Altered states

DiCaprio and co. manipulate thematic fetishes like a dream of Mission Impossible envisioned by Phillip K. Dick

Jul 21, 2010 at 12:00 am

"... the smallest idea is a resilient virus, it can grow to define or destroy you."

Cobb from Christopher Nolan's Inception

Puzzle boxes and psychological defect are Christopher Nolan's stock and trade. From Memento to The Prestige to The Dark Knight, the writer-director has cleverly constructed and explored an ongoing labyrinth of intellectual and thematic conceits, but he often neglects the emotional drama that fuels a good narrative. It's not that his clockwork scripts didn't attend to the emotions of his protagonists; it's that they didn't connect. Nolan's ability to deconstruct, interconnect and exploit his thematic fetishes is truly impressive. But much like the later work of Kubrick, it's been hard to feel moved by the characters and situations he's created. The heart longs for what the brain has been gifted.

Inception tries really hard to compensate for Nolan's past iciness. I mean, how much more poignant can you get than an estranged father longing to see his children's faces again while mourning the tragic death of his wife, a death he may have had a hand in? And yet, those are the aspects of Inception that resonate least. They are there, haunting the margins of Nolan's multi-layered meditation on the subconscious, but they never fully penetrate. So, while there's little doubt audiences will be pulled into the prismatic virtuosity of Inception, it's the emotional journey that lacks depth.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio mostly repeating the character he played in Shutter Island) is the father in question. He is a psychic bank robber of sorts, able to enter and manipulate the dreams of others in order to extract important information. When a Japanese executive (Ken Watanabe) offers him the means to reunite with his kids in exchange for implanting an idea in a rival's subconscious (something no one has done successfully), he accepts and gathers together his crew — or dream team, if you will. There's his pragmatic partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), master of deception Eames (Hardy), chemistry whiz Yusuf (Rao) and newbie dream architect Ariadne (Juno's Ellen Page). Constructed like a heist or elaborate con, the quartet (along with Watanabe) concocts a plan that involves building dreams within dreams within dreams within Cobb's target's psyche. And then, even deeper, they venture into a psychological limbo-like state of the unconscious that hovers close to madness.

Always looking for a thematic parallel, Nolan casts Cobb's target, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), as a son desperately seeking emotional closure with his recently deceased industrialist dad. But only in dreams can he find the love and affirmation he was denied in life. Does this suggest Cobb's final fate or a mirror reality of the solace our protagonist is seeking? Is solace in the dream world any less valid than the solace found in reality if you can't tell the difference between the two? It's potentially meaty stuff, but Nolan only hints at, rather than investigates, this conundrum. Or are we getting a little too Philosophy 101 here?

At its core, Inception is Mission Impossible as envisioned by Philip K. Dick with a bit of The Sting thrown in for good measure. Everything's a con or a mindfuck, where dreams fold into each other like some Jungian nesting doll. And it's all pretty thrilling. A city folds in on itself, freight trains blast down city streets, and the finale is a perfectly paced interweaving of action sequences where zero-g combat, a snowbound assault and a car chase take place in different time frames. Few filmmakers would dare to attempt such a narrative challenge, no less succeed.

And yet, as conceived by Nolan, Inception's dreamscapes are taken from cinema rather than the psyche. Everything from The Matrix to Angel Heart to Her Majesty's Secret Service becomes a template for the subconscious. Where are the surreal tangents and sudden shifts in reality? Where are the sexual provocations? The notion that movies are a form of collective dreaming is not new, but Nolan's approach is over-serious and a tad sterile. Even smoldering Marion Cotillard (as Cobb's wife) is neutered of carnality. We're in the world of dreams. Where's the sense of fun? Everything is so precisely engineered with clever narrative trapdoors and hidden secrets that it's been shorn of spirituality, eroticism and spontaneity.

The virtue of Inception is that it gives you much to ponder. The problem with Inception is it gives you little to feel. Nolan's a director who acknowledges emotions rather than explores them. His characters are chess pieces; crafted to move around whatever fantastical Escher-like landscape he's concocted. No one exemplifies this better than Page's sexless Ariadne. As a stand-in for the audience, she becomes the necessary conduit for Nolan's elaborate expositions. As a character, however, she is devoid of anything more sophisticated than curiosity and concern. What a waste of this terrific young actress.

Despite these shortcomings, Inception is a technically astounding film. As Nolan pulls us through the dizzying layers of his somnolent caper, he has one eye on spectacle and the other on intellectual stimulation. It's rare to find a filmmaker who wants to entertain as much as he wants to provoke contemplation. 

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].