My mind is blown. It is. Just not quite as blown as I was expecting it to be.
I blame myself. I think not only like a critic but like a writer of fiction. I see a crazy-ass idea up on the screen in the opening moments of a film, and I can’t help but think: What would I do if I’d had that crazy-ass idea first? Where would I take it?
And I think not only like a critic but like a crazy-ass person who simply loves movies with such a passion that I’ve seen an unhealthy number of them (and read too many novels, too). I see the Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece even when a filmmaker goes out of the way to disguise it. And the thing is, I’m not sure Christopher Nolan goes out of his way to disguise his Chekhov’s guns here. (Chekhov’s gun? You know: If someone’s gonna get shot in Act III, there better be a gun on the mantel in Act I. And if there’s a gun on the mantel in Act I, someone sure as hell better get shot with it in Act III.) Good writers hide their Chekhov’s guns well. I’m not sure if Nolan has done that here.
It’s like this: Whether you know what goes into crafting a story because you’ve crafted stories yourself or because you’ve just seen so many of them that you’ve internalized the structure, sometimes it’s hard not to see the man behind the curtain, the puppet strings making it move, the underpinnings holding it all up.
It sounds like I’m being hard on Nolan, and I guess I am: I expect a helluva lot from him. Memento will surely go down in cinematic history as one of the most astonishing movies ever made. It’s a hard act to follow. Nolan’s done pretty damn well following himself. And he has done it again here. Mostly.
If there’s one major flaw here, it’s that Inception is more satisfying on an intellectual level than on an emotional one. Not that I’m really complaining about that: for here is a big-budget studio summer blockbuster that’s about ideas. This is a rare, rare thing. And this rare thing is thrilling, thinky without being stuffy, smart as if being smart was the easiest, most natural thing in the world, which is truly exceptional when Hollywood appears intent on going out of its way to dumb everything down these days.
And when I say this is a movie about “ideas,” I do mean ideas themselves: How ideas — just someone whispering something to you in the right way at the right time — can have a crude, subtle power like nothing else. How ideas can change us to our very core. Nolan (The Dark Knight, The Prestige) drops in little thinkbombs here about the “raw infinite subconscious” and how “true inspiration is impossible to fake”… and then he goes about plumbing the depths of subconscious infinity and faking true inspiration. Inception is stunningly brilliant in how it does what it does, even if what it does isn’t quite as grand in scope as I might have expected — hoped, even — from Nolan.
So: Meet Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio: Shutter Island, Body of Lies). He can get in your head and steal your thoughts. It’s not exactly the most legal kind of work, and he’s ready to get out. Inception is the most audacious example of the one-last-job heist-capade, made even more audacious by dint of the spin on this last job: Cobb is hired not to steal an idea but to plant one, hired to do an inception rather than an extraction. This is, it is explained to us, a vastly harder thing to do.
Working with Cobb are a fascinating team of idea-stealers, most prominently Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Women in Trouble) Arthur, Ellen Page’s (Whip It, Juno) Ariadne, and Tom Hardy’s (RocknRolla) Eames. Watching these four bounce off one another leaves you with the exhilarating sense that if this is the future of The Movies, if these are the faces and the talents we’re going to be seeing for the next 30 years onscreen, that is a very good thing indeed.
Nolan is at his most beguiling here playing with, in the meta sense, movies as dreams, messing with the physics of narrative time, reminding us on multiple levels that movies are not to be trusted beyond our experience in the moment of them, as we’re watching them, that they are fleeting dreamscapes that begin midscene — we never do remember how a dream starts, do we? we just start remembering in the middle of a dream — and often end by leaving us hungry to know more, as if we awaken just prior to a resolution. Nolan’s tweaking of narrative time makes watching Inception like falling into a black hole: time is relativistic here, slowing down the closer we get to the event horizon of the movie. And that event horizon is forever out of reach: you never, ever stop falling into a black hole…
If I’m feeling just the teensiest, weensiest bit of disappointment that I can’t feel more for Inception, I am at least comforted by the fact that I am absolutely going to be thinking about it endlessly for days. And then I’m going to see it again, in an attempt to get to that event horizon, however impossible that may be.