It’s possible that, to even come close to comprehending everything that goes on in the bracingly dense “Inception,” one would need to imitate Leonard Shelby, the protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s second feature, “Memento,” and write everything down. It’s not difficult to understand in a general sense what this gargantuan, immaculately made memory thriller is about. But to confidently grasp exactly what’s happening at any given moment, and to perceive how a particular scene links with the ones that come before and after it, might be possible only for those who pulled a perfect SAT score.
Some people are tickled by the challenge of dealing with a work they suspect might be beyond their reach, while perhaps more are inclined to reject something that sustains a furrowed brow and makes them work too hard for too little return. Fortunately, $200 million (I refuse to believe Warner Bros.’ $160 million budget figure) buys a lot in the way of seductive palliatives, such as stupendous special effects and a colorful cast, so it’s not as if customers won’t feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth. One also senses that Nolan is a serious, responsible sort of guy disinclined to jerk the chain of either his financiers or the public; after making a hit on the scale of “The Dark Knight,” some directors would be tempted to follow up with a picture just “for themselves,” something that more often than not results in folly (“The Last Movie,” “Sorcerer,” “Heaven’s Gate,” et al.). But not Nolan, who has set himself the imposing challenge of making a movie to satisfy three distinct constituencies—his “Memento” followers, the wide international audience and himself.
Indeed, the film concerns itself with the penetration of three levels of dreams and, as I see it, makes three principal demands of itself–to function as a thriller, as a melancholy portrait of a man’s attempt to recapture a lost love and as a contemplation of the cinema’s ability to structurally, sensorially and emotionally reproduce or, at a minimum, evoke the dream state.
Unlike the budget, I have no trouble believing that it took Nolan ten years to work out the film’s story, which might deserve to assume the mantle long held by “The Big Sleep” for possessing the most confounding movie plot. In honor of the occasion, and fully acknowledging the possibility of getting too many details wrong, I will happily forgo an extensive attempt to try to recapitulate it. The premise is certainly intriguing: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb (a name that reads as though it should be an anagram for something), a fugitive criminal whose specialty is breaking and entering people’s minds. This clever notion is certainly rife with possibilities—consider such a thief who would steal from the mentally rich and give to the imaginatively impoverished, which could well be an analogy for what Nolan is doing on our behalf—but the film assigns Cobb’s talents to the corporate and financial realm, where much is undeniably at stake.
But the the idea of dream capture is far too simple for Nolan, who forced himself to tell “Memento” in reverse order. Here, he compels Cobb not to extract information from his victim but to implant it, and in such a way that the fellow believes it was his idea. This requires the assemblage of a sizable support team, notably including his factotum (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a forger or fabricator of dream states (Tom Hardy), a designer pharmacist (Dileep Rao) and an architect (Ellen Page), who can fashion dream worlds.
As in a “Mission: Impossible” installment, Cobb, at the instigation his ultra-rich contractor Saito (Ken Watanabe), hops the globe (Japan, Paris, Mombassa, Los Angeles) assembling his crew in preparation for putting the screws on the heir expectant to a vast fortune (Cillian Murphy), all the while exploring visions of how (in the film’s most original effects) the city of Paris might be folded alongside and atop itself, engaging in a motorized gunfight down Wilshire Boulevard and, on some level, experiencing encounters with his wife (Marion Cotillard), possessor of the ominous name of Mal.
Nolan and his editor Lee Smith shuffle this thick deck of developments as dextrously as might Ricky Jay, albeit to an end that produces moderately less gape-jawed astonishment. As actions and developments either parallel each other or are enveloped one dream within another and then another, the relevance of any particular event, such as a death or an awakening, becomes uncertain. I have no clue as to what Gordon-Levitt is attempting to do while climbing around an elevator, nor am I at all clear how the forger and the architect actually do what they do.
What is evident, however, is that the succession of meticulously executed pieces of action cinema encloses a thematic core about lost love that must contain a beating heart to be moving and convey its intended thematic weight. One could ask for no woman more entrancing than Cotillard to embody a romantic ideal or a woman you’d want back, but unfortunately this whole aspect of the film seems like an intellectual conceit rather than a deeply felt impulse; specifically it would seem to be a hybrid of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the near-great James Bond film in which the woman the hero has just married is killed, and “Vertigo,” which so hypnotically explores the possibility of retrieving or reviving a love presumed gone forever. Here, the emotional component feels like just one part of a vast puzzle or game, albeit perhaps the most important piece.
As to replicating the dream state, “Inception” is particularly alert to the nature of the beginnings and ends of dreams, to the rapid and bizarre changes of imagery, to the alarming and abrupt onset of violence and juxtaposed images and to the feel of cutting, or “editing,” in sleeptime reveries. The film does not deal in subconscious or mind-altered visions such as those served up in Salvador Dali paintings or abstract experimental films but, rather, in concrete and essentially realistic images. But these all come quickly and purport to serve specific purposes, so they contain, unlike the plot, meager mystery, little that is inchoate or haunting and nothing that reflects the doubts and fears of a moralist or the soul of an artist. Impeccably made as it is and, like “Vertigo,” blessed with an indispensable score, unquestionably the best thing Hans Zimmer has ever done, “Inception” plays like the film of a brilliant mathematician, scientist or engineer rather than a work by someone who, in another era, would have been a novelist, poet or philosopher. Nolan is a thinker, all right, a very busy explorer of mind functions, but capable merely of diagrams when it comes to the heart and soul.