A nightmare about real and imaginary dreams.
Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Photo Credit: Stephen Vaughan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Inception is about people who can enter the dreams of others to find out their secrets and manipulate them. These people design a series of three dreams stacked within each other like Russian dolls inside the mind of an industrialist. The dreams must come to an end simultaneously for the scheme to work. The climaxes of the dreams are engineered to be literally startling—each is intended to shock the dreamer into rousing, and the dreamer needs to rouse from the deepest sleep into the second deepest into the lightest and then into wakefulness. And at each dream level, time moves at a different speed.
This is as ingenious a science-fiction setup as I can remember. Indeed, Inception is, in many ways, the fulfillment of the promise of all previous I-am-going-to-enter-your-unconscious movies—from the ridiculous Hitchcock-Dali collaboration Spellbound in 1945 to the intermittently thrilling Brainstorm in 1983 to the terrifying original Nightmare on Elm Street and the ham-handed Dreamscape in 1984 and on to the amusingly twisty Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall in 1990. The writer-director Christopher Nolan has seen them all, borrowed liberally from them all, and improved on every one of their schematic premises. Wisely, he doesn’t bother with explaining how they get into people’s heads. He’s interested in what happens when they do it.
Nolan has set the whole thing up as a corporate-espionage plot. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a team of “extractors,” who travel the globe trying to get things out of the heads of CEOs. The extractors ask the dreamers about the location of a vault or a safe because, in the logic of a dream, once a dreamer thinks of a vault, he will immediately stash his greatest secrets in it. The extractors then have to figure out a way to find the vault and break into it before the dreamer figures out he is dreaming and the dream state itself crumbles around all of them.
In Nolan’s world, these CEOs know extractors exist and they receive training in protecting themselves through dream-state countermeasures. They are taught how to use unconscious defenses that manifest themselves in dreams as gun-toting guardians against interlopers.
Now Cobb needs to move from “extraction” to “inception”—the planting of an idea within the brain of a dreamer. It’s a paradoxically complicated thing to do, because the dreamer needs to be tricked into thinking the idea is his own. Thus, the idea has to be very simple, and needs to be planted in the deepest part of his unconscious.
If I were 12 years old, I would think Inception was the most profound exploration of the paradoxes of reality ever committed to celluloid. But alas, I am 49, and my problem with Inception is that, while I enjoyed the fiendishly clever though often inscrutable way Nolan assembled his $160 million puzzle, the movie is remote and chilly. That is a strange emotional temperature for a movie about dreaming, because whatever dreams may be, they are the farthest thing from chilly.
The effects that will have audiences enthralled come not from the exploration of the feelings generated by the dreams we see—something movies are actually pretty good at, especially when dealing with nightmares—but from the way a team learns how to distort reality inside a dream.
Thus, a Paris streetscape bends in on itself like an Escher painting in the movie’s signature shot. It’s wonderful to look at, but it’s more like what can happen with a very good program for your MacBook Pro rather than the bizarre leaps of a dream. Similarly, the dreams themselves are surprisingly linear: They’re a series of action-movie chases, beautifully done but not all that different from movie chases in general. And since the movie is about unconscious emotions and how they control us, it suffers from having two entirely clichéd and witless conflicts at its heart: One paint-by-numbers guilt over a dead wife (the exact same guilt DiCaprio had to display in his last movie, Shutter Island) and the other an off-the-rack Oedipal struggle.
More troubling, Inception suffers from an enraging major flaw—a muddy soundtrack and the casting of a Japanese actor in a crucial part whose English is nearly indecipherable. As a result of its sound weaknesses and the imprecise vocal stylings of Ken Watanabe, several crucial scenes featuring dialogue that explains the extremely complicated action unfolding before us are impossible to follow. It would be as though, in a mystery novel, the type on the page were covered with blotches of ink just as the police inspector was saying, “And the killer is. . . . ”
The movie is otherwise so carefully rendered that I am almost inclined to believe Nolan deliberately obscured the sound to get fanboys and other obsessives to see it over and over again just so they can make sense out of the action. But that would be a lunatic corporate profit-seeking conspiracy theory of exactly the sort we see at work in Inception, now, wouldn’t it?
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.