Director Christopher Nolan has fashioned a career as neatly parceled into halves as that of Bruce Wayne/Batman: On the one side are his ontological thrillers, crafty mind games such as “Following,” “Memento” and “The Prestige,” with their shifting levels of reality and unreliable narrators. On the other are his big-budget comic book films, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” His latest, “Inception,” sees the director attempting to split the difference.
Can you have your cake and eat it too? I can imagine a Nolan film on this topic, titled perhaps “Confection.” The protagonist would indeed eat his cake, only to return home in the evening and find it there again on his table. Perhaps he only imagined eating the cake. Perhaps the cake does not exist. Or maybe someone was fiendishly replacing each piece of cake with an identical one.
It doesn’t really matter. For Nolan, film itself is a kind of magic trick, a chance to pull one over. This is what has inspired Nolan’s best work: In films such as “Memento” and “The Prestige,” he used editing and cutting like a kind of Three-card Monte, letting us see just enough to draw the wrong conclusion.
Typical is a scene in “Inception,” where lead villain Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is talking to coconspirator Ariadne (Ellen Page) at a Paris sidewalk cafe, trying to convince her that she’s actually asleep and in a dream. “Think about it,” he says. “How did you just get here?” Ariadne doesn’t know because, well, there was a jump cut from the last scene. Nolan is sowing doubts about the reliability of intrinsic narrative devices we take for granted in movies. Upon consideration, the viewer realizes that no, we don’t know how Ariadne got to that freaking cafe either.
With “Inception,” Nolan seeks to wed this trickery to the more predictable demands of a Hollywood action flick. He attempts to convince us the cake is still on the table, but we see him wiping away crumbs from the corners of his mouth.
“Inception” is basically Bond meets Bun~uel, an action-packed espionage thriller set in an unstable world of dreams where logic and even the laws of physics do not apply. DiCaprio plays the leader of a team of master criminals — portrayed, among others, by Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao — who work on shady corporate assignments to drug targeted business rivals, lure them into manufactured dream worlds and steal ideas and secrets from inside their heads. It’s a concept with a heavy debt to “The Matrix” (another team of pros hacking a simulated reality) and author Jeff Noon’s groundbreaking “Vurt” (with its programmed dreams and similar Orpheus-like theme), but Nolan sets it in a more mundane world closer to the one we all know.
When an idea-theft attempt against industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) fails, he turns the tables and asks the gang to target his rival, an energy-monopoly heir played by Cillian Murphy. But the kicker is that Saito wants them to plant an idea in his head, in such a way that it will take root. This involves creating three levels of artificial dream, each deeper than the next, through which to lead the target, and a great deal of convoluted explanation as to why this is necessary.
Indeed, the viewer will be so busy trying to figure out the “rules” for Nolan’s world — why your subconscious will attack you, whether or not you can die in a dream, how you can use a “kick” to bail out of the dream, how “totems” are used to verify you’re back in “reality,” etc. — that you’ll never have time to be sure it all adds up. (One key plot twist involving Dom’s dead lover — played by Marion Cotillard — seems unlikely if the “totem” rule had been followed.)
The problem with “Inception” — and it’s a biggie — is that despite all the clever concepts, the dream worlds just don’t ever feel like dreams; they feel like, well, a slightly trippy Roland Emmerich movie. I don’t know about you, but in my dreams the onset of waking up is not preceded by wall-crumbling earthquakes and explosions. It’s just a gratuitous use of computer-generated SFX, slathered over the film like ketchup on scrambled eggs.
Recall, if you will, David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”: When Naomi Watts opens up that mysterious blue box, all of a sudden we’re into a different scene, and Naomi is someone different than who she just was. It’s a brilliant and rare big-screen depiction of the shifting, nebulous, impossible yet oh-so-real experiences we have in dreams.
Now take Nolan’s dream worlds in “Inception”: Here, a search into the subconscious takes the form of a military assault on an arctic fortress, complete with endless bad guys falling like Death Star peons. Would that all our psychological problems could be solved by plastic explosives.