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Movie Review: Inception – The Stuff of Dreams

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A favourite ploy of film critics out to trash a movie is to attack those who like it, usually by calling them feeble-minded, brainless, immature, and so on. Then there are those for whom no film is ever quite good enough, even though they’re fundamentally incapable of writing or conceiving or making one themselves. A third category locks itself into a quaint past, holding up for comparison some cinematic relic that is wholly unwatchable today and finding the film under review wanting. And there’s the fourth, a critic or reviewer who just has to hate the film only because so many people love it — it’s so chic, so über-cool to hate it; this is the kind of reviewer who out-Kaels Pauline.

Poor Christopher Nolan. He gets all four types for Inception. There’s the savaging by Rex Reed in the New York Observer — but then Mr Reed seems particularly to hate Mr Nolan and trashes all his work. Then we have someone called Nick Pinkerton at the Village Voice. Not only does he get his facts wrong (Nolan is described as an “Anglo-American action director”), but also prefers Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Inception. Besides, never trust a writer who uses exclamation marks. Or one who uses words without any real understanding of their meaning. Whatever else one might accuse Mr Nolan of being, maladroit he is not. The review is maladroit, not the film.

While Kurt Loder at MTV.com (does anyone take that seriously?) is somewhat gentler in his appreciation of Mr Nolan’s work, he couldn’t ‘parse’ it. Too bad for him.

AO Scott at the New York Times and David Edelstein at New York Magazine seem to have gone to the movies together. Or perhaps they shared a beer after or took a stroll around Gramercy Park and discussed this one. Their reviews are uncannily similar.

Scott: “Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness …”

Edelstein: “Nolan is too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie.”

Edelstein uses exclamation marks too (at least six), and to reinforce his view that the film is “clunky and confusing” and nothing like 2001: A Space Odyssey, also throws in this little jewel: “Slap! Wake up, people! Shalalala! Slap!”

So much for being even passably literate.

Scott mentions Blade Runner and 2001 as durable cult classics, and says Inception does not come close. How would he know not two days after its release? Neither of those films was born a cult classic. Films gain a cult following and classic status with time; not, thankfully, from Mr Scott’s pronouncements. Edelstein bemoans the lack of nimbleness, something he saw in Spielberg’s Minority Report. Nothing by Spielberg has ever been “nimble”. In a film with Tom Cruise in, that’s just impossible.

These reviews are just prattle, much of it nonsensical. Pinkerton claims that “the center of Fischer Jr.’s labyrinth is the intersection of Citizen Kane and 2001”. What on earth does this mean? Where does Citizen Kane come into it?

Scott feeds us verbiage:

But though there is a lot to see in “Inception,” there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness — the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity — that this subject requires. The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.

And the limitations of “Inception” may suggest the limits not only of this very talented director, but also of his chosen art form at this moment in its history. Our dreams feed the movies. The movies feed our dreams. But somehow, our imaginations are still hungry.

Mr. Nolan should ignore every one of these reviews. Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight were all exceptional movies. In each of them Nolan undertakes an exploration of the mind and the human condition. The Dark Knight — trashed by some of the reviewers I’ve mentioned — is a searing indictment of our growing acceptance of the deliberate and studied dismantling of the rule of law by a corrupt and venal administration. What might have been just another comic-book movie is a reflection on a philosophical question that goes back to Plato, Socrates, and Juvenal.

Besides, there’s an equally vocal lobby of critics and reviewers who liked the film. Katey Rich at CinemaBlend has an excellent write-up.

Inception is an exploration, too, as anybody who, on waking, has tried to recapture a dream of the night before knows. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief: he steals dreams, the kind of stuff that is seminal, the kind of stuff that hits you in deepest sleep, the kind of stuff that is game-changing. If you get hurt in the dream, you feel pain; if you die, you just wake up. Cobb has his team: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sort of point man, and an ‘architect’ named Nash (Lukas Haas) who handcrafts the look-and-feel of the dream world. As the film opens, they are in the midst of an extraction in the mind of Saito, a character played by the always riveting Ken Watanabe. But Saito is playing them for fools, and is turning their plan inside out: he wants to commission a reverse caper.

Instead of extracting information, he wants to plant an idea in the head of a dying competitor’s (Pete Postlethwaite’s) son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Cobb is wanted in America for the murder of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). He longs to be with his children again. Saito can get him back into the country with a single phone call. Cobb takes the assignment. He recruits Eames (Tom Hardy), someone who can ‘forge’ identities within dreams. With the help of his father (Michael Caine), Cobb also recruits a young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page). Also on the team is Yusuf (Dileep Rao) who prepares chemical compounds to alter states of consciousness. Peter Browning (Tom Berenger), young Fischer’s godfather, is likely to be an obstacle. The ensemble cast holds it together: DiCaprio has developed an intensity that makes you forget his pretty-boy beginnings. Cillian Murphy is at once vulnerable and threatening; the arrogance of great wealth is considerably dampened by his need for paternal approval. Tom Hardy’s Bondish character fits the role perfectly and Ellen Page, young, uncommonly sharp, is a stabilizer to DiCaprio’s rollercoaster edginess.

To make the ‘inception’ work, the team needs Robert Fischer to believe that the idea is his own; and to do this, they must construct several levels, one below the other, each a dream within the one before or above it, each successfully more difficult to exit. At each level, time slows exponentially. At the lowest level is a state of limbo, an indefinite existence in a dream-world. The complication is Mal who is a recurrent disruption. If there is a hinge on which the story revolves, it is this relationship, convoluted, strange, enigmatic and constantly self-referential.

