Saturday morning was spent reading the critics that I get the most value from their writings to aid in this process. I visited Roger Ebert, the New York Times' film critics, and my favorite place for fascinating discussion on film criticism, Jim Emerson's Scanners blog. There what I read has left me stunned and considering how much what we expect to see when we go to the theater impacts the critique of the film. Don't get me wrong; I'm not put off by dissenting opinion. But what I've been amazed by is the number of critics that disliked Inception because what they experienced on the screen was nothing like their experience of dreaming. And I believe that misses the point. Inception is not a film about dreams or dreaming, but instead is a heist movie set in a dream.
Inception is a carefully constructed maze of a heist film, where the team of thieves is a group of experts on navigating the subconscious of the chosen mark. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the troubled Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to implant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The pay for this, if successful, is that Cobb can return home to his children since being exiled after the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Like any heist film, much of the pleasure is derived from the assembling of the team and the preparation, which is all methodically calculated.
The set-up is rather slick. In Cobb's search for an architect (i.e. dream designer) for the mission, he selects a newcomer to the underground world of dream infiltration, Ariadne (Ellen Page). Acting as teacher allows the necessary exposition essential to understanding the logic of Nolan's dream world to flow effortlessly. In fact, one of the greatest moments in the film is when Ariadne approaches her shared dreamscape with Cobb and tests the limits of this inner world by folding the streets of Paris into a M.C. Esheresque landscape. Ariadne's playful spirit while learning Cobb's dream rules is among the only light and playful moments. Does Nolan do playful?
What Nolan does well is construct intricate, smart, and wholly novel films. Inception, unlike some of Nolan's other films, follows a well worn heist movie structure into the totally novel territory of dream theft. The result is stunning as stairways transform into closed loops and skyscrapers crumble. Probably the most breathtaking spectacle are the action sequences that occur in zero gravity. One cannot help but to be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with fighting. My complaints about Christopher Nolan's lack of ability to film a coherent and suspenseful action sequence are corrected in this film. While he still refuses to consistently use wide angle, steady shots to film action, they are much better than previous attempts and attempted to keep tabs on the geography of the scene. Nolan's weaknesses are his characters. He keeps the viewer at an academic distance from the characters and as a result, they are little more than the role they play in the heist; the mark, the architect, the forger, the chemist. We even remain at an emotional distance from the character most central to the film, Cobb. The most real character in the film is Cobb's deceased wife, Mal, but this might be part of the film's design.
But what I enjoy most about Christopher Nolan's cinema is just how smart they are. Nolan does enjoy constructing puzzle-box films. After the closing scene, I want to see the film again in an attempt to piece together what version of reality, or rather who's dream, this film takes place in. Knowing the answer to that question is certainly not necessary to enjoy the film, but the final image leaves so many lingering questions. I have my own theory, but I'm certain that Inception will reward repeat viewings with clues as to the intended meaning of the final scene.
Some interesting reading (contains spoilers):
The closed loop
Inception: Has Christopher Nolan forgotten how to dream?