In a recent series in The New York Times, documentarian Errol Morris explored a disease called anosognosia, a term coined by neurologist Joseph Babinski in 1914 that basically refers to a person who suffers from a disability but also lacks an awareness to perceive that suffering. In other words, it’s not that you can’t figure out what’s wrong; you don’t even know there’s a problem. It’s a heady and confusing malady that entangles scientists with philosophers, struggling to understand how someone can both teach their body to adapt to a setback while on another level never admitting that they have one.
It’s this nebulous area between self-deception and idealization that writer-director Christopher Nolan so dazzlingly explores in Inception, a film that’s classifiable as thriller, action, science-fiction, and romance, but is all of these in tilted and inventive ways and so much more than the sum of those uncertain parts. The nature of choice and identity has been central to Nolan’s filmography all along, from the tricky doubling of Following to the shifting realities of Memento, from the cops who construct their own stories in Insomnia to the dueling illusionists of The Prestige. Is it any wonder he was able to do so many amazing things with the Batman franchise, turning a cartoon about a pissed-off WASP in foam rubber into something grand and terrible and obsessed with the effects of our causes? His latest film returns to the daring and challenging heights of his early work, as he he wrestles once more with the demons that haunt us and the lengths to which we go to forget them.
Nolan’s territory this time is the world of dreams, and it’s the latest testament to his skills as a filmmaker that his movie is inherently dreamlike in the best way: You understand the world completely the moment it’s presented, even though it bears little or no resemblance to reality as you know it. The dialogue is blunt but never dumb, and compounded with the action it’s enough to instantly clue you in to things that take much longer to explain in other ways. Namely: Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the leader of a team of specialized operatives able to move together through a person’s (often lucidly) dreaming subconscious in order to extract information. The hardware with which they achieve these awesome ends is wisely never discussed in detail; remembering Clarke’s words that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Nolan simply presents a team of people who use sleep-inducing chemicals and a small box with wires and tubes inserted into their arms that allow them to enter a shared dream-space together. The opening sequence is the first of many throughout the film that are gorgeously and almost flawlessly done, as Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) work to infiltrate the mind of Saito (Ken Watanabe) to retrieve classified knowledge. As the dream breaks up, the environment shatters and torques in ways that underscore a dream’s no-nonsense way of violating the laws of physics. Nolan’s dream worlds are fantastically rendered but only used in service of the greater narrative, i.e., every stunning shot (water shooting into a building through the windows and flowing up to the ceiling) is connected with a tangible story aspect (the dreamer was dunked in a tank of water to return to a waking state, thus creating water images before the whole thing disappeared).
Saito then decides to use Cobb and his team for his own ends, hiring them to do something that most people say can’t be done: inception. Instead of entering another person’s subconscious to retrieve information, Saito wants them to plant an idea and let it grow. His target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of the dying Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) and heir to a considerable fortune when he inherits his father’s company, which is in direct competition with Saito’s. In exchange for artificially inspiring Saito’s rival to break up his own empire, Saito promises to reward Cobb’s team handsomely and send Cobb back to the home he hasn’t seen in years.
Why Cobb can’t go home — why he is who he is — is a discovery best left for each viewer to make, though it involves his former love, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in ingenious ways. The film is primarily concerned with the planning and execution of a heist, and Nolan wisely keeps the action moving along at a tight clip for most of the 148-minute run time. One of the screenplay’s strengths is that it never lets the more fanciful aspects overrun what’s essentially a story of a con man putting together one last big job so he can get home, or the fact that said job is basically just subliminally inspired asset stripping. Cobb assembles his team, including Arthur as the point man; Eames (Tom Hardy) as a forger and idea man; Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as the chemist responsible for the cocktails that will get them under; and Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the architect. It’s Ariadne’s job to mentally design the dream worlds in which the others will work and through which they’ll guide a dreaming but unaware Fischer to bend to their will.
The introduction of Ariadne allows for the kind of sequence at which Nolan excels: the narrated instruction manual. Watching her experiment with different ideas for landscapes, constantly moving buildings and reshaping the world with the glee of a god, you remember how amazing it was to hear Leonard Shelby tell you all about his world devoid of memories, or to see Bruce Wayne rhapsodize about the need to become something greater than himself. Nolan is an expert not just at building realities but at communicating the excitement of creation. Ariadne, named for the figure in Greek mythology who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth, builds amazing worlds on a massive scale, and Nolan’s globe-hopping location shoot provides plenty of backdrops that feel plucked from the director’s imagination.
Nolan’s always been skilled at using music and light to his advantage, too, and the score and visuals are breathtaking here. Hans Zimmer (who worked with Nolan on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) has created a propulsive score that’s heavily electronic but still symphonic, full of minor twists and paced just quick enough to never let you rest. His percussive scores for the Batman movies mimicked the sound of flapping wings, and the music here has hints of ticking watches and thudding hearts to match the characters’ descent into their own minds. The movie is scored almost wall to wall, which heightens the dramatic impact of the key moments when Nolan drops the sound and focuses on a specific action. One such instance is the first time Cobb’s team descends into Fischer’s dreams, and the music-free sequence lands like a gut punch. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is equally evocative. The compositions are often painterly in their balance of light and texture, and the camera movements underscore the emotion of the scene — e.g., a static shot bobs just a bit, as if floating, when Cobb sees something he shouldn’t in a dream — in subtle but strong ways.
Which is not, I should add here, to say that the film is perfect. Nolan’s screenplay, though fresh and effective, still hits a few structural bumps and shows thin in places, as potential holes are left open and story ends left loose. What’s more, Eames is the only one to get any dialogue resembling levity, which means that his punch lines feel a bit jarring in the context of such a relentlessly brooding film. There’s an often spiritual rigidity to Cobb and the rest that makes them feel at times not so much like people as pieces moved around a chess board. Nolan is exceptional at putting them where they need to be, but not always successful at letting them feel like they got there on their own. The film’s pressing darkness works best when his characters remember the light.
Yet as real as these flaws are, they’re outweighed by an overwhelmingly astonishing movie experience. DiCaprio is the perfect anchor for the cast: He’s become a master at playing characters driven by frustration and desperation to do dangerous things, and at 35 he’s fully a man, long shed of the teen heartthrob label that threatened to derail what’s become a fantastic career. Cobb is haunted by the memory of Mal to the point where he can’t even acknowledge that he’s got a problem, which places him with Leonard, Bruce, and the rest of Nolan’s collection of self-deluding heroes. Gordon-Levitt makes a good sidekick, though there’s the feeling he’s pushing his natural tenor into the baritone range in an attempt to sound, well, like the man DiCaprio’s become. Hardy, probably best known stateside for “Band of Brothers,” is the quintessential rogue, while Cotillard is heartbreaking in a role that provides the emotional core of the story.
Inception is all about the unknown unknowns, those damning blind spots that allow us to live without knowing we’re dying. Nolan has constructed an elaborate maze, a puzzle for his characters and viewers to run through over and over in a search for truth and redemption. The film is a thing of cold and sweeping beauty, wonderfully rendered and constantly engaging. Like all good dreams, it’s over too quickly.