Inception

Inception ★★★★½

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster Inception is the pinnacle of big Hollywood filmmaking. It is a bold and inventive film that uses its creativity to inform its use of special effects, not its special effects to inform its creativity. It is undoubtedly a “high concept” film, but (almost deceptively) it is a distillation of the very “simplest version of an idea.” Nolan made his Bourne-ized Bond film, he made his classic heist film; he blew The Matrix out of the water, and proved that the blockbuster does not merely have to be a dumbed-down-to-dull CGI-heavy fest of visual masturbation (though it most certainly has its moments). Ariadne’s (Ellen Page) first shared dream – as the world violently explodes and collapses around her – is the most spectacular use of 2D special effects (and transcends 3D, in fact) because it respects the power of the human nervous system to recognize depth, rather than fool us with visual gimmickry. And the zero-gravity-spiraling hotel-hallway action set-pieces are astounding, setting a new cinematic standard for the use of space and movement in the medium. In short, the visual splendor of the film defines the meaning of cinema as experience (or dream?): a creation “that couldn’t exist in the real world,” an escape inwards.

I’ll go out on a limb to say that not only is Inception Nolan’s masterpiece but it is THE masterpiece of this type of large-scale blockbuster filmmaking. It builds a world with fixed and understandable rules (five dream minutes = one real hour) within an architectural paradox and is structured upon an archetypal concept that, precisely because of its simplicity, builds towards a poignant, powerful emotional catharsis. All the while, Nolan is deconstructing perceptions of reality and the ethereality of memory as a sophisticated and constructed commentary on our relationship with film. Film as escape, film as dream, film as remembrance.

Dom Cobb (a fantastic leading man performance by Leonardo DiCaprio in what is the culmination of his “suicidal-wife/questionable-reality” trilogy [preceded by Revolutionary Road and Shutter Island]) is a dream-infiltration mercenary specialist, who can extract information from targets. Framed for the murder of his wife, he is offered the “last shot” job to get back to his kids. (Stop me if this is starting to sound conventionally redundant because it is.) Cobb is tasked with not extracting an idea, but incepting a notion (predicated on the most basic of narrative devices: “the relationship with the father”) into Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) that will disrupt an energy monopoly. The danger of the heist involves entering dreams within dreams within dreams; the deeper the higher the stakes. Cobb assembles his crack team with long-time partner Arthur (Joseph-Gordon Levitt), new-recruit architect Ariadne, forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao). The plan involves three layers of dreams (that unexpectedly, of course, require an improvised fourth) and play out as a conflagration of spy games, shootouts and car/van chases, snow-covered white-camouflaged all-out action sequences, powerhouse drama and emotional stakes.

Detractors have criticized Nolan for his (over)use of exposition, but it is not as heavy-handed as some may think and is, in fact, concise in its precision and narratively applicable (read: Cobb’s necessary tutelage of Ariadne). Also fantastic are interactions between Hardy and Levitt, exquisitely measured moments of nuanced comedic relief. When Arthur – despite himself – is impressed by Eames’ explanation of self-generated inception, Eames responds: “Your condescension, as always, is much appreciated.” And Arthur, when frustrated by a lack of “specificity” in the plan, the two exchange a glance (in which Eames seems pleasantly surprised by Arthur’s use of the word) that is fantastically punctuated by Levitt’s dead-eyed repeated delivery: “specificity.” Or when, in the first layer of the dream, Eames upstages Arthur’s machine-gun with a grenade launcher, accentuated by the punchline: “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Hans Zimmer’s score is also fantastic: moving, propulsive when it needs to be, foreboding, but it is the structurally-simple – yet affectingly powerful – film-ending climactic track ‘Time’ that resonates so affectingly in the subconscious. A lush string section accompanied by a soft piano number and a slick little electric guitar riff give the film an epic sendoff.

Speaking of which, the ending of Inception has been debated many times over and interpreted in countless ways, stirring overanalyzed and divisive interpretations. Enveloped in the hazy, surreal unreality of Cobb’s jet lag, Nolan’s decision to challenge his audience by infusing the film’s epilogue with an ambiguous coda is an inspired and ballsy thing to do in a big summer blockbuster. Slightly simplistically, the central debate focused on whether or not Cobb had returned to reality or remained dreaming. But the way I see it, that is the wrong debate to have. What matters is that Cobb – within a dream or not – has accepted a reality, his reality. The ambiguity of the ending is its poetry, because even if it is the case that Cobb has accepted the reality of his dreamscape, then “who are we to say otherwise, sir?” Reality is what you make of it, it is a choice (conscious or not), it is “to take a leap of faith,” to believe in something, anything; an acceptance of perception that has always been and always will exist within the mind, be that reality physical or not.

I imagine, upon your deathbed, life might feel but like a half-remembered dream, seemingly gone in the blink of an eye, and all that remains – real or unreal – is memento. The clues to our soul a jumbled amalgamation of experiences we – consciously or otherwise – choose to accept as reality.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Jack, “if you can wake up in a different place, in a different time,” can you wake up in a different reality? The answer – with or without conscious control – is, most assuredly, within us.

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