This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
There are a few spoilers here. Because I am mentioning that there are spoilers, I am implying that there are things you do not want to know in advance, thus making you curious, thus lifting your expectations higher than they should be, thus making it harder for you to enjoy the film. So, enter at your own risk.
Occasionally I receive a paper from a student that is so outstanding in content and ideas, that in grading it I am compelled to overlook the shortcomings in argument, style and polish. Such is my experience with Christopher Nolan's "Inception." This movie is very ambitious, not only in the ideas it explores, but also in the expectations it has of its audience. In my estimation, having watched the film on a giant screen with a packed theater of cheering, laughing, and groaning moviegoers at a popular suburban multiplex, it fulfills its ambitions of big-budget intelligent storytelling.
Still, I need to nitpick a bit. First and foremost, the film features very talented actors - including that guy from the iconic "Titanic" and that girl from the iconic "Juno" - but does not utilize much of their acting chops in a film that creates great space for such work. The effect is that they are audience members in their world as much as we are. It seems as though half of Ellen Page's role in the film was to watch what we were watching and comment. On the other hand, I must say that Tom Hardy commands the scene nearly every moment he opens his mouth.
Second, this film is an action film, but does not give us effective action. My gripes about Nolan's previous action sequences in his Batman movies apply here also. I appreciate the technique of East Asian films, where action is depicted with all its sensual athletics as choreography. Here, action sequences are delivered with close-ups and medium shots when wide shots would help us appreciate them. If we are graced with such lush CGI that frequently draws attention to itself, we could do the same with the action sequences. Nevertheless, the action sequences here are far more engrossing than in his previous films.
And, third, this film takes us into a universe - the world of the mind - and establishes its own rules for navigating its terrain, though it does not follow all of its own rules. For example, in the Superman movies, we are taught that Superman has all types of special powers, allowing him to do the amazing things he does, yet somehow he is exercised enough to look like a bodybuilder. Seems to me that Superman should be rather chubby. In the Batman films (all of them, including Nolan's), Bruce Wayne somehow fights criminals all night long, yet is bruised only as much as a loser in a bar room brawl. These are Chicago criminals; I would hope that we are a bit tougher than that. In "Inception" we have a simple problem. The central characters are geniuses who set up a whole process of inhabiting dreams. The one character depicted as essentially illiterate - Tom Hardy - seems to have the ability to choose to "dream up" a huge gun to fight off opponents, yet none of the geniuses or dimwits seems to have the sense to "dream up" a bulletproof vest. Still, speaking as a part-time academic, I often find myself in the company of profound thinkers who lack some basic common sense.
Moving beyond the nitpicking let us now explore the film. Consider your memories of Yuji Okumoto, if you have any. Perhaps you remember him as the Howard-Cosell-imitating drag racer in Better off Dead. Perhaps you remember him as the angry young nemesis Chozen in "The Karate Kid, Part II." He is now some fifty years old, though in your mind he might still forever be that tightfisted frowning young man.
Let us move a step closer. Consider your memory of Lukas Haas. Perhaps you remember him as the innocent wide-eyed Amish lad in Witness. Though he has been in numerous movies since then, would you recognize him today as a thirtysomething man?
Let us move even closer. Consider your memory of Tom Berenger. Though he appeared in numerous iconic films throughout the Seventies and Eighties, we have not seen as much of him lately. When you think of Tom Berenger, what is he like?
Did you spot Okumoto in the film? Perhaps you noticed Haas, but did not recognize him? Perhaps you noticed and recognized Berenger? In the past, these actors performed very particular roles in very popular movies. As a result, those actors, rather, those characters, (perhaps those moments) are bit players hiding in the crevices of our memories. They themselves reappear in our consciousness infrequently. Perhaps their effects ripple in our minds beyond anything conscious.
Let us move from persons to settings - moments - from the movies of your life. Perhaps in some movie you have already seen a nameless man washing up on the shore of a white sandy beach. Or a dimly lit backroom of a quiet Japanese businessman guarded by silent men in suits, or a mob of screaming angry bearded brown men crowding an alley of abandoned cars, or an African market crowded with dashikis and peppered with sweaty Europeans. Perhaps in some movies you followed conversation at a corner French café, or the planning of a heist in a high ceiling anonymous warehouse, or even spies in a snowcapped mountain approaching a tightly guarded fortress. It is probable that you have already seen most every scene in this film before, at least in part.
This first layer of "Inception" provides an encounter with the familiar. Familiar actors, familiar scenes, familiar moments. In "Inception" that sense of the familiar resides both in our conscious and (especially) subconscious minds. In seeking to suspend our disbelief, most films begin with the familiar, but most of the settings in "Inception" are familiar. In most other films, these scenes would be cliché. Christopher Nolan, however, launches with cliché, soon spinning cliché around and around upon itself.
