Monday, May 30, 2011

Revisit: Inception

We have to go deeper


Declaration: I am a Christopher Nolan fan. I'm sure I'm not the only one. He is not my favourite director, but I think he's had an astonishing hit rate: we're seven films in, and of the six I've seen I have very little bad to say (I'm only missing out on Insomnia - I saw the first half half hour years ago, but from all I've heard it's only OK). He's a director who has brought intelligence and originality back to mainstream Hollywood cinema: making hugely accessible cinema that dares to do something new. From the structural fuckery of Memento, to pulling the rug out from beneath the audience with The Prestige, to effectively reinventing the superhero film with his outstanding takes on the caped crusader, Nolan cannot be accused by doing things by the well established book - even when he adapts books, he conjures up a cinematic vision of his own.

Yet a funny thing happens everytime a new Christopher Nolan film is released. They are always pre-empted by a hype train, an avalanche of rabid fan expectations and viral marketing. Obviously, his Batman films are the ones that tend to occupy internet rumours for upwards of forty-eight months at a time. With Inception, though, it showed Christopher Nolan finally being a name that could stand alone without a brand name. There was of course excitement preceding the release of The Prestige, but Inception was different. He'd just made the most commercially and critically successful blockbuster of recent times - screw Avatar, the confidence and intelligence of the Dark Knight was the evolution Hollywood needed. The internet was sent into a tizzy everytime a teaser was released. Many of us avoided trailers and anything even resembling a spoiler. I personally went in close to blind. I couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement though - this was an event movie to be genuinely excited about.

Release came, and was met with both critical and fan orgasms. For many, Inception was a joy. And yet, others didn't get what the fuss was about. Inception didn't cure world hunger, as we had been led to believe it would. For all those who came out and went searching for their own totem, there were others who thought they'd been screwed over. On the message board I moderate, the Inception thread went on for over sixty pages - a true rarity in the world of mainstream film discourse, and full of a very wide range of opinions - from love to hate to apathy.

Almost a year on, I finally rewatched Inception, and I still think it's an astonishingly good film. Free from expectations and excitement, I watched the film solely for what it was, not simply as the new Christopher Nolan film. What stood out this time around, much like it did first time, was that going into Inception expecting The Best Film of All Time, a game changer, a mind-melter or a Best Picture winner is expecting something you're not going to get (and I hope most don't go into a cinema with that attitude!). What you need to expect with Inception is a blockbuster, pure and simple, and that's where it excels.

Beautiful dreaming
This is obviously a Christopher Nolan film, so pure and simple isn't fair. But this is an action film first and foremost - it's a twist on the heist movie, one of the most generic of all genres. A friend commented when we left the cinema that it was "Ocean's Eleven of the mind", and that isn't far off. The first layer of Fischer's subconscious is standard gunplay and con-man material - albeit occasionally interrupted by the occasional freight train. Level two sees Cobb as confidence man Mr. Charles - again, pulling a trick we've seen many times before. And much ire was directed at the snowy sequence where our heroes try to infiltrate a well guarded base in a dream within a dream within a dream. It's a by-the-numbers sequence - and that's pretty much the point. It's Nolan living his dream of directing a James Bond film. Of course, all these sequences are punctuated by acts of surrealism and abstraction (time distortion and the physic twisting acrobatics of the famed corridor fight, for example). It's true the content most certainly verges towards the generic at times: but like all Nolan films, it's the delivery that counts.

With Inception, Nolan has crafted an accessible film out of what could easily have been inaccessible ideas. The dream structure and subconscious layers that drive Inception's plot forward are little more than pop psychology at times, but that doesn't take away from the fact that they are a brilliant central plot device. One of the criticisms a few levelled at Inception was that it was 'confusing' - personally, I can't agree. What Nolan has done is craft a potentially confusing structure, and then use established genre tropes and ideas to keep everything grounded. Some have also criticised that the dreams lack imagination - again, somewhat missing the point. The whole film is built around trying to create a believable world so Cobb and his crew can achieve inception - hence, architect Ariadne builds something that is both meticulously crafted and fully believable in order to keep Fischer on board with the illusion. It makes narrative sense, but also crucially plays to Nolan's advantage - he presents abstract ideas to the audience in an entirely familiar way. It's an act of craftmanship that shows how Nolan truly is on top of his game.

If there is one problem with the film, it's the extended first half. Here, Ellen Page's Ariadne - a character ignorant to the criminal dream invasion of Cobb et al. - is a representation of the audience. The other characters are there to describe the film's central concepts in excruciating detail. While they are still presented with great verve and energy - the Paris scene remains stunning - there's little denying there's a lot of exposition before we get on our way. However, it's another reason why the 'confusing' criticism rings hollow. The explanatory streak shows Nolan refusing to leave the audience behind - determined to have us all understanding the central ideas before he executes them. It could certainly be argued that he slightly underestimates our ability to take these things on board, but I'm sure that was partially down to studio interference.

On a purely cinematic level, there is little to nothing to criticise. All the artists involve succeed admirably. The cast are uniformly excellent - Gordon-Levitt, Cotillard and Hardy are particular standouts, and DiCaprio is - as usual - an engaging lead. Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister make everything look remarkable, even if the setting is unremarkable. Kudos to the set designers as well, particularly their beautiful work in the final 'limbo' level of the dreamworld. And, of course, one of the truly masterful soundtracks of recent times, courtesy of Mr. Hans Zimmer. It's an electrifying soundtrack, and one that genuinely has a depth to match the film that goes alongside it, such as the much heralded integration of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

As the beautiful closing track Time plays over the final scenes, it dawned on me that I didn't agree with yet another of the criticisms the detractors put forward - a lack of emotion. As Cobb re-enters his homeland and reunites with his family, it's a strangely beautiful and apt conclusion to the film. Alongside other scenes like Mol's suicide and Fischer's final acceptance of an artificial idea, it's hardly a film void of emotional resonance. Inception is a remarkable film for the many reasons I've mentioned here. Most of all, though, it's the fact that it has the guts to do something daring and original in the multiplex. Few mainstream directors have either the resources or imagination of Christopher Nolan. And it's why in a year with an unusually high level of unimaginative blockbuster sequels, his presence will be sorely missed. 

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