Your eyes may be open but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re awake.
All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold, not all travelers are lost, and that stuff underneath your feet isn’t necessarily Earth. When the sky’s the limit (and possibly not even then), when you can do and create anything, you’re still grounded by your own rules. Your own sense of understanding of ideas and concepts. Theft and violation are painfully easy, but inspiration is hard. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there. Things can only appear strange to you sometimes when you’re told that perhaps that’s what you should be looking for. Sometimes it’s hard to fall, or to feel like you’re falling, when there is no gravity.
This is my simple, rudimentary thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s Inception in three and a half points.
1. Every time I go to see a good movie in a movie theater, one that both excites and intrigues and involves me in some regard, be it superficial or something deeper, more substantial, it’s like a dream, isn’t it? We love the idea of dreams because they’re the perfect metaphor for… anything. Anything you desire.
And more so, we love our stories, and we love comparing movies to dreams.
Film logic just has to captivate you for the time that you’re watching it, to keep you floating in a suspension of (dis)belief, and then the movie ends, the credits roll, and you crawl out of the cave of the cinema. If you’re going to see the matinee, then the sun outside is harsh, and cruel. Your senses are heightened to extraordinary degrees. Every step feels more epic, the angle of objects seems more profound. You just experienced something amazing and you’re taking a little bit of it with you, and by contrast, you feel like you’re leaving a little of yourself behind, but you move on from it because you feel touched, activated, feeling pretty amazing yourself. You move with your own soundtrack blaring, your mind working overtime and recovering from the shock of excitement.
Waking up from an intense, weighty dream can inspire you and invigorate you, especially if for even just half a second, you think you’re waking and walking into another dream, even more stupendous, and of your own design.
2. Comparing things to video games infuriates me. But mostly it’s the people doing the comparing that bother me because, honestly, the idea of comparing things, especially movies, and certain modes of reality, to the idea of a “video game” interests me. I’m by no means a gamer, but the idea, and it’s possibilities, excites me.
Video games are like dreams in a certain regard, aren’t they? At times you’re completely powerful, in control of everything in your surroundings and yourself, and then, with little to no warning, you’re absolutely powerless and everything is completely out of control. The shit hits the fan, then the fan explodes, and somebody gets their head cut off.
Inception feels like a video game. It’s a cerebral maze of ideas, working on a multiple of levels, dabbling exquisitely in both terms of narrative, time structures, visual metaphors, and big ideas and memes (and sorry, everybody, I know the word is beyond detested, but the concept of it, the virus of the idea that spreads and can’t be killed is both thrilling and terrifying).
The other day Benjie Light and I were talking about things that we want to do in our lives, stupid things that we want to imitate from the movies/books/pop culture stories that we’ve ingested and loved over the years, and my big three things were 1) solve a mystery, preferably a locked room murder mystery, 2) plan and execute a (hopefully successful) heist, and 3) diffuse a bomb with mere seconds left on the clock. Commander Light also understandably suggested “car chase” as a scenario that would be nice to throw in the mix, and he’s right, but I’d toss that into the heist paradigm.
My point: I would love to play the video game based on Inception. The one that has a story that works brilliantly and ambitiously and only gets strange when a stranger suggests to you that something seems strange. And then you explore the depths of that strangeness. You have fist fights in rolling hallways, watch cities rise up to meet you, get attacked by angry mobs and the spectre of your Oscar-winning French hottie wife, fire guns, blow shit up, both run and chase after faceless nefarious goons, and deliver mind blowing bits of exposition while looking incredibly GQ.
Also, I’ll say this: Inception had a certain frame of mind to it that I feel like The Matrix could’ve really benefited from having had ten years ago.
It’s a video game that would excite you on a variety of levels, both on the superficial and the deeper, the more intellectual. A cerebral workout. An existential knife fight. The only thing that would make it better than the movie, though, would be that it was presumably interactive.
2 1/2. The thing I’ve noticed about Nolan’s films is that they’re all plot. They’re far from indulgent and long and dense and they move fast, leaving very little time for fireworks that are purely character building. In that sense, he’s the exact opposite of P.T. Anderson, who’s films are all character, and sometimes those characters move in a certain direction that takes them from a starting point to a stopping point. But in the exercises of narrative, Nolan manages to paint shades of characters, both skeletal sketches, like Cillian Murphy’s character in Inception, and those with the driving illusion of more depth, like Dicaprio’s in this film.
And grounded. So grounded. Nolan’s films are fantastical creatures of oneiric energy that are dreamed up by inhabitants of the real world. As scholarly influenced as they are, even their madness, and his, is grounded, and logical. His Gotham City and battle gear clad vigilantes are both out of this world and something that could play on the 5 o’cock news in this world.
Nolan doesn’t speak in a language of dragons and flying carpets and talking animals and liquid robots that morph in physics-defying feats of light and spectacle. His characters live in dreamlands based on urban mazes and high speed travel and real world concern and drabness. And they dream/create with the tools that their worlds give them.
Half of movies is glamor and glitz and show and all preconceived notions. And Nolan is good about using that, especially in his casting. Michael Caine can walk into just about any scene in a movie now and seem like the wise, but slightly jaded mentor who knows that you’re about to go down a pretty dark, fairly shitty path, but still supports your decision and has a few nuggets of sage wisdom for you. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a certain level of cool attached to himself, either earned or not earned. Ellen Page perfectly fits into the category of smart newbie who’s still learning the ropes and is beginning a journey, despite her probably immense and amazing knowledge of all things Cisco. Ken Watanabe always carries a certain sinister edge with him, though perhaps that’s just an occidental thing. And Leonardo Dicaprio has perfectly aligned himself with a certain archetype, that of the little boy grown up into a man, hardened with anger and guilt, and we’ve accepted him as the protagonist cipher who will either work through his issues or ultimately be destroyed by them.