And, here, we learn from "Inception" that a foundation of our consciousness involves our memory, yet is not quite our memory. Rather, we spin in this circular battle (fueled by memory) wrestling the desire for some imagined thing behind us, against the yearning for some hoped thing before us. Each of us has memories, good and bad. Each of us seeks routine in the familiar. Each of us has longing. These forces, however, do not always coincide. Sometimes, they clash.
One character in "Inception" longs to return home from an exile, yet that longing clashes with his pained hopes for a return to a life that has already left him. Have you ever felt that type of conflicted homesickness, longing on the one hand to physically go home to the bricks, kitchen, furniture and windows, while also longing to return to a "home" that is forever lost, save for the watercolor faces in the murals of your imagination?
Another character seeks a return to the happy days of his childhood, while longing for validation from the central figure in his life. Do you remember your youth as innocent exploration of an endless world or as ominous shadows floating against the walls of a prison? Meaning, did you once own a homemade pinwheel - or a sled named Rosebud - that still makes you smile, or do the charred ashes of that sled haunt you?
The result of failure in this battle is a long life lived alone full of regret. Success, however, offers something entirely different. Success offers hope. And, "Inception" expands this exploration of the human consciousness into a study of a central area of the human condition: "Inception" ventures not only into the complexities of memory but also into the complications of morality.
In our social and political cultures we often speak of the "greater good," asking the question: can one harm be justified to prevent other harms? More simply: do the ends justify the means? Philosophical, theological, and legal schools all address this question. The movie "Wanted" speaks of "killing one to save a thousand." The movie "Minority Report" explores this question: if you know that a particular crime will be committed, can you prosecute before the crime is committed? With "Inception," those familiar with Christopher Nolan's films know that he is treading familiar territory here. In "Insomnia," detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) frames a man who (in his mind) was a danger to society. In "The Prestige," magicians rival each other enough to cross over into social and physical realms of unknown and taboo. In "The Dark Knight," Batman - seeking to stop the Joker - tortures the Joker to obtain information and (after the Joker escapes) he invades the privacies of all of Gotham City to track him.
But, we also see a progression in Nolan's approach to the question. Will Dormer is an officer - a man enforcing the law - who is consumed by both his guilty conscience and the prospects of being prosecuted for his choices. Batman is a vigilante - a man subverting the law - who regrets his own choices. In "Inception," we speak not of officers, not of vigilantes, but of straight thieves. These thieves are not working toward a greater good, but are working through selfish self-interest.
Even the question of the greater good itself is spun around and tossed onto its head. Here the question is: is it justifiable to act in pure, unadulterated selfish pursuit, if the victim does not find out? Further, is it any more justifiable if the accidental result is a happier life for the victim? Can we justify stealing from a victim in such a way that the victim is actually made happier? Here, Nolan does not answer the question, as much as he compels us to answer it for him.
We found a similar contradiction in our own appreciation of The Godfather: we celebrated and sympathized with a family of powerful, violent, wretched crooks. In "Inception," when a young man believes he has finally attained his lifelong dream for his father's validation, we experience a special moment of joy for him, despite the fact that this validation is completely forged by lucky thieves who could otherwise care less about his well being. If that lie can possibly change a man's life from empty luxury to optimistic perseverance, is that lie justifiable? If we appreciated that moment in the film, then perhaps our own answer is "yes."
But, in that moment itself, Nolan is manipulating us as much as the thieves are using the victim. The victim himself smiles while the musical score sweeps from something pounding suspense, to an upward joyous swing.
Beyond our short moments of manipulated happiness for the characters - wondering if the seemingly happy ending is indeed happy - Nolan himself does not explicitly answer the question, except to assert that the culprits' internal compasses will eventually challenge the their choices. If we exploit someone else, either for noble or selfish pursuits, that same memory that fueled us with hope will eventually haunt us with lonely regret. Further, the thief himself might soon forget that the rest of us rely on a seemingly concrete reality, while he himself lives in the clouded, stormy existentialist moment. It is not only failure that results in a life of regret, but even some success.
Ultimately, Nolan does make a comment on the nature of reality, dreams, memory and consciousness. He illustrates that - waking or dreaming - ours is an imagined world of meanings and yearnings. We give meaning to the locations of our lives. We give meaning to little tokens in our lives, turning them into totems. We give meaning to the relationships in our lives. That Yuji Okumoto appears in this film might be utterly meaningless for you. For me, however, it brought me back to my the mid-1980s. The same happened for me with the appearances of Lukas Haas and Tom Berenger. I saw myself through my visions of them.
We live according to the meanings we give our world, and we respond to those meanings, reinventing the world again and again according to the yearnings within us. Not only is film a process of projection, not only are dreams processes of projection, but so too is our world, at every layer of consciousness, subconsciousness, projections.
So, did the top continue spinning or did it fall? The point is that it is not just a top. Omer M. Mozaffar teaches at the University of Chicago and Loyola.
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