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.
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?
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).
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?
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-mache 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.
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.
The first few minutes of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road feature one of the boldest jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beatnik hipsters at a loft party. Like any flirting young couple, how each chooses to introduce themself comprises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glamorous April simply says she is studying to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toiling in nothing jobs holding him back from vaguely-defined great aspirations. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to several years later to find Frank and April married in suburbia with two kids. An older Frank privately cringes during April’s weak debut in a community theater production. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sensitive enough to know it. Her sense of definitive failure and his frustration at her frustration combusts into a blistering roadside argument on par with any of the cataclysmic rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled condescension toward their peers in the office and on their suburban street. They both share mutually incompatible senses of superiority, feeling destined for something great without knowing what, or having any obvious natural talent to nurture. It provides no satisfaction when Frank does eventually manifest an aptitude in marketing, something they both view as disappointing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of superiority? Are we to read their hubris as a critique of the Greatest Generation (Frank is a World War II veteran, an experience he romanticizes even while acknowledging his sheer terror at the time)? This generational theory would be supported by how the older Givings family views them – but more on the Givings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by overpraising parents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscurity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds himself trapped, but any other relatives are wholly absent from their lives. Perhaps if Frank and April had been born a few generations later, they would be the sort of overconfident personalities drawn to compete on reality TV shows.
After April gives up on her dream of acting after her disastrous debut, she latches onto a fantasy of moving to Paris and supporting Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never specifies what he imagines himself becoming. Writer? Politician? Artist? He has nothing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gallic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really commits anyway. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller coworkers with whom he shares daily steak and martini lunches. He becomes further ensnared by success in the business world, as measured by income, the sexual availability of naive office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking ladder of promotion.
One flaw of the film is dialogue that sometimes strays from naturalism into the novelistic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of arguments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”
I promised to return to the Givings family, whom I believe are the key to understanding the film. Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) gently teaches April how to be a good housewife, offering passive aggressive critiques of such fripperies as lawn maintenance. But she slowly reveals a longing admiration for the Wheelers as an ideal American nuclear family: a nice, good-looking, successful, model young couple in love (their coarse neighbors the Campbells also idealize the Wheelers). Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her troubled son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician and intellectual brought low by mental illness and electroshock therapy (whether it is the disease or the cure that ails him most is a question that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the coldest, clearest, starkest view of reality, and cuts right through all the subterfuge and doublespeak with which these American nuclear families delude themselves. Everything he says is right, but tragically, Frank and April interpret the bitterly damaged man as a kindred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damningly illustrates their faults.
In some ways, the final scene is the most devastating, and it doesn’t even feature the Wheelers at all. The Givings chat at home alone, long after the Wheelers revealed themselves to be fatally fractious and tortured. We witness Helen rewrite history, belittling the Wheelers in terms of their ability to maintain the value of their home (read: their family). As she’s busy erasing her emotional stake in the Wheelers, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) turns off his hearing aid to literally drown her out. He gazes at her emptily, dispassionately, dead inside. We might imagine their marriage survived the kind of emotional flashpoint that destroyed the Wheelers, but trapped them in a cold, loveless life together.
Ridley Scott’s follow up to the gentle comedy of A Good Year and the crime drama American Gangster (partly modeled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented territory he first visited in Black Hawk Down. The key difference here is that, like Peter Weir’s The Kingdom and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point, Body of Lies is set in a fantasyland safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty realism, but still indulge in the wish fulfillment of a very cinematic war on terror.
Body of Lies can be seen as completing a kind of Middle East trilogy for Scott, after the aforementioned Black Hawk Down plus the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. Screenwriter William Monahan wrote both Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, Body of Lies is clearly the least serious.
No doubt movie studio executives have calculated down to the last cent that world audiences are still too sensitive to actual terrorist attacks like London and Madrid in order to buy tickets for dramatic recreations on the big screen. Instead, most mainstream terrorism-themed movies are basically entertainments that only have the feel of serious import, and none of the substance. Body of Lies invents analogous terrorist attacks such as a sleeper cell blowing up their London flat, and later, the bombing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal – Demi Moore – from Scott’s G.I. Jane wasn’t stationed there). Vantage Point is a little more creative in imagining a worst-case-scenario of a presidential assassination, but has no interest in the repercussions beyond a Rashomon-like recounting of the immediate aftermath.
So audiences get films like this, where shadowy CIA operatives sneak around Iraq and Jordan, saving the world from Islamic fundamentalism. They have seemingly limitless resources but no government oversight, and anything is possible with a little computer hacking. Meanwhile, more serious and realistic movies are ignored, like In the Valley of Elah and the truly excellent but emotionally devastating United 93. In comparison, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recreate actual events still raw in the American public’s memory: the catastrophic marine incursion into Somalia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeuvre, Kingdom of Heaven is a much smarter consideration of the clash of faiths in the Middle East.
Body of Lies is Russell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, following Gladiator, A Good Year, and American Gangster. Here, he packs on some serious poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, seasoned with a little of the crass bastard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on temporary loan from Martin Scorsese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is constantly getting beaten up, cut, bruised, and losing fingers. But he meets cute with pretty Iranian nurse Aisah (Golshifteh Farahani), so that’s alright, then.
Martin Scorsese works almost constantly, directing documentaries between each higher-profile feature film. But the frequency of his fiction films is far enough apart for them to remain much more hotly anticipated, and every year that went by with him being passed over by the Academy Awards only more firmly established his status as a Great American Director.
Despite finally being the occasion of his long-overdue recognition by the Academy, The Departed probably won’t be ranked among his more idiosyncratic and personal films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas (not to mention his still-underappreciated films about religious faith: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Chinese thriller Infernal Affairs, and thus should actually be categorized alongside Scorsese’s other star-studded remake, Cape Fear. Both are undoubtedly stamped with Scorsese’s auteur touch, but still not among his most distinctively personal work.
Seeing the film for the second time, this time on the small screen, this blogger is struck by the extremely high energy and pace. Like Michael Mann’s Heat (an influence on Infernal Affairs), the story concerns the parallel narratives of a cop — or should I say “cwawp” — (Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan) and a criminal (Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan). But unlike Mann’s stately pacing, Scorsese keeps every scene remarkably short and frantically cross-cuts between the dual narratives. Were Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker chugging espressos in the editing suite?
One aspect of the plot I still don’t fully understand: what exactly does crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) offer Colin to ensure such undying loyalty? It doesn’t seem enough that Frank provided minor charity to Colin’s struggling family in his youth. What does Colin really owe him?