by Tony Dayoub
I've been told countless times, "I bet you're analyzing a movie the entire time you're watching it." My response is usually some variation on, "Well, if it's good, if I'm emotionally engaged, my mind is too wrapped up to spend any time picking the movie apart." Christopher Nolan's films are a conundrum then, because I do believe they are good, but I'm often not emotionally engaged, and always picking them apart. In this respect, the polarizing Inception is no different and, in fact, may be the epitome of just such a film.
On the uppermost superficial level, Inception is about Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a master thief of dreams, who takes a crack team of operatives into the psyche of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a multicorporation conglomerate. Only this time, his objective is not to steal an idea but, as the film's title suggests, to implant one. Like in many neo-noirs, Cobb becomes caught up in a labyrinth, only in this case, it's in the dreamscape he enters to execute his heist. Just as the traditional noir antihero is usually undone by a gorgeous femme fatale, his late wife Mal (which literally translates to "bad" in Spanish) fulfills that function here. Mal (Marion Cotillard) always personifies a random, uncontrollable element in Cobb's subconscious, this noir hero's fatal flaw which appears more frequently and with more autonomy as he burrows deeper into his dreams, the ultimate obstacle to the operation he hopes to pull off.
The critical world is divided by Inception, with voices I respect on both sides of the aisle. On the one hand many find the film is all surface and no depth, with interpretations of the puzzle(s) the film poses rather easy to suss out. Jim Emerson is one of the film's leading naysayers, who eloquently balks at the film's failure to truly evoke the feeling of a dream. But until now, I have only found one airtight explanation for the film, by Devin Faraci of CHUD. Not only does he get the rather obvious parallels between Cobb's "dream team" and Nolan's film crew, both mounting their own kind of production by implanting an idea in their respective targets' heads. Faraci is able to convincingly unlock how the true markers of dream logic—overlooked by many of its critics—do exist in the film.
Truthfully, on an instinctual level, these are ideas I was just beginning to grasp while watching Inception. Deliberately operating on a certain plane of detachment (as almost every Nolan film does) Inception is designed to allow the viewer to engage with it the same way one would a brainteaser. But as Bill Ryan points out in a recent post about Mulholland Drive (2001), a different kind of dream movie, there is a certain line one crosses when all of a film's secrets are explained which makes it difficult to enjoy with the same kind of initial enthusiasm. With Nolan's films in particular, the journey is often far more exciting than the resolution. So I find myself quite resistant to unlocking his films on an emotional level, because I'm afraid I might find nothing there.
"Unlock" is a good word, too, because if there's one recurring visual motif in Inception which proves Faraci's claims that Cobb is a cinematic stand-in for Nolan, it is the safe. Safes are everywhere in the dreamscape—whether the kind with digital keypads or larger, vault-like safes—obviously good hiding places for a person's secrets. But let's address the safe on an ur-textual level. For much of the film, Cobb and his dream team are literally descending down into deeper and deeper strata of his consciousness, with each dimension operating under it's own laws of time and physics. Nolan's weakness in the past (most apparent in The Dark Knight) has been maintaining the visual geography for the viewer in his action scenes. In Inception, he and DP Wally Pfister complicate the film with each new layer they add, each a spinning plate which both must keep aloft in the viewer's mind, as the film cuts from one to the other. While this would seem to absolve them from any culpability should they misstep, they never lose us, giving each level their own distinct visual identity predicated on films which I presume hold some influence over Nolan: Glenn Kenny believes the snowy mountaintop battle is a quote from 1964's The Heroes of Telemark, but I can't give Nolan too much credit (he's about my age), so I'll say it's actually a reference to the Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969); the zero-g hallway fight scene is a quote from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the climax—and forgive me for mixing metaphors—as each plate starts crashing down, each mounting revelation of Inception's plot starts to click like the tumblers in a safe, a catharsis for the viewer who still remains actively engaged two-thirds of the way into the film despite the emotional chill which pervades much of it.
It is here where I have to disagree Nolan is the next Kubrick, a misplaced comparison by many who confuse his attempts to pay homage to the venerated director with a true inheritance of Kubrick's artistic legacy. Kubrick's reputation for emotional distance is overblown. See the conclusion of Paths of Glory (1957), the "I am Spartacus scene", the death of HAL in 2001 (or any number of scenes), and tell me there is no pathos. No, if anything, Nolan resembles Brian De Palma (Scarface) in the sense that their is an obvious film scholar at work who approximates the technical virtuosity of his directing idols the way De Palma did Hitchcock's, but who still hasn't found the emotional component necessary to connect with his audience to a degree beyond just that of the commercial with the same consistency as those he apes. Which is fine by me, by the way. It's rare that such artists come along, and certainly, Nolan's ambitions seem grand and focused enough that I have no doubt he'll get there.
Which begs the question, why then, all the anti-Nolan discourse? In this year of cinematic dross, Inception is practically an oasis. So it fails to reach it full potential. How many films don't? But what a spectacular failure. Inception has got even armchair critics talking, arguing, writing. People are being challenged to think. Love Inception or hate it, I'm happy that for at least the next couple of weeks, the mainstream is talking and cinema is part of the conversation.