Is this how writer-director Christopher Nolan dreams? My own dreams are chaotic, flotsam-and-jetsam ordeals, so the systematic, clockwork dreams of Nolan’s Inception leave me puzzled, not so much because of their complexity but because of their weirdly antiseptic, rational nature. Like an android’s explanation of love, the movie is coolly fascinating, compelling in its own odd way, yet fundamentally flawed: It isn’t wrong, per se, but neither is it whole. I spent a couple days turning Nolan’s movie over in my mind, trying to figure out why it left me intrigued but utterly unmoved, and I finally concluded that it’s that seemingly alien quality that keeps Inception at a remove. Straightforward narratives have no place in dreams. By hewing to one, Inception makes itself a mere curiosity.
For underneath all the sci-fi trappings, the narrative here is very straightforward: It’s a caper flick. (Some interpretations might give it more nuance, but for now, I’ll stick to the ostensible narrative.) Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) works in corporate espionage using advanced technology to enter his subjects’ dreams and steal information. Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers him a job doing the opposite: covertly planting an idea in a rival’s head. Cobb’s right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), insists this can’t be done—the subject’s mind will know that the idea is foreign and reject it—but Cobb claims that such inception is indeed possible, and when Saito promises to clean up the legal mess that prevents Cobb from returning home to his children, Cobb takes the job, assembling a team that includes newcomer Ariadne* (Ellen Page). But in the preparations for infiltrating the dreams of Saito’s target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Ariadne discovers that the job is more difficult that Cobb is letting on: When the team members collectively enter a subject’s dream, they, too, are dreaming—in fact, they’re sharing a dream—and the unconscious mind of Cobb, tormented by the memory of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), is not a safe place to be.
Most of the movie takes place in dreams (and dreams-within-dreams and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams), so I was expecting something fantastical and trippy—in short, something dreamlike—but to my disappointment, most of the dreams function as standard action scenes: a rather pedestrian shoot-out, an interminable car chase, an attack on a snow fort that feels very reminiscent of some Bond movie or other. Frankly, those sequences are (and I cringe to write this because I was so excited about this movie, and I adore Memento and The Prestige) kind of boring.
One particular action sequence in different, though. In one dream, gravity goes haywire, eventually giving out altogether for reasons I needn’t get into here, and Arthur is forced to fend off an attacker while running up walls, hitting the ceiling, and leaping into weightlessness. Gordon-Levitt has an odd, long-legged grace about him that lends itself beautifully to the acrobatics of the scene—I felt like I was watching a dancer—but more than that, the twisty gravity sequence is unexpected and distinctive and, yes, dreamlike. That’s how dreams work: The laws of physics don’t always apply. Anything and everything can happen. Anything and everything does happen. Dreams don’t adhere to basic action movie patterns. They don’t follow rules at all.
But the dreams in Inception are all about rules. The parameters and procedures of dream infiltration are explained to us at great length and scrupulously followed. (Indeed, silly mythological name aside, Ariadne’s main purpose in the movie is to be ignorant of dream infiltration so as to justify the reams of expository material Cobb has to cover.) We learn about countdowns and kicks and the precise mathematical relationships between dream time and dream-within-a-dream time and dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream time. And it’s interesting and well thought out but ultimately unconvincing because dreams simply don’t work that way. Dreams aren’t rule-bound, they don’t function like clocks, and to conceive of them as such feels unnatural.
I might have had an easier time forgiving that if the entire concept of inception didn’t also feel unnatural. The movie never really explains why the planted idea would be irresistible to the subject because, again, that’s not how ideas work. Why should pushing Fisher to consider an idea also force him to act on it, especially when it’s such a life-changing idea that would affect countless other people, many of whom would have considerable motivation to prevent him from bringing that idea to fruition? The whole scheme treats Fisher—and people in general—like an automaton with a completely foreseeable output from a given input. Thus, the entire movie is premised on an enormous misunderstanding of human nature and the human psyche—a grave flaw, particularly when the movie is about something so essentially human as dreams.
And that’s a shame because there’s plenty of powerful, insightful material here in addition to the weirdly tone-deaf stuff. At its core, the movie is less about dreams and more about regret and loss and self-forgiveness, and some of that is quite moving. DiCaprio portrays the guilt-ridden Cobb with typical nuance and intensity, and though he’s hampered by the fact that we never truly meet Mal, only the sad fury she’s become in his agonized unconscious, Cobb’s journey is a compelling one. Following that line, some of the most intriguing analysis I’ve read of Inception (warning: spoilers at the link) argues that Cobb, not Fisher, may be the true inception subject—a beautiful reading that alleviates some of my frustration with the movie.
But not all. Because as I mulled over my disappointment with Inception, I realized that I’ve already seen a movie that uses a dream-infiltrating premise as a vehicle for exploring regret and loss and self-forgiveness, though with far more imagination and insight. That movie is Paprika, a mind-bending animated movie from a few years ago. Director Satoshi Kon (who also co-wrote the screenplay) creates unsettling, surreal dreams that truly feel like glimpses of the human unconscious, messy tangles of anxieties and memories and cultural touchstones and god knows what else. Secrets aren’t spelled out and tidily locked away in carefully delineated boxes but woven into the fabric of the anarchy, opaque and elusive yet painfully present. I don’t necessarily put much stock in dreams, but the sometimes violent, sometimes sexually charged, sometimes magical dreams in Paprika resonate with me and move me in a way that Inception never does.
In retrospect, I wonder whether this kind of material could ever have worked with such a precise and methodical filmmaker as Nolan (whom I still admire a great deal). The term “dream logic” is supposed to refer to the illogic of dreams, the bewildering, leaping, freeform narratives they follow. Nolan’s dream logic is entirely too logical. With those constraints, the dreams wither; the heart of the movie is hollow.
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*Ariadne? Seriously? It’s not quite as bad as calling your doomed sun-bound spaceship Icarus (I’m looking at you, Sunshine), but using the name Ariadne for the woman destined to help rescue the hero from the maze is ridiculously on the nose.