Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

Inception movie poster


In his 1999 essay Cel­lu­loid Vs. Dig­i­tal, Roger Ebert cites stud­ies equat­ing the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing a movie to enter­ing a fugue state: “film cre­ates reverie, video cre­ates hyp­no­sis.” In other words, expe­ri­enc­ing a film in the tra­di­tional man­ner, pro­jected at 24 frames per sec­ond in a dark­ened the­ater, affects the brain in a way akin to dream­ing. Incep­tion is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempt­ing to encode the expe­ri­ence into the archi­tec­ture of a film itself. Whether you com­pare it to onion skins or a puz­zle­box, the form fol­lows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Incep­tion is finally proof that movies with bud­gets in the hun­dreds of mil­lions need not be moronic and dis­pos­able. Yes, Incep­tion is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored out­laws, guns, fight sequences, and explod­ing moun­tain fortresses, but it’s also an intel­li­gent, com­plex expe­ri­ence for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vig­i­lante in a rub­ber bat cos­tume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception“It’s not, strictly speak­ing, legal.”

Incep­tion is the nat­ural pro­gres­sion from Fol­low­ing, Memento, and The Pres­tige, Christo­pher Nolan’s quar­tet of wholly orig­i­nal visions. Insom­nia, a safe remake of the far more incen­di­ary Nor­we­gian orig­i­nal, now seems like a detour, a pay­ing of dues to enter the main­stream. His pair of Bat­man fran­chise entries injected a mod­icum of psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism into the pulp source mate­r­ial, but the grimly pon­der­ous weight of it all was per­haps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Bur­ton has man­aged to find the right mix­ture of camp and solem­nity that makes up Batman.

While Incep­tion may have some sur­face resem­blance to numer­ous heist, caper, long con, action, and sci­ence fic­tion films, it is nev­er­the­less a very wel­come New Thing. Its deep­est the­matic links are prob­a­bly to cere­bral sci-fi med­i­ta­tions Solaris and Until the End of the World. The night­mare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted vis­i­tors with imper­fect rein­car­na­tions of their most emo­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers. When a griev­ing astro­naut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of sui­cide, is it a bless­ing or a curse?

Inception“A sin­gle idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can trans­form the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wen­ders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading tech­nol­ogy would be enor­mously addic­tive, psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­ag­ing, and per­ma­nently alter soci­ety. If a tech­nol­ogy is ever invented for a group of peo­ple to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to con­struct the dream­world itself, how plau­si­ble it is that soci­ety would not be rad­i­cally trans­formed? In Incep­tion, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a mas­ter at cor­po­rate espi­onage. His exper­tise is with a process nor­mally uti­lized for the “extrac­tion” of trade secrets, but inverted to incep­tion: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold mas­sive sig­nif­i­cance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines grad­u­ally seep away users’ abil­ity to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the nor­mal­ity of not only dream­ing, but more impor­tantly, wak­ing up from dreams. Wen­ders’ The End of Vio­lence would sim­i­larly look at another dystopian future in which global sur­veil­lance is taken to its log­i­cal extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg com­par­i­son to every­thing from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mis­sion: Impos­si­ble. Its cre­ative fight sequences, tak­ing place in vir­tual are­nas in which the laws of time and grav­ity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true nar­ra­tive and struc­tural tem­plate is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (par­tic­u­larly Homi­cide and Red­belt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of crim­i­nal experts work with a psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The blood­less mas­sacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resem­ble video games. The obliquely por­trayed vio­lence is partly explained by a PG-13 rat­ing that hyp­o­crit­i­cally per­mits dozens of onscreen shoot­ings, but dis­al­lows blood, and thus any sense of the reper­cus­sions and ram­i­fi­ca­tions of vio­lence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be man­i­fes­ta­tions of the sub­con­scious. A slight-of-hand moral­ity magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys ratio­nal­ize away their mass killing of vir­tual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a lit­tle big­ger, darling.”

Incep­tion had already devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be sur­pris­ingly straight­for­ward if you pay a lit­tle bit of atten­tion. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much every­thing you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly lit­eral expo­si­tion (usu­ally in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquis­i­tive char­ac­ter). The key ambi­gu­ity is a sim­ple but pro­found ques­tion raised in its final moments. Inter­preted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an air­tight box (which is extra­or­di­nary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make log­i­cal sense). Inter­preted another way, it calls into ques­tion every­thing you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a per­sonal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ari­adne (Ellen Page) to never allow any­one else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Mar­ion Cotil­lard). Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, unless I missed some­thing, we never see her with it out­side of the dream world. The top had sym­bolic mean­ing to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphor­i­cal safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encour­age her to break her addic­tion and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test her­self with it when she woke up?

One fur­ther clue that sug­gests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equiv­a­lent of 50 years in Limbo, sev­eral lev­els deep into their sub­con­scious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dream­ing? Is Cobb still trapped a few lev­els down?

Ellen Page in Inception“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we real­ize some­thing was actu­ally strange.”

And one won­ders about the implau­si­ble dream tech­nol­ogy itself. It’s offhand­edly said to have been devel­oped by the mil­i­tary for train­ing pur­poses, but very lit­tle time is spent on the mechan­ics of the tech­nol­ogy. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of link­ing peo­ple together, but how exactly does an Archi­tect cre­ate and real­ize the world? We see Ari­adne fid­dle with papier-mâché mod­els, and ver­bally describe the world to the par­tic­i­pants, but we’re also told that the archi­tect need not nec­es­sar­ily enter the dream per­son­ally, so it’s not her men­tal map that makes things pos­si­ble. If the agents are able to con­jure things on the fly (Eames pro­duces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ari­adne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advan­tage of their effec­tively unlim­ited abil­i­ties dur­ing the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospec­tive archi­tect being able to devise labyrinths, some­thing like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is lit­er­ally short-circuited and we never see a dra­matic pay­off to the theme of mazes.

Ray Brad­bury once said that he was not con­cerned with the mechan­ics of inter­stel­lar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry char­ac­ters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedes­trian of me to won­der about these prac­ti­cal­i­ties, or do these ques­tions actu­ally mat­ter a great deal? Is the lack of speci­ficity about how this mirac­u­lous tech­nol­ogy actu­ally works a clue? I believe it is linked to the trou­bling ambi­gu­ity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he sim­ply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home coun­try, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fan­tasy? Is he actu­ally guilty of a crime like Roman Polan­ski, or merely obsessed with indi­rect cul­pa­bil­ity like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shut­ter Island? Either way, he may have the oppor­tu­nity to con­struct a false real­ity in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Incep­tion is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Run­ner, it’s the rare sci­ence fic­tion film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Ran­dom Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the mas­ter thief attempts the myth­i­cal One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sport­ing Nolan’s own hair­cut, Incep­tion might suf­fer in com­par­i­son to his some­what sim­i­lar char­ac­ter in his most recent film, Shut­ter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the bud­get at $160 mil­lion, plus a $100 mil­lion pub­lic­ity cam­paign. As usual, these num­bers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Ander­son, Nolan has devel­oped his own per­sonal actors’ troupe. Incep­tion fea­tures return appear­ances by Michael Caine, Ken Watan­abe, Cil­lian Murphy.

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