"Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange."Dom Cobb in Inception (2010)
I had a dream, and in that dream, Inception is the best movie ever made in the history of cinema. It was going to disassemble all my conceptions and rebuild my world from the foundation up. It was going to embed itself intractably within the subconscious mind of pop culture, forever dividing the industry and the art of filmmaking into two halves: pre- and post-Inception.
That dream did not crystallise. The Inception of the real, conscious world is a distant nighttime wail from the Inception of my dream.
That, in the shell of a nut (and I do mean "nut" in more than one sense of the word), is the process I undergo every time I anticipate a film which I have chosen to start loving before having even seen it. Wouldn't that be tantamount to believing the over-hype? More pertinently, wouldn't that ruin a film for myself? I don't buy that. The trick is to compartmentalise - the same way Christopher Nolan compartmentalised the unconscious mind into distinct levels of dreamscape in this latest film of his; all layered like Viennetta and bleeding cream into one another. My expectations coloured my enjoyment of Inception - that is unavoidable - but I was careful enough to not let it detract anything from the experience. And what a grand experience it was!
I noticed how much this resembles the Joker poster of The Dark Knight.
And with that out of the way, let me just say that Inception is the best film I've seen since Nolan's own The Dark Knight. It will never match up to the Inception of my dream, but if the film had taught me anything, it's that buried somewhere deep inside my head lives the existence of an ideal which is just as real as the real thing. But it should never have a place in my waking life.
It's difficult to shoehorn Inception into any one genre because its nebulosity defies categorisation. Nolan has cleverly framed a high concept film which the average moviegoer would otherwise balk at seeing into the highly engaging, highly grounded procedural of a heist flick. A reverse heist flick, at that. The premise tells of a world where it's possible to break into people's dreams to steal their secrets, already a fascinating notion on its own, but the writer-director went one step further: how does one go about placing an idea into someone's mind, and convincing that someone to believe that the genesis, the inspiration, the inception of that idea was his alone? You can't fake true inspiration, a character said. It is impossible. The human mind would be immediately alerted to the insertion of a foreign thought.
Like the Joker's backstory (or the lack of a consistent one, rather) in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan prudently avoided explaining the tech behind it all in Inception, further smudging the line between science fiction and fantasy. He isn't one of those artists who are so enamoured by his own ideas that he insists on burying us with intrusive details that would do the story disservice rather than serve it. The innocuously unnamed sedatives used in the technique seems to be more alchemy than pharmacology. The sharing of dreams is facilitated by a briefcase with a single, cartoonishly large button in its centre and what looks like wires attached to intravenous needles. Riiight.
But one does not question dream logic, as Cobb pointed out. I suppose the same applies to mindscrewy films about dreams as well.
I don't recommend reading the rest of this review if you haven't seen the film, but 9 out of 10 critics agree that this is not a picture that can be easily spoiled without going through a blow by blow account of the entire story.
The Dream Team.
"Assemble your team, Mr Cobb," said Saito, the ridiculously rich businessguy financing the caper. Cheesy, but charming.
The ensemble that our real-life Saito, Nolan, put together with the wealth of his reputation, talent and vision includes Leonardo diCaprio in the lead, supported closely by Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy along with my two absolute favourite thespians of my generation; Ellen Page (Hard Candy, Juno) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, (500) Days of Summer). It is a veritable dream team come true. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.
The emotional anchor of the story is Dom Cobb's, woven seamlessly into the fabric of the present con job. Cobb's an "extractor" skilled in the art of oneiric corporate espionage and is haunted by the shade of a past which he couldn't let go since Shutter Island. There's the intriguing mystery of his wife, Mal, who frequently intrudes in and sabotages his missions like a recurring nightmare and does it with all the sensual panache of an ax-crazy snubbed lover. Mal means 'wrong' or 'wicked' in French, so take of that what you will. While Leo was effective and suitably tortured in his role, I found that it was Marion Cotillard who always steal the scenes they were in. I was genuinely terrified of her. Her eyes were abyssal, chilling and dead. The wintry rasp in her voice was seductive but her words were fractured by a world of tragedy. It's troubling how inhuman she appears to be.
