Christopher Nolan, director of such deliciously esoteric fare as Memento and dark, blockbuster monsters like Batman: The Dark Knight, is deftly trying to do two things at once in the crowd pleaser, Inception: explore his obsession with dreams and memory, and create an action thriller that combines Bourne-Identity intrigue with Matrix-like stunt chases.
He pretty much pulls it off. One can't help but be reminded in this movie of Scorcese's recent Shutter Island, also staring LeonardoDiCaprio as a detective, of sorts, who gets pulled into a psychological trap of his own making. The two movies share the same logical DNA, giving DiCaprio an absence wife and psychological wound out of the same playbook – even the two houses that the DiCaprio's dream of in their subconscious seem like they come from the same plush suburban neighborhood.
Each movie is the creation of its director, however, so while Shutter Island takes the form of a gritty police procedural / haunted house chase, Nolan is going for something much broader and a bit more trippy. Those trailers of the city blocks raising up overhead and folding over on top of you tell you what Nolan is after here: a flexible world with no rules of physics that can mix the latest CGI effects with a good old-fashioned “Mission Impossible” action thriller.
The movie opens with Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team performing what they term an “extraction” – entering with their subject into a shared dream, where they physically must find the room where the subject has metaphorically locked away some hidden secret. Essentially they are corporate spies, and the dream story is a literal metonymic interpretation of the symbol of “locking away” a secret. This kind of psychology doesn’t exactly have the texture that one might get from Freud, say – it traffics exclusively in pop-culture understandings. The movie is content to stay on this pop-culture level throughout. But that’s okay, since it’s given itself enough to do in trying to set up its various dream worlds.
It turns out that one level of dreaming isn’t enough deception to delude their subject, and they have to take them down another level – a dream within a dream – and it’s in these maze-like levels of interlocking dreams where the movie wants to romp, and have its fun. This particular subject gets wise even with two dream states (the carpet he was lying on apparently had been changed in reality, and he notices the difference). In exchange for protecting the extraction team from their failure, the subject gives them a new challenge: instead of an extraction, he wants them to perform an “inception” – actually planting a new memory into a subject.
Cobb knows how to do this because he’s done it before, and it had something to do with his wife, and here we start to get the clues of the movie’s ultimate psychology. Like Shutter Island, we’re building up to a big revelation in the end, and one should never trust a movie that starts from the outset with the intention to play with our grasp on reality. Despite the attempt to lose us in a maze of different realities, I found Nolan’s ultimate destination here a bit predictable.
Even so, getting there is pretty fun. Nolan eventually has a team of different personalities all digging into a reality that’s at least four (or maybe, more?) levels deep. There’s a little invented device of a time distortion – the deeper you go, the more time slows down, so what’s seconds at level one is decades at level four. What I liked most was how Nolan creates a device (the movie calls this a “kick”) that synchronizes the dreamers at all the various levels, and drives everyone back to their waking states at the same moment in time. That’s some pretty deft editing to juggle all those story lines and locations and keep it all straight in audiences’ minds, let alone have them all “kick” at the same climax, and the movie does this fantastically.
Nolan adds a bit of genius casting by having Ellen Page, of Juno fame, play a young protege of Cobb’s who becomes his “architect” – a person who helps him populate the physical puzzle of the dream worlds. Page's Adriadne is a bit young to be roped into all this espionage, and her recent character as a preggers teenager is hard to erase as you watch her play Lady of the Matrix, giving her presence in the film a feeling of odd displacement. That’s exactly the delicious off-kilterness that makes a movie like this work.
What it may not do quite as well is provide a justification for it all. The absent wife in this movie has a proposition for Cobb, which we may or may not believe. But unlike the elaborate dream-worlds that Cobb has constructed, it isn’t that much of a puzzle. We never really get to see why Cobb has made his choices, or what drives him to bury them so deep, and it leaves the emotion of the film a bit hollow.
I think Nolan wanted the audience to feel that they were left with a mystery, and he has a nice little top (a “totem”) that singles that for us. It's interesting that our culture has seemingly become most entertained by depictions of distortions of reality, or people who have essentially entered into their own dream worlds. Perhaps that says something about the flexible reality our culture now traffics in. For most of us, this is starting to get old hand, and many in the audience will have guessed the end (or should I say, the open-ended ending question) half-way through. Total Recall ended with a similar brain teaser (as did the "Moriarty" Star Trek episodes about the holodeck), and though Nolan's mystery doesn't add up nearly as neat as these, it still has incredible synchronicity, like a supersized sci-fi opera.
The real mystery then is how Nolan has turned a series of pop-culture dream states into an entertaining action vehicle. The movie may not have the subtle genius of a Memento, but it has all the exotic sets, free-floating angst, and high-octane explosions to make it perhaps the biggest hit of the summer season.