My only complaint about the actual production/composition of this film is the level of soundtrack on display at all times. I really liked Hans Zimmer’s score to the film, so much so that I went and bought the soundtrack immediately after the movie concluded, which was a surreal experience all of it’s own since I saw the film at the theater in the mall which was a weird labyrinth to wander through as I was re-composing myself into reality after exiting the movie. Maybe it was just a bad mix at that theater, but the score seemed to be too loud at certain points, competing with the actors and their dialogue, sometimes defeating them a little, which is a shame because as I said, with Nolan’s movies, nothing is wasted, not a single shot, not a single glance or expression, and especially not a single word or sentence.
I think it’s safe to say that this is the kind of movie that Counterforce has been waiting for all of it’s short life (2+ years now).
SPOILERS, from here.
Apropos of nothing, here’s an idea that you should carry with you into viewing this movie: “just as movies are metaphorical dreams, maybe dreams are metaphorical movies.” Well said. Inception can be just another popcorn action heist movie for you if you want (especially in 2010, the year we make contact with heist movies like The Losers, The A-Team, and Takers), or it can be something more. Or both.
Benjamin Light put forth a desire that I’ll repeat here: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page should do more movies together. They’re the brightest of the hip young things in the world of thespians with cred these days, yes?
That said, amazingly, James Franco was close to getting Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role originally. And Nolan’s original desire was to cast Evan Rachel Wood in the role of the architect, and then it floated towards Emily Blunt, Rachel McAdams, and even Emma Roberts before Ellen Page was cast. That’s just fascinating. And so bizarre.
3. I haven’t repeated the plot of Inception here and I’m not going to. Go look it up. Then watch the movie. Then watch it again. Here’s a spoiler though: Inception ends just like Shutter Island, after a fashion.
There’s a college course or at least a long conversation for armchair cineaists and philosophers in movies like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Mulholland Drive, and Synecdoche, New York, and Inception belongs in the mix with them. Movies are all dream logic, especially more so in the last few years. At a certain point, a 1/3 or 2/3 of the way through movies with a certain “out there” kind of story, we start to look for the seams and loose threads of the eventual reveal that “it was all a dream.” Especially in Synechdoche, New York. By the end of that film, you’re pretty sure that at some point you’ve crossed over into a dream world, but the question is simply: Where? At least Mulholland Drive is a little more straight forward about that, at least, for the filmgoer with is both actively looking for and completely open to massive weird download of logic and strange visuals and strong, penetrating emotions the film requires you to take in.
Shutter Island almost belongs in that same thread of films, and somewhat suffered because of it. Read any two reviews of that film and at least one will say some variation of “I could guess the ending of this movie long before the finish line and you know why? Because I’ve seen movies before.” So little shocks us these days, and we’re somewhat let down by twist endings now just because they’re expected. We set an extra place at the dinner table for them. Identity was a fine, harmless movie, but after about 25 minutes into it, you were pretty sure that a crime was being committed against you and the culprit was going to be a writer with a flashy, showing idea about tricking your expectations.
And once you start to look for those tricks, you feel like a trick that’s been turned. You open your eyes, you see the money on the dresser.
At least Inception is up front and honest about all of this, with it’s simple and confounding tagline: “Your mind is the scene of the crime.”
To mix metaphors even more: I think one of the many problems with the modern take on “twist endings” and “it was all a dream” logic in the cinema is that your goals as a viewer and participant get too confused. Are you looking for the map or are you looking for where the map leads you. X is supposed to mark the spot, but it’s tough to translate that when you’re X in that equation.
And, slowly but surely, twist endings are becoming the new “Hollywood ending.” Once upon a time and through the woods and only in a dream can you live happily ever after.
The thing that saves Inception and Shutter Island‘s endings is that they fall down to the user. You’re required to make a certain level of decisions, to feel something, and decide what you believed just happened. You have to be both actively involved, and also open and ready to receive, you have to “get it,” and in return, the film lets you pick a path to go down. It was all dream. Or it wasn’t. The main character remembers everything. Or doesn’t. Something happened here. Or maybe it was there. Maybe it was earlier. Or later. This is a review. It isn’t.
Actually, it isn’t. Just my immediate reactions, of a sort, having just walked out of the movie something like two hours ago (it’s roughly 5 PM as I write this). Such a strange experience watching the end credits rolling for that movie. Like I was walking out of a half remembered dream of sorts, standing on a widening chasm between a narrative flashing on the walls of my unconscious/subconscious mind and the harsh light of day in the real world. Which works dually for this movie as well: An artsy movie full of deep ideas, or at least ideas that can feel deep, but done in a slick, expensively executed mainstream way. As if Michael Mann had remade 8 1/2.
The theater I was in was virtually empty, the two other people there with me more invisible than usual, and it was so strange to feel that as I walked out of the shared dream that is the cinema that way. Dreamspace faded away, light entered the room, the real world was knocking on the door, and I felt more alone than usual. It was a scary but important feeling, my brain decided as it’s gears grinded and took delight in processing what it just took in, but even still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie was over and now it was time to go back to sleep.