I have it under control.

I flatter myself I can judge a film from the trailer, but I got it wrong in this case. It looked like a bunch of fancy special effects strung together with some half-baked premise about hacking people’s dreams. I expected tedious chase scenes, endless explosions, and a general spectacle of death and destruction.

Then all of a sudden laudatory reviews appeared (we’ll skip naming names), so I went all out and watched it at the IMAX (not in 3D) to ensure maximum impact. A good decison: the film is a visual feast with a heady Hans Zimmer music score, and demands a huge screen and several thousand speakers to do it justice. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances, against some stiff competition: he knows how to draw you into the character’s soul, but he can do Indiana Jones too when the moment calls for it.

As far as the story goes, the first thing to say is that it’s bloody hard work making sense of it all. There were numerous key points I didn’t get until Francis, 13, explained them in the car going home. But we’d both need to see it again to understand everything. And we probably will: a good marketing ploy, to be sure, but it only works if the audience cares enough in the first place.

That’s assuming the story is all graspable. Should we expect these dreams to be fully intelligible anyway? In practice, it appears so — the collaborators who wrote the synopsis on Wikipedia have sketched the plot without resorting to ‘Then, inexplicably…’. I think it’s intended to be explicable too, at least insofar as a series of Escher stairs is explicable. This is proper science fiction, in the sense that every phenomenon and connection is properly thought through. It’s even possible that the film is proposing a science of dreams that makes them intelligible, as a first step to controlling them.

The Wikipedia entry summarises some unfavourable reviews which seem to me to be attacking Inception just for not being a different film. Well, it could have been a remake of The Wizard of Oz or a Buñuel film, but Christopher Palmer happens to have chosen the science fiction thriller genre, and his creation should be judged on that basis. If my above interpretation is right, then he has banished that mainstay of art cinema, the surreal dream sequence with its symbols and apparitions, in favour of a mechanistic process that can be described by science and shaped by, for example, architects. The diligent viewer should be able to re-order it like a Rubik cube, or negotiate it like the mazes that young Ariadne is asked to construct in her job interview.

I’m not a science fiction aficionado, but I found that aspect pretty satisfying. The film asks the question: what if we could actually put things into our dreams, or other people’s dreams, for whatever purpose? This is not the same thing as reading dreams or extracting information from them — that technology, ‘extraction’, is old hat, and the chief protagonist, Mr Cobb, is a professional practitioner. Actually, the idea of implanting some imperative in a person’s mind for nefarious purposes is a bit familiar — I’m thinking of the baseballer programmed to kill the Queen in The Naked Gun, and there have doubtless been more serious versions (similar things happened in episodes of Get Smart and Gilligan’s Island). But inception is more sophisticated than creating a human time-bomb through hypnosis: the key to changing a person’s basic orientation to the world (to coin a phrase) is to make them believe it was their own idea.

Occasionally I was afraid that the ‘action’ episodes would overpower the dream theme, but by and large the balance was maintained well. As David Thompson puts it:

Above all, treasure the film’s serene lack of exhausting violence or ingenious cruelty. Yes, there is action aplenty, with car-chases and gun-battles, all edited with insolent speed, as if to admit that we all know a chase and a shoot-out are just familiar riffs, shaggy dog stories, the tunes of nostalgia, like Edith Piaf.

In any case, these days I’m so grateful to see a thriller that isn’t made for fifteen-year-old boys that I don’t care how it treats its theme. Where most Hollywood films are killed by their lack of artistic integrity, Inception has integrity in spades. There are no sub-plots or unnecessary romances. Just one love story that’s both poignant and integral to the story. Driven by guilt and loss, Cobb keeps his wife alive in his dreams; this experimentation has helped him develop the tools for the ambitious business espionage operation, but causes trouble as his own dreams spill over into the shared dreams of the mission.

Nor are there any special effects displays that are not integral to the story. Everything weird and wonderful that occurs adheres to the rules of the game, and is anchored in the ordinary experiences of the characters — and their emotions. In short, although the story has many strange twists, everything is for a purpose, and few ideas are introduced without being developed conscientiously. What drives a heist movie is the things that go wrong. But the things that go wrong in this story are not arbitrary: they serve as windows on Nolan’s intriguing and surprisingly robust vision of shared and layered dreams. For example, Cobb’s ingenious scheme almost comes to grief because, as we discover, he has broken his own rules by creating a private dream world based on his specific memories. It also turns out that a person’s dreams can be ‘armed’ against extractors, in this case with gun-toting security guards and runaway trains that almost foil the mission.

Indeed, for me the best special effects aren’t the bending cityscapes and exploding buildings, but the idiosyncratic and silly ideas. The scene where Arthur has to bind his sleeping gang into a parcel, together with the equipment, and guide them down the gravity-free hotel corridor to the lift shaft so they’ll all fall to earth at the same time — is pure Kubrick.

Paul Byrnes sums it up: ‘This is the intellectually tantalising movie The Matrix wanted to be: an action adventure for the brain as well as the eyes.’ Best of all, the film offers something for the economist, the basic motivation of the escapade being a strike against monopoly.

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13 years ago

Another thriller that isn’t made for 15 boys is Roman Polanski’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ which I’ve just seen at the Melbourne Film festival. A ghost writer hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister (many pointers in the direction of Tony Blair) uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy. An excellent slow but steady suspense film reminiscent of Hitchcock.

13 years ago

I hadn’t heard of this film until I read your review, but it inspired me to go out first thing this morning and see it. Here I am fresh back, head still reeling with questions about where that plane took off from, how Mr. Saito knew the inception worked, and where did reality start in the beginning. Wish I’d had Francis there to explain things to me too. But it was a very satisfying film to watch, and the logic of the premise extremely plausible once you make that “leap of faith” that it is possible to enter other people’s dreams. And it was thought-provoking; I came away wondering what essential truths I’d chosen to lock away in my own sub-comscious.

I’ll have to think about it all some more…

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
13 years ago

Christopher Nolan is a fine director – his “Batman: The Dark Knight” certainly moved the Batman action franchise in a more philosophical direction.

The film definitely had a lot you could wrestle with – lots of psychoanalytic tropes, mythological references, and as you mentioned the soundscape really added to the experience. Also as you mentioned for all the visual effects, they were executed with a control and precision that kepts them in a context that served the narrative. Mighty impressed.