Tuesday, August 3, 2010

[Film Review] Inception

I do my best to avoid seeing trailers these days, because so many of them ruin the entire story of the film that they're advertising. There aren't many trailers that don't give away something that I'd rather have been surprised by in the theater. There are exceptions to this recent trend, but these are so few and far between that I can name them right off the top of my head:

The District 9 trailer made it look as though it would be a full-on mockumentary, rather than a traditional narrative with some mockumentary sequences. The promotional materials for Inglorious Basterds were very clear that it was going to be Tarantino's version of the Dirty Dozen, but it turned out to be something very different and much better. A Serious Man's trailer, well, that was just confusing enough to be a kind of thematic indication of what the movie would be like without giving away any of its details. The last really great series of trailers that I remember were the ones for the first Matrix film, which treated us to all kinds of eye-popping imagery but didn't ruin any of the surprises of the film itself.

Most trailers are far too honest for their own good. The best ones lie to us, by omission if not commission, leaving intact the experiential joy of being surprised. So though I'd seen the teaser trailer for Inception, which is intentionally very vague in terms of what the movie is actually about, I'd deliberately avoided watching the standard trailer for fear that some crucial bit of data would lodge in my brain before the movie had begun and inadvertently ruin some aspect of the film for me. It would be very difficult to discuss any aspect of Inception without spoiling something, and this is definitely a movie best viewed with no foreknowledge whatsoever. If you haven't seen it yet, but think you might want to, stop reading and go see it. It's stunning, and even if you don't end up liking the movie, you'll be glad that you watched it on a screen measured in "stories tall" rather than "inches across."

Christopher Nolan is everyone's darling at the moment, because he's the best director working in Hollywood when it comes to creating big-budget spectacle which is supported by very capable storytelling, all of which is accompanied by thematic underpinnings that actually have some heft. His non-Batman films are also constructed as puzzles for the audience to unravel, employing frayed (and sometimes disintegrated) narrative arcs and unreliable narrators to keep audiences engaged in the effort to decipher the fictional cryptograms they're presented with. His protagonists are frequently unsure of anything other than their commitment to the core obsessions which drive them, sometimes to the point of losing sight of the reality that caused those fixations to develop in the first place.

It's not at all surprising, then, that he'd want to make a film that centers on the malleability of dreams and the shifting uncertainties that accompany them, as navigated by a character compelled to find whatever truths he can in all those layers of subterfuge and outright deceit. What is surprising, at least during the initial viewing, is just how mundane those dreams turn out to be. While there are a few effects-laden scenes in which physics is treated as a set of suggestions rather than as unbreakable laws, there's a distinct lack of the kind of surreality that often characterizes actual dream logic. The scenes which are explicitly set in dreams mostly follow normal action film physics, meaning that they fit in well with other high-budget summer blockbusters.

This begins to make sense once the film makes its intentions clear: there are going to be so many potential jumping-off points for where reality meets dreamspace that the audience isn't going to be given any clear signals for when the characters are in a dream or not. By avoiding the use of standard film vocabulary for dream sequences (fog machine, midget, soft focus), Inception makes it impossible to know where its action is taking place. This is a film determined to spawn fan theories, and keeping its cinematography even-handed is the best way to allow the maximal number of those theories to maintain their potential viability.

Its mythology is similarly built to confound, starting off with what seems to be a fairly simple set of rules but soon enough circling around to modify those rules and eventually even contradict them. That the film never gives more than a passing nod to the mechanics of how any of the action onscreen is occurring is another sly obfuscation, leaving open the question of whether what we see is a simple narrative shortcut necessary to keep the pacing on track or a clue as to the nature of the characters' fluctuating realities.

Hans Zimmer's phenomenal score does an excellent job of supporting the thesis (well, theses) of the film while also succeeding on its own merits. As one perceptive viewer noticed, there's an extremely tidy trick that Zimmer pulls by using a honed-down sample from a bit of the source music which acts as a major plot point in the film. Being someone with an abiding interest in sample-based music, particularly the kind that embraces the alteration of samples rather than limiting their deployment to the use of strict cut-and-paste techniques, this fiendishly clever use of sampling (or extrapolation, as the case may have been) was incredibly toothsome. So far as I can recall, this is the most well-integrated piece of film scoring that I've ever seen, one which not only powerfully advances the mood of the story but also provides more clues to the puzzle which the film methodically lays out for us.

Nolan's use of repeated phrases and imagery, common to all his oeuvre as a way to suture together narrative strands, here does double-duty as the kind of intuitive feeling that we often get in dreams that we've been here before, had these conversations in the past, and followed courses of action whose consequences we already know. Though that use of repetition here invokes that exact feeling of deja vu, it doesn't overshadow the authority of the characters' choices or psychological states, with the odd result that the plot manages to feel simultaneously preordained and spontaneous.

Inception's final shot neatly encapsulates the primary argument of the movie, and was stunning enough in its emotional impact that there was an audience-wide gasp at the theater I saw it in. It's an extremely deft bit of sleight-of-hand which doesn't answer the questions raised by the rest of the film so much as force the viewer to begin reconsidering the entire reason that those questions are being asked in the first place. In a film which might well be an extended metaphor for the process of filmmaking, it's a very elegant feat to turn to the audience as the credits begin to roll and show them exactly how the previous two and a half hours weren't about the characters on screen at all, but rather the experience of having viewed the film itself.


  1. Most awesome trailers ever:

    Fifth Element.

    "I have no idea what that was, but rock."

  2. Man, the '90s! It's like every movie and/or trailer was contractually obligated to use a Moby song at some point.

  3. "(fog machine, midget, soft focus)," = Insightful hilarity.

    I do think the dream and comicbook plot movies Nolan's doing are forgiving of his characters' lack of depth. He does seem deft at giving the audience enough to flesh things out on their own without spending time doing it himself.

    Now that he has a sizable stable of actors of considerable talent, do you think we will be seeing an evolution around the characters, or do you think he's got a formula that works and will stick to it?

  4. Not sure what's meant by "an evolution around the characters"? If you mean that the characters in his later films are given more time for depth, I'm not sure if that' something to worry about any more than there need to be more explosions in a Merchant/Ivory film. It'd be nice if it happens, but it's not really what you go to see a Nolan film for.