To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Dreams are the stuff of our own inner cinema. There we are free to deconstruct and reconstruct the stories of our lives, with an inner stream of consciousness that owes less to Faulknerian literary inclinations and more to our biggest waking influence: television and movies. In our dreams we are producers and directors, and sometimes the stars, of a never-ending cinematic story of, if not our lives, the way we subconsciously wish they would be or never could be. In our dreams, others may die, but we never do, always waking up at the moment of impact of the speeding train, the crush of the bullet against our skulls, the endless falling from the precipitous cliff into the somnambular abyss.
Christopher Nolan’s new film Inception plays with the darkness of our inner selves, the way his previous films like Memento and The Dark Knight have done, but in a more subversive way because the stuff dreams are made of is not even imbued with a hint of salvation, unless it comes in the form of delusion that may or may not be implanted by ourselves or others.
Throughout the history of cinema, we have seen various uses of the “dream” as being an integral part of the sinews and organs of the body film, a manifest destiny if you will of where films could take us if we were only brave enough to lay bare the inner workings of our minds. Orson Welles once said that film is a ribbon of dreams, and that could be found in his best cinematic work: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the hallucinogenic and darkly frightening Touch of Evil. Still in and all, this dark and twisted world could well spring from nightmares as much as from dreaming.
Inception challenges the viewer in ways that are daring, intelligent, and slightly dangerous. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man who has the ability to steal or “extract” information, sometimes priceless, from people’s minds during sleep. This is something that makes him like a dream thief, but also someone who uses this ability to build a clientele and a seemingly professional resume for other customers who will want his services.
When working with his team, which includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nash (Lukas Hass), something goes wrong as they try to extract information from the powerful Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) and the team fails. This results in the tables turning for Cobb, as the organization that had paid him now is hunting him.
Saito offers Cobb a way out, to work for him on an extremely important project — to enact an “inception,” placing an idea in the mind of his top competitor Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) to get him to break up his dying father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) company that has a monopoly that is squeezing Saito out of the market. While Arthur doesn’t think it can be done (since they have previously only done an “extraction” of information), Cobb agrees to take on the job of inception because he says, “I’ve done it before.”
The secret of how and why Cobb knows inception will work is eventually revealed, but it is so crucial to the plot that I will not spoil it here; however, this knowledge haunts Cobb as does the image of his dead wife Mal (a powerful performance by Marion Cotillard). For those of you who might say this sounds familiar, you’d be right. DiCaprio’s character Teddy Daniels was haunted by dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in last year’s Shutter Island. The similarities are a bit peculiar, but they do diverge enough not to make it a distraction to the viewer.