Inception : Whose Mind Is It, Anyway?

8 minute read
Richard Corliss

“Wait a minute,” says Ariadne (Ellen Page), the newcomer in this daredevil dive into someone else’s dreamscape. “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” The line gets a sympathetic laugh from preview audiences watching Inception; they may share Ariadne’s bafflement, along with the rush she feels in plunging into the glorious, perilous unknown.

Inception is writer-director Christopher Nolan’s first movie since The Dark Knight, the second in his Batman series, a film that earned $533 million in North American theaters, $1 billion worldwide and carloads more on DVD. Perhaps as a reward, Warner Bros. did exactly what a studio should do: let a proven hitmaker spend $160 million on a project that’s hard to cozy up to or even explain, a story about dreams — our most intimate intellectual property — and about how they may not be safe from theft. The film proposes that while you sleep, a team of Mission: Impossible types (led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb) can invade your mind and extract — or insert — information, then sell it to your worst enemy.

See TIME’s photoessay “Leonardo DiCaprio Plays for Hollywood’s Biggest Directors.”

But how to sell Inception to the mass audiences it will need to attract to make a profit? With a stealthy marketing campaign, including mystifying trailers and a giant trompe l’oeil mural in midtown Manhattan in which a building’s top left corner seemingly peels off to reveal the offices inside. The campaign mimicked Inception‘s plot: it planted a vague but attractive idea in the minds of moviegoers, leading many to say about the film, “I don’t know what it is, but I have to see it.”

But seeing Inception — or seeing it twice, which we suggest — does not answer all the riddles. This is a film more to admire than to cherish, one that aims to fascinate rather than to satisfy familiar impulses. It’s a beautiful object, like a perpetually spinning top, not a living organism.

Though the plot is really one giant hallucination, it’s an experience that doesn’t blow your mind so much as challenge it. Viewers will have to work to keep up with all the shifting perspectives and layers of deceit. Inception is like the coolest, toughest final exam — or like the dream of one, in which you’re suddenly in class and you realize you didn’t prepare for the big test. This is a movie that you’ll wish you had crammed for.

Or call Inception an elaborate video game, except that you don’t play it; it plays you. The turning of those particular tables is Nolan’s gift. In Memento he built a narrative machine that ran backward to the scene of a crime. The Prestige was about two master magicians trying to fool each other, with their lives on the line — as their master, Nolan, stood behind the camera fooling the audience. He’s a bit like the Joker in The Dark Knight, devising silly or malevolent but always intricate schemes to outfox his audience.

See Techland’s Inception interview with Ellen Page

Inception is another confounding Chinese puzzle. The film has such a complicated premise that it needs to keep explaining the rules of its game. For this fantasy world has three levels of increasing power and danger: the dream, the dream-within-a-dream and the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. (The DVD version could benefit from an onscreen number identifying each level.) There’s also actual, waking reality, in which Cobb can be assaulted by a thug who tells him, “You’re not in a dream now, are you?” All of which is to say that Inception is precisely the kind of brainy, ambitious, grand-scale adventure Hollywood should be making more of.

Cobb runs a dream team of mindbending espionage agents, true inside operators. Their method is to slip some powerful businessman a drug to transport him into his dreamworld — except that it’s their world, which they’ve devised to make so familiar that the subject will reveal what they want to steal. Ariadne, the new recruit, will be the “architect” of the fantasy. “You create the world of the dream,” Cobb tells her. “You bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their secrets.”

Their mark here is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow from Nolan’s Batman Begins), the soft son of a hard man (Pete Postlethwaite) who built an energy empire — sort of a BP without the spill. Now the old man is dying, and a rival tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants Cobb to infiltrate Fischer’s subconscious and plant a seed that will persuade him to dissolve Dad’s empire before it dominates the energy business. (And yes, that’s a pretty flimsy excuse for an action-movie premise.) Cobb assembles his team: second in command Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), expert forger and impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy), potions master Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Ariadne, who will build them a world to dream in.

See a TIME review of The Dark Knight

In essence, then, Inception is a heist movie — an Ocean’s Eleven in which the thieves break into the vault not to retrieve something but to put it there. Cobb and company are also a bit like the microscopic submarine squad in Fantastic Voyage (except that they’re navigating the subconscious instead of the bloodstream) or the “real” characters in every virtual adventure from The Matrix to Avatar who sit passively in pods while their alternate selves spring into action.

But Inception is also a haunted-mind movie. Cobb has visions of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard); he’s addicted to her memory, her beauty, her love for him, and he keeps going back to her when his eyes close because, he says, “in my dreams, we’re still together.” Even there, though, he cannot see the faces of their two children. Nor can he see them in real life, since the authorities believe Cobb killed Mal, and if he returns to the U.S. he’ll be arrested for murder. (Why the kids can’t go to Europe to be with their daddy isn’t explained.)

The carrot for him to take Saito’s job is the “one phone call” that can clear his name. For him to sleep untroubled, he must invade Fischer’s dreams. To free himself from his dead wife, he and his team have to deeply plant the idea that will free the rich young man from his dead father. But Cobb’s dream mind keeps manifesting memories of Mal, who shows up to wreak havoc and put the whole team in jeopardy. “As we go deeper into Fischer,” Ariadne says, “we’ll also be going deeper into you” — into the fatal recesses of a grieving man’s memories. But Cobb has to go there, to plunge into the morass of his love and fear. “Downwards,” he decides, “is the only way forwards.”

Mind Games
DiCaprio stepped into this quicksand terrain earlier this year, in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which was about coming to terms with, or surrendering to, the loss of a loved one. Cotillard is also filling a familiar function: as in Nine, in which she played Daniel Day-Lewis’ long-suffering wife, she is the emotional core of a big-budget essay in memory and fantasy. (She also won an Oscar as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, so whenever Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the theme song for Inception, is heard, one thinks of Cotillard.) But she never looked so movie-star glamorous as she does here — her coiffure virtually requires that the Motion Picture Academy create an Oscar for Best Hair — nor struck so plangent a chord. Mal may be toxic to Cobb, but as played by Cotillard, she’s worth dying for.

Oh, wait, this is supposed to be an action thriller. Kind of. The movie has some fights that literally defy gravity — up walls, on ceilings — and a big car-chase scene (including a freight train plowing through city traffic) that matches the stunt work of Batman and the Joker’s wild ride in The Dark Knight. But some of Inception‘s most enthralling effects are pure visual virtuosity, as when one half of a Paris neighborhood ascends like a drawbridge and is folded over onto the other half. The picture’s main pull is not visceral but intellectual, in the style of Euro puzzle films of the past 50 years, from Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon — but as Nolan told the New York Times, with “way more explosions.”

Inception may or may not be a hit, but it is certainly caviar for film lovers. Even more than Nine, this is truly a movie about moviemaking. Its conversations are like story conferences (the production designer, Ariadne, consulting with the director, Cobb); it’s full of what might be considered alternate scenes and outtakes and is peopled with characters who could improv and abduct the plot. Finally, its noble intent is to implant one man’s vision in the mind of a vast audience.

The idea of moviegoing as communal dreaming is a century old. With Inception, viewers have a chance to see that notion get a state-of-the-art update. Take that chance: dream along with Christopher Nolan.

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