That blemish on her forehead also kept stealing every scene she's in. I wish they would just airbrush it.
Ellen Page plays the prodigious newbie "architect", Ariadne, and her name is so deliberate that it must refer to the Ariadne who aided Theseus in navigating the Minotaur's labyrinth of Greek mythology - except, instead of solving mazes, Nolan's Ariadne designs them... in people's heads to fool and beguile them, and to seduce them into surrendering their secrets. Being new to the game, Ariadne also happens to be the audience surrogate and is the receiving end of most of the exposition belted out by Cobb as he explains the seemingly never ending list of rules governing the dream state during her training - and I'm usually not so forgiving when filmmakers do this, but the subject matter was so engrossing that I did not feel like I was being info-dumped on at all.
Still, I am feeling a bit peeved at how underused Ellen Page's talents are in this film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Arthur, Cobb's second-in-command and "point man", whatever that means. As far as I can tell, his role in the team is to cut a dapper figure in his meticulously tailored outfit in Hotel Zero-G while doing insanely cool things like battling imaginary henchpersons, defying the laws of physics and kissing Ellen Page (I am currently torn between my man-love and hatred for him). He also showed great tomfoolish dynamics with the "forger", Eames (Tom Hardy), who could physically impersonate anyone in a dream. The two of them were the main font of the scant amount of comic relief in this heavy 148 minutes epic and I am happy to report that they were ably assisted by Eames' British accent.
"You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."
said Eame's British accent conversationally while pulling a grenade launcher out of nowhere.
Cillian Murphy is Robert Fischer, Jr., the "mark" of Team Cobb's con and I felt that his feminine, boyish good looks are particularly suited to portraying the seemingly gullible heir to the empire of an international energy magnate targeted for what is essentially mind-rape. His backstory of estrangement from his father serves as a crucial fulcrum in the inceptionists' plan, and his big emotional finale at an alleged hospital was to me, the most heartfelt scene in this entire movie.
The same can't be said for Ken Watanabe's emotional moment which was not so much his fault as it was the writers'. If you ask me, his subplot should have been cut to make room for more of the special effects extravaganza. In all other instances, he's terribly engaging as the amiable, Mephistophelean Saito - though sometimes, the motivations for some of his actions are either unclear or make no damn sense.
"I don't need to make sense! I have MONEY!!!"
The Dream Theme.
Christopher Nolan is a proven master of cinematic mindfuckery. In 2000, he blew the world's collective mind with Memento, a psychological thriller involving a man with anterograde amnesia. Two years later, he came back with another brainblender, Insomnia, which I have yet to see (a deficiency I plan to remedy posthaste). Most notably in 2007, we gazed into the psyche of an enduring fictional poster boy for insanity through Nolan's eyes in what would be his greatest film to date, The Dark Knight. He is a genius and in his entire directorial career, he had never - not once - birthed a flop.
Inception is his exploration into the nature of dreams informed by his own experience and experiments. It's a screenplay 10 years in the making and I believe it to be his personal dream project. Okay, I'll cut out the lame 'dream' jokes from now on.
Have you noticed that in a dream, you're always thrown into the middle of a scenario knowing precisely where you are, who you are and what the situation is like while having absolutely no recollections of how you got there? Nolan did, and he subtly drew comparisons between that and the nature of filmmaking when he cut from the university to Cobb and Ariadne dining alfresco outside a Parisian café. Cobb asked if Ariadne remember how she got there. With a start, she realised that she doesn't and realised that she's in a dream while I, in the audience, was jerked to the same realisation. We are so used to movies jumping from sequence to sequence that we no longer even notice the breaks in the continuity of the story. The way Nolan drew attention to it actually elicited a quiet "Oh shit, that's fucking cool!" from me.
