Don’t dream it’s over
Thoughts on Inception
(Spoiler alert – though frankly if you haven’t seen it by now, you’re presumably not going to)
If you haven’t seen Inception yet, just go. Trust me. Especially if you don’t go to the cinema regularly – hire a babysitter, get decent seats, and make sure you go to the bathroom beforehand. And stop reading now – with this film, the less you know in advance, very much the better.
SO. I saw the trailer months and months ago and I think I even did my involuntary quick-hand-clap-of-excitement the minute it said “From Christopher Nolan”, as Hans Zimmer’s wonderful bass soundtrack pounded my brain. Here’s another example: Anyway, there were shots of cliff-edge cities crumbling into the sea, of Parisian cityscapes folding onto themselves, of backdrops exploding in slow motion while the characters sat, unscathed and oblivious, in the foreground. Leonardo getting serious. Joseph doing Matrix-style moves down a corridor. That lovely Marion Cotillard from La Vie En Rose. Awesome and exciting.
Months, and a whole heap of hype, later – Inception is so good I’ve seen it twice. Not that I didn’t understand it the first time – remarkably (for me), I followed the story and its many, many layers and it totally clicked. But the second viewing enabled me to capture every nuance, appreciate every line, as well as re-enjoy some of the more satisfying performances (Tom Hardy in the bar in Mombasa boasts some of the most natural acting I’ve seen in a long time; Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acrobatics in the hotel have me in thrall every time).
For me, Inception‘s beauty is all about the concept. Just as A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s brilliance lay in the fact we all have to fall asleep at some stage, Inception riffs on the various elements of the dream state – something every audience member can identify with (regardless of whether they might question the science of some of the assertions). It’s true – dreams seem real when we’re in them, and it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was in fact strange. Sure enough – the action in our dreams feels like it last hours when in reality we’re only asleep for minutes. The film uses the mystery of our subconscious to great effect – poignantly in the notion that our bugbears will hijack our happiness or good intentions, and ingeniously when the people populating our dream treat us suspiciously the moment we (in the dream) sense that things aren’t quite as they should be.
The very notion of being able to enter someone’s dream, share that dream with others and communicate with them within the dream in full knowledge that it’s only a dream, is frankly mind-blowing. Further concepts of pain and death within dreams have a basis in our existing experience (that if you die in a dream, you wake up in reality – but if you’re injured in a dream, your brain feels the pain just as intensely as if it were real, since the brain reads pain on an emotional level).
One key element is of course the dream-within-a-dream motif. The fact that this is stretched further into not just a third, but a fourth sub-dream, makes this all the more fascinating. On first viewing, I must admit to losing interest in the 4th level towards the end – the action in the snow scenes, necessarily slowed down to allow us to watch the progress within the other three dream levels, is purely perfunctory. As, appropriately, is the central plot – Cillian Murphy has to change his mind, for himself (not suggested by others), and thus change the course of his future. Considering the method by which this is achieved has to be so complex, it’s entirely right that the quest is straightforward. But the other three levels are brilliant, and I gained great pleasure from my second viewing in terms of tracking the characters’ progress in each mini adventure.
Viewers will be divided over Leonardo DiCaprio’s role and performance, but I like him. I heard a veteran screenwriter say recently that the most important thing is that we (the audience) connect and empathise with the protagonist. Of course, we know this to be true, and I think this was well achieved over the course of the film’s two and a half hours. Leonardo’s Dom Cobb can’t return to the US to see his children because of a slowly-revealed criminal charge. In itself that’s not so interesting. But Cobb is wanted for the murder of his wife Mal (the lovely Cotillard) who threw herself to her death because she believed she was still dreaming – and as we all know, if you die in a dream, you wake up. The fact that Cobb carries the guilt of effectively leading her to that place where she could no longer discern dreaming from reality, is compelling and horrific. We may bear him no ill-will for it, but we still want to see him set her, and himself, free. The love story in the film is frequently beautiful in its rendering, and Cobb’s unrealistic idealism of his marriage ultimately redeemed by his admission that he can no longer see Mal with all her faults and complexities that made her real to him – hence his ability, finally, to let her go so he can return to reality and move on with his life.
I enjoyed some of the in-jokes (doubtless there are many I did not pick up). Marion Cotillard is best known for her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, and the “wake-up” trigger song in Inception is Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”. It’s also nice when a director re-uses favourite cast members: Cillian Murphy (from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) and of course Michael Caine (from the same). He used Carrie-Anne Moss in Memento just after she had shot to stardom in The Matrix, echoes of which abound in this film.
Once again, Nolan has created a film that plays with memory (as in Memento) and riffs on perception (Insomnia and The Prestige), tying in spectacular special effects (many of which were done old-school, that is to say with specially constructed moving sets, rather than as CGI) with a meaningful, universally-accessible story and some entertaining performances. The set-pieces are breathtaking in their execution (I could watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt leaping and floating around that hotel for hours), and the concept is thought-provoking and compelling. Even after 148 minutes I didn’t want to wake up.