As they enter the first level, the action begins and then never lets up. It is stunningly mounted. The hand-held camera work and rapid-fire editing reminds you of Paul Greengrass’s recent work, especially in the Bourne franchise. As the team descends from one level to the next, the action gets increasingly frenzied. The moments between, when you feel you can catch your breath, are illusory: they barely give you to time to respond before you’re sent hurtling into another jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching sequence.

Cobb and Mal have devised a way of distinguishing dream from reality: they have a totem, a heavy object. If it falls over, what they are experiencing is real; if it doesn’t, they are still in the dream. Cobb has a spinning top. At the end of the movie, he sets it going.


And go see it.

If you’ve ever experienced that sensation in deepest sleep of being in constant free fall, of circling endlessly down into a bottomless whirlpool, of floating, and all this in time that has slowed to a crawl and then, jagged, without tangible beginning, explodes into some frenetic action, the film seems familiar. People have chosen, or refused, to confront it because it takes something elemental, visceral, and pushes it in your face. This is a movie about dreams, and about dreaming of being in a movie, and about a dream that is a movie.

Dreams have incongruities. Dreams are non-linear. Inception visualizes both. The film folds in on itself again and again, both visually and in its progression. There is a sense of being sucked in and swallowed whole. All the telltale icons of a dream are here: Penrose steps, constantly going up or down, depending on the direction in which you’re going; impossible triangles; time shifting; and sly innuendo: is it a mere coincidence that Cillian Murphy’s character is called ‘Robert Fischer’, a possible reference to Bobby Fischer the brilliant and tragic chess master — a man who knew how to deploy his pawns?

Inception’s influences are far wider than the pedestrian examples from cinema (2001, Blade Runner, Michael Mann) offered by many reviewers. One of these is almost certainly the work of Douglas Hofstadter and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Like that book, Inception is about mathematics, symmetry, intelligence, and beauty; but not only about those things. What the film attempts is an explosion of the ‘myth’ that we consider reality. Elements are weighted with substance, and patterns, rhythms and this constant referring back, lend meaning to things that, in themselves, are apparently meaningless. How is knowledge represented? How is it stored, and where? How is that knowledge best ‘extracted’ and used? What do symbols mean? The infinite regressions pose the logical conundrum most easily traced to Lewis Carroll’s brief dialogue, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles”.

This is a film about cognition, consciousness, awareness. It is a journey through neurological mechanisms to find a coherent, ‘extractable’, worthwhile “thought”. An idea, perhaps only half-formed, but one of value. But that finding, and its validity, is always being doubted; and the doubt increases with each level of recursion and self-referencing. Hans Zimmer’s score is a constant auditory reminder of what we are experiencing: a booming sound, strong in the lower register, constantly repeating itself with subtle variations followed by sharp shifts, only to move back again to the beginning.

This is a film of and about layers: layers of consciousness, layers of meaning, layers of truth and falsehood, reality and dream. It is also a film about language, symbols and representations, information, communication, and the human brain. Where do we store the data that is most vital to us?

Diane Ackerman has this wonderful passage in An Alchemy of Mind:

Even after the brain folded in, under and around itself, it still needed to add important skills. The only solution was to drop some abilities to make room for more important ones.

What the brain really needed was space without volume. So it took a radical leap and did something unparalleled in the history of life on Earth. It began storing information and memories outside itself, on stone, papyrus, paper, computer chips and film.

This is exactly what Inception recognizes, and then looks at the fragments still left behind in the brain. What if these could be harvested and taken out into the ‘real’ world — in the language of the film, extracted?

As much as language, this is a film about architecture and the language of architecture. The Dark Knight and Batman Begins both saw Nolan envisioning the urban form. In Inception he pushes the envelope. Here, he conceives spaces, stacks of spaces, and structures. Once built, they are folded on themselves, blown apart, reduced to caricature forms, and then clothed in realism. A city’s landscape bends; mirrors reflect endlessly; an entire block around a café, with all its set pieces, explodes. The architect designs the form of the dream that Cobb enters. But each design is inherently vulnerable and susceptible to mutation by external forces. The architect is a set designer, one whose sets are constantly under threat from the lot next door. The leaps of imagination that inform the greatest architecture are the stuff of which dreams, and great movies, are made.

When I saw the movie, there wasn’t an empty seat in the cinema. There wasn’t one still when the movie ended, and the collective gasp at the last shot said everything. For 148 minutes, Nolan takes us on the wildest of rides and he does it with panache, style, confidence, and, most of all, grace. Here is a director with a profound respect for his audience, one who carries his audience with him, but is yet willing to challenge that audience and to do it without being preachy or antagonistic.

In her hysterical rave about The Last Tango in Paris, Pauline Kael claimed that Bertolucci and Brando had altered the face of an art form. She was wrong; they hadn’t; and I have little doubt that, with her peculiar nonsensibility, she would have shredded Inception. But what she said of Tango is undoubtedly true today of Inception. It takes an art form, demonstrates a complete mastery of all aspects of the medium, and then changes everything we’ve come to take for granted about film. There are epochal points in the history of all art, and this is one of them.

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.
  • Johan

    While I don’t agree with any critic that’s gnashing his teeth over the hoopla this film’s generating, it’s certainly not all the things this review claims. It is a high concept film, formulaic in its near flawless execution. I cannot knock it for the pretty package that it is–I like my products well packaged–but I will say that I agree that in its rigidity (for mass-consumption), the concept loses the flexibility for madness, insanity, unpredictable free thought. It establishes rules and a hierarchy, ordered to make the story easier to consume — this, however, is not a complaint as it allows for Nolan to convince Hollywood to explore dreams, a risky proposition in an industry averse to risk. For a concept film, it’s top notch For art? Probably depends on how much time the viewer had previously spent contemplating the subjects at hand.

  • sumi lee

    walked out.

  • Sexy

    Oh my don’t you just hit it on the head! I’m sure everyone will like that!