Thursday, July 15, 2010

'Inception' knocks us off our moorings

It's not easy trying to survive in a world of dreams.

A supremely talented thief gathers a crew and readies himself for one last job, the caper that finally will allow him to abandon life on the run.

Sure you've heard it before, but Christopher Nolan, who directed the mega-hit The Dark Knight and who made a splash on the filmmaking scene in 2000 with Memento, energizes familiar cinematic ploys by putting them in a fresh context: Almost all of his new movie, Inception, takes place in dreams.

Already hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters, Inception arrives in theaters with high expectations in tow, and it would be dishonest of me not to begin by saying that the movie - which boasts some of the more impressive visuals of the year - does not require us to hoist flags and proclaim a national holiday.

Inception, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, provokes plenty of thought, but operating in the world of dreams seems to have given Nolan license to confound, as well as to illuminate. He does equal amounts of both in a movie that contains a fair measure of visual wit and lots of ferocious energy.

Nolan employs a terrific cast as he develops the ideas in Inception - and, yes, we're talking about the ideas in the movie, not the ideas behind it. Tricky as it tries to be, Inception hardly misses a chance to tell us what it's up to, not that you'll get it all.

Because Nolan, who also wrote the script, is creating an entire universe, he needs to supply lots of rules-of-the-game dialog. In speedy fashion that virtually dares you to keep up, Nolan has DiCaprio's Dom Cobb explaining the ground rules. What happens if someone dies in a dream? Is it possible to get lost in dreams and never re-emerge? Where in the hell do all those projections inside our dreams originate? Is time in a dream the same as time in an awakened state?

Cobb, we soon learn, is an extractor by trade and training. He's able to invade dreams and come away with secrets buried in a dreamer's subconscious, a skill that he's evidently employed mostly to conduct industrial espionage. (And, no, that wouldn't be my first choice if I had a similar ability.)

Contacted by a Japanese entrepreneur (Ken Watanabe), Cobb is asked to conduct a perilous mission. He must invade the subconscious of the son (Cillian Murphy) of a recently deceased industrialist and plant an idea in the young man's head. It's an idea that will change the course of the future.

Nolan definitely is attuned to something intriguing, notably a view of dreaming as one of the strangest of human activities, the state in which we escape the rules that bind us throughout our waking moments. Working with his usual cinematographer, the gifted Wally Pfister, Nolan pulls out all the stops, and if you're able to give yourself over to the imagery, you'll definitely find yourself tripping right along with the filmmakers.

As is the case with more conventional "caper" movies, characterization is kept to a minimum. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting a slicked back, bullet-head look, signs on as one of Cobb's assistants. Ellen Page, the gifted young actress who wowed the world in Juno, plays an architect who's engaged by Cobb to design dreamscapes.

Oops, I forgot to mention, the movie also introduces us to the concept of shared dreaming, the possibility that a variety of skilled folks can enter the same dream, each assuming responsibility for a different task.

Every dream needs to feel a little haunted. In this case, the talented Marion Cotillard adds spectral presence. She plays Cobb's wife, a woman from whom he has become estranged for reasons that can't be revealed in a review.

It's just here that Nolan should be credited for his most inspired casting. There's something ethereal, dreamy and dangerous about Cotillard's Mal, and she contrasts nicely with Page's Ariadne, a down-to-earth, practical woman who always seems to have one foot in reality.

And, yes, the images can be mind bending. At one point, Ariadne learns to manipulate dream realities, bending a cityscape in an effect that you may have seen in the movie's trailer, but which still manages to be breathtaking in the context of the movie. How long has it been since you've said, "Oh, wow?"

So what's Nolan up to, really? On one level, he's making a thriller. On another, he's trying to knock us off our moorings, and because movies often are compared to dreams - they can have the same sort of reality-defying fluidity - he may be commenting on the way we allow ourselves to be sucked in by filmmakers.

Novel as Inception can seem, it does evoke memories of other films. You may find yourself thinking about The Matrix, for example. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if Laurence Fishburne had wandered in for a quick scene. It would have made as much sense as anything else in Inception.

DiCaprio holds the screen throughout all of this planned chaos. He's playing a man who makes his living entering other people's subconscious minds, but who can't entirely control his own. That's another issue with which the movie toys: The idea of control. Who's the author of our dreams anyway? And on and on and on - for a not-quite-justifiable two and a half hours.

Now, it's my belief that Nolan could have accomplished all this with a little more narrative clarity. At various times, I found myself talking to myself, "OK, this is a dream. Now, we're in the dream within the dream. This seems to be the waking state."Am I watching a movie or am I experiencing short-term memory loss?"

A little such disorientation goes a long way, and Hans Zimmer's ubiquitous score doesn't provide a moment's respite, either. (Last time I checked, my dreams didn't have musical scores. Maybe that's just me.)

For my money, David Lynch is far better at showing the elasticity of reality and at luring us into worlds where we're never sure what's real and what's imagined. But Nolan has bigger commercial fish to fry than Lynch. With a major summer release, he must fuse art and action. Imagine if someone had told Fellini, a director who know something about dreamy imagery, that he had to add a few car chases to 8 1/2.

Should you go? Sure. See Inception, and get into your own dialog with the movie. Know this, though: My dreams - and I hope yours -- never have included noisy car chases, exploding fireballs or automatic weapons fire, a claim I'm not sure Nolan can make. But then again, I don't sell tickets to my dreams or expect them to reach blockbuster proportions. I'm just happy if I wake up.

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