Another clever element is the incorporation of outside stimulus in dreams, what the characters in the film refer to as a "kick". Music were used to synchronise the actions of the team through the different layers of subconsciousness. Dousing someone in a bathtube floods the dreamscape, "kicking" the person awake. If the body is free falling, the dreamer would suddenly find himself free of the constraints of gravity in the dream.
And that made for one of the most awesome fight sequences I have ever seen. Arthur's function in the party suddenly became clear to me. "Point man" means "bad ass kicker of asses"!
The emancipation of logical geometry in dreams also allowed Arthur to get behind one of the many anonymous bad guys chasing him down a stairwell by using a variation of the Penrose stairs, a specialty of his which he demonstrated earlier to Ariadne. My jaw promptly dropped on the floor and bounced down the theatre's aisle at that. It seems to me that Gordon-Levitt is the vehicle for most of the niftiest action scenes in Inception, and got to say what is, to my memory, the movie's single coolest line: "How do I drop you without gravity?"
Of course, this being a sci-fi actioner, Nolan outright invented a couple of dream tropes to enhance the cinematic experience - namely, the concept that your unconscious mind populates your dreams with "projections" that would protect your mind from invasion like some kind of mental immune system - who would have thought that our subconscious mind can be so violent? The other thing he brought to the film is the proposition that 5 minutes of real time is equal to an hour of dream time, and an hour of dream time is 12 hours in a dream within a dream, and so on. He could easily have discarded the entire concept of time but he didn't because there wouldn't be suspense if there's no clock to beat, don't you think?
A lot of critics have pointed out that Nolan's excessive eye for detail have impeded his conception of truly chaotic and dreamlike visuals here. I agree to an extent, but I would argue that some degree of sobriety and order is essential for Cobb's company to operate in and it would be in their interest to have Ariadne's keep her designs relatively sensible. Though, I must confess that I too felt that my hunger for even more bizarrchitectural scenes and impossible mind candies was far from being sated. Oftentimes, I felt far more reminded of the punctiliously constructed mega-set in Synecdoche, New York than I was of a dream.
But we'll always have folding Paris.
"And Nolan stretched out his hand over Paris; and the LORD caused the city to roll over like a bitch." What d'you mean that's not in the Bible?
Oh, did I mention that Hans Zimmer's hair-raising, BOOMING score sent shockwaves through me? It has the potential to be as iconic as what William's compositions is for Star Wars; like a signature everyone can recognise instantly. How can you hear the cello boom and not immediately think of Inception?
Just so everyone knows, this is not as difficult or convoluted a film as everyone have been expecting it to be. The procession of the narrative was, for the major part, linear. With a good night sleep or a cup of java, I'm sure no one with half a brain should have trouble following the plot. There are aspects of this film which will prod at your little grey cells, but don't worry - it's what cerebral entertainment does. That mild headache you'll pick up from Inception is a symptom of your mind expanding its shores.
"If you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination," said Eame's British accent.
So he did. Christopher Nolan performed Inception to near perfection, giving us yet another film which will define this decade. If we're lucky enough - and I suspect we are - his daring and indefatigable imagination will define the next.
The third Batman movie, I'm looking at you.
P.S. Highlight within brackets to reveal spoilers and my thoughts on the closing scene: [I think the top did not stop spinning. The ending felt too neat, and his kids didn't seem to have grown at all. And given the parallels that Nolan had drawn between dreams and movies, is the film meant to be a "dream" to our real world? The film started in media res - it was not clarified how all the characters came into the movie's universe. And the music at the end might be signalling an incoming "kick". You know what this means, don't you? Mal is now in the real world with us.]
P.P.S. As for Cobb's statement that there isn't a lot of legitimate ways to use his skill, he obviously did not watch the 2006 sci-fi anime movie, Paprika.
P.P.P.S. It's a travesty that most theatres in Malaysia snubbed Christopher Nolan's magnum opus on its opening night in favour of showing Eclipse on their biggest screens. It almost makes me want to take to the streets with a hunting rifle and shoot teenage girls.
Has a headful of the most resilient parasite,
k0k s3n w4i