Note: This review contains very minor spoilers, but major story elements are not revealed about the film.
Yesterday afternoon Jeffery and I drove down near Atlanta to meet Mark and catch a matinee of Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Inception. As I have posted before, Nolan is my favorite living director. The reviews were largely positive even though most everyone agrees the film is somewhat of a challenge to follow. “Cerebral” was a word the critics were throwing around a lot. Along with “mind-blowing.” I had very high expectations that it would be a great in-theater experience, which is the primary reason I saw it in IMAX.
It was all worth it. Nolan did not disappoint in this cleverly constructed labyrinth that races along relentlessly building, transforming into ever greater depth and complexity, filled with great action, effects, sophisticated characters, and a plot that twists back on itself in typical Nolan style.
What is typical Nolan style? Non-linear story telling. Picking previous images or images you haven’t seen yet and ideas from various scenes both established and yet to be shown, and placing them and rearranging them like pieces of a puzzle yet to be connected, as an artist trying to fit the images, feelings, and – yes – ideas (see below) together in unique, increasingly relevant ways. Important details hinted at but revealed fully at unexpected times, sometimes non-sequentially. Powerful music score. Interesting, even captivating, visuals. Ambiguity in virtually all aspects of the story. Intriguing twists. Genuine characters you can empathize with though you wonder sometimes why.
Nolan is not just “cerebral” though Inception is certainly that. In almost all of his films, Nolan affects the viewer not just rationally but emotionally. His films have an unconscious effect in the act of viewing them that lingers as you leave the theater and for days afterwards.
I am that way today in writing this post.
Nolan first caught my eye with the brilliant film Memento. Then came Insomnia, Batman Begins, and The Prestige. His breakthrough in terms of becoming a financial behemoth of a director came in the summer of 2008 with The Dark Knight. Each of these films contain the general elements I outlined above. But, in terms of sheer originality, nothing approached Memento.
Inception pounds your brain with a multitude of concepts and intertwined plot elements set at a rigorous pace. Nolan has crafted a film that hits you (if you not only seek to understand the film but also to observe the effect it attempts to project) at a deeply visceral level. There is a sense of anxiety, love, loss, courage, more tense than suspenseful, a sense of being affected by the film that cannot be neatly rationalized. Nolan does this with his images and an awesome musical score.
While many parts of the film are indeed “thrilling”, Inception becomes a fog in your brain. Your close attention is rewarded with an understanding of just about everything that is happening because Nolan’s script (he wrote the film as well as directed and co-produced it) explains almost everything, but usually only once. Miss it and comprehending the action becomes tougher.
The film moves very quickly at an accelerating pace of images and ideas. The effect of this is to be kind of foggy on your brain, like having a dream yourself. As the images and sounds continue over the course of the almost 2 and ½ hour film they get scrambled due to Nolan’s commitment to beautiful, fragile ambiguity. Like a dream.
That becomes obvious the minute you attempt to explain the film to someone who hasn’t seen it. Or, even better, when you attempt to talk about the film, as Jeffery and I did on the drive back afterwards, and you can’t remember a name or how a certain situation manifested itself. The film’s initial effect is to leave your brain churning through Nolan’s complex puzzles, but on a deeper level, you realize only later that how you have to frame the film in order to discuss it is exactly like trying to share a dream.
That’s fitting because Inception is a about “shared dreaming”, a mild sci-fi concept that is not really explained much outside of how it is experienced. As a viewer you are suddenly, unexpectedly thrust into shared dreaming. You only see its technology later. You just accept that the technology (some kind of apparatus in a metal brief case that is connected to the dreamer by wires that apparently make no incision when pressed into your arm) works. You never really know how. It doesn’t matter.
Unexpectedly exposing the viewer to dreaming in this social manner makes how it happens somewhat irrelevant, freeing Inception from the way most sci-fi type movies might have to explain things. All great sci-fi does not attempt to explain the technology in anything other than a most general sense. Instead, it attempts to narrate how characters act within the reality that the technology supports.
That leaves plenty of time for Nolan to construct what ultimately becomes a contemporary noir-style story about creating dreams within dreams (at least three simultaneously in this case) in order to implant what the film proclaims (in a rare moment of generosity by Nolan, twice) is the most insidious thing to the human person. Not a parasite or a virus or a bacteria but an idea.
Once an idea enters your mind it remains there forever, somewhere. This is Nolan’s metaphysical contention and, in some ways, it is the heart of each of his films.
“James Bond Meets the Matrix” was one critic’s comment. The studio’s marketing tagline was “The Mind is the Scene of the Crime.” I think that the reviewer should have led the marketing effort, though both mantras are equally valid descriptions of the film.
The IMAX sound and screen was definitely worth the extra bucks to see it that way. Hans Zimmer’s musical score should be heard on a 12,000 watt IMAX sound system. Music is the most emotional art and Nolan uses the score to match his sometimes amazing imagery. Cities folding back on themselves. Slow motion gunfight scenes with lots of debris flying in the direction opposite the actor’s projected energy in the shot. Chase sequences through snowy, alpine terrain. The hallway and elevator shaft of a five-star Parisian hotel turn in every direction, the actors often floating through it or fighting on the walls.
In that last sense the film is like The Matrix. But, Inception is very different from the other film and I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the Wachowski brothers influenced Inception, though some of their ground-breaking special effects technology has been used in many films since, including Nolan’s here.
Inception might be Nolan’s best film. I don’t know yet. I am posting this the day after my first viewing. I will have to see it again. For me, great films deserve multiple viewings to fully appreciate. I saw Jaws, Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, Titanic, Memento, Capote among some others 3-6 times over the course of a few weeks when they were first introduced to my life.
It has been years since that has happened so I really welcome Nolan’s film.
Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job in this film. It has been a good year for DiCaprio having performed well in Nolan’s film and in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. In fact, it is an interesting comparison between the two roles. The situations are in some important respects the same for the character in each film but the characters are very different. You get a nice feeling for DiCaprio’s range in the two films. I think he is becoming his generation’s Jack Nicholson.
Whether that is true or not, Nolan is definitely the 21st Century’s Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is one of my top-five favorite directors. His success in film can hardly be disputed. The string of cinematic achievement with Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds (mixed in with some other good films) in the mere span of a decade might not have any equal except for maybe Steven Spielberg.
Nolan hasn’t put a string of films like that together yet, though following The Dark Knight with Inception is certainly a good start. But Nolan is still young and Hitchcock was in his fifties and sixties when he did those films. If Nolan remains productive with a film every year or two he might equal Hitchcock in that regard.
Hitchcock was great with puzzling suspenseful, sometimes frightening films. Nolan’s are equally puzzling but with a more tense and anxious flavor. This is certainly true of Inception. For Nolan, there is always an element of salvation or hope in the protagonist’s quest. Nolan always encases the realization of hope with ambiguity. That’s one thing that makes him fundamentally postmodern.
I won’t attempt to explain Inception, that is really pointless if you haven’t seen it. Though I’m sure it fits tightly together as a rational construct, perhaps a bit flawed I’m not sure yet, what surprised me most was how I responded to the film on an irrational level. It made me uneasy, slightly disoriented while keeping my mind fully engaged and entertained. I felt anxious yet somewhat awe-struck. What better way to define our waking life experience in today’s world? Truly impressive.
I give Inception a 9 on the first viewing. I don’t think I’ll revise the film downward on my second viewing. Is it a 10? I gave Memento a 10 when I first saw it. The Dark Knight got a 9. Both scores held up. Maybe Nolan gets a perfect score from me again. That will depend on subsequent viewings to reenter that which lingers.