists 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 accessiblethereby 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 Matrixyet 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
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 speedssomething
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 clearit'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
Nicholas Nicastro at his Facebook author's page, Books by Nicholas
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