Monday, February 21, 2011
Inception: Dream a Little Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream
It seems like nowadays, the big studio picture has gotten a bad rap. With the advent of 3-D, the profitability of sequels, remakes, and movie adaptations of bad television shows and comic books, quality and originality are lacking at movie houses. In many ways, I have to agree with that assessment. Therefore, when a refreshingly original film like Inception comes along, it has the power to restore the audience’s faith in the spectacular Hollywood studio picture.
I’ll be honest—Inception was easily my favorite film of 2010, and if it were up to me, I would have already awarded it the Best Picture statuette. I think the ten nominees for Best Picture this year represent a bumper crop of quality, but Inception has a quality the other films lack—of the ten Inception is the only film that demands you drag your ass up into a movie theater and experience it on the big screen. I’ve seen exquisite British productions about their royalty before—while great The King’s Speech has a been-there, done-that, we’ll-meet-again feel. Toy Story 3 plays just as well at home without the 3-D gimmick. The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone represent voices from independent filmmakers, but neither film demands to be seen on the big screen. 127 Hours is so personal, it actually benefits from a more intimate setting. The Social Network has tapped the zeitgeist more ably than any film in recent memory, but it also plays just as well at home instead of a movie theater. The magnificent western vistas of True Grit and the ballet in Black Swan both benefit from being watched on a big screen, but if someone were to put a gun to my head and ask me to choose between those two films or Inception, I’m picking Inception. This is a film that dares to make the landscape of dreaming an onscreen reality, a film that brings impossible and infinite possibilities to life. Inception represents that rarest and most elusive quality in cinema—the original idea.
Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, has the most impressive body of work of any filmmaker in the past decade. Inception is the culmination of Nolan’s work as a filmmaker, beginning with the backwards-playing noir Memento (2000) to the massively popular The Dark Knight (2008), which re-contextualized the comic book world of Batman into the crime saga for modern times. As early as a teenager, Nolan had the idea of bringing the world of dreams to film. In 2001, Nolan had written an early draft of the Inception script where the film played more like a horror movie. There was interest from Warner Brothers to turn Nolan’s script into a film, but the director felt he did not have enough skill as a filmmaker to actualize the film in the way Nolan felt it deserved.
With Memento, Nolan was able to sell audiences on a high-concept premise—namely that a man who cannot form any new memories is trying to solve the mystery of who raped and murdered his wife. Nolan used both a linear and a reverse narrative to tell the story of Memento. His next two non-Batman films—Insomnia (2002) and The Prestige (2006)—continue the themes of altered, unreliable perceptions and mindscapes married to an emotionally charged narrative. Like Memento, both Insomnia and The Prestige are more intimate, focusing on one or two main characters. With the Batman films, starting with Batman Begins in 2005, Nolan was able to master his command over films that truly demand an epic scope.
While Nolan gained skill as a director with each new release, he was revising his screenplay for Inception. One of the major changes he made to the script was to move it from being a horror film to a heist thriller. His experiences on the Batman films—especially The Dark Knight—gave Nolan a further familiarity with crime films. Inception is essentially a “one last job” thriller, where the protagonist takes on a mission with an incredible degree of difficulty as the final job of his career. Having Inception use a plot structure many viewers are familiar with allowed Nolan to layer in the more fantastic ideas of the movie—like a group of people sharing the same dream within a dream—as well as provide a foundation for the spectacular dreamscapes to be built upon.
With that in mind, Inception is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an “extractor” who leads a team of professionals into a person’s dreams where they can extract information from the subject’s subconscious. Nolan presents the act of extraction as a form of corporate espionage, where trade secrets and sensitive personal information can be raided. Dom is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy industrialist. What Saito wants from Dom is not extraction, but inception, the much more difficult operation of planting an idea deep within a subject’s subconscious, to make it seem as if the idea was the subject’s all along. Saito intends to topple the empire of his dying rival; Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), by suggesting to his son Robert (Cillian Murphy) that the father’s dying wish is to have is empire broken up so Robert can become his own man.
Dom enlists the aid of his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the “point man” who is primarily responsible for researching and investigating into the life of the subject. Arthur is also a skeptical foil to Dom. In addition to Arthur, Dom needs the services of a “forger”, Eames (Tom Hardy), who can assume identities familiar to the dreamer within the dreamer’s subconscious; and a “chemist”, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who provides drugs to the Dom’s team to have a deep and extended sleep and dreaming. Rounding out the team is a young “architect”, Ariadne (Ellen Page), recruited from Dom’s mentor and father-in-law (Michael Caine). As the architect, Ariadne is responsible for creating a labyrinth to confuse and fend off the militarized “projections” of the subject’s subconscious, which are aware that a dreaming mind can be invaded and are trained to fend off extractors. Ariadne is also the character who substitutes for the audience; as the new member of the team, the action is largely seen through her eyes. Page, in an about-face from her most famous role as Juno, anchors the film with a necessary doze of honest doubt and skepticism.
The lengthy first act of Inception lays down the ground rules for the film. One rule is if an extractor is killed in a dream then they will awaken. A “kick”, such as a body being dropped into water, or a seated dreamer being kicked over in their chair, will also awaken the dreamer. Another rule involves time, which moves faster in dreams than it does in reality—i.e. what seems like an hour in the dream may only be ten minutes in real life. Yet another is that each of the extractors must create a totem—a small item unique to each dreamer—which can be used as a test to see if one is in the dreaming world or awake. Nolan also shows us scenes of how Ariadne constructs the landscape of the dreams, where cities can be folded up onto themselves and impossible, closed loop objects like M.C. Escher’s Penrose Stairs can be created within dreams to fend off projections. In these scenes, the production design and visual effects teams work overtime to show the limitless potential of the dream world.
Nolan is also an astute enough screenwriter to know that even the most cleverly constructed heist thriller can have the coolest effects and set pieces seen in a movie yet remain “deliberately superficial in emotional terms.” To counter this, Nolan gives Inception an emotional subplot involving Dom and his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Dom is responsible for Mal’s death, and she appears as a malevolent projection within his own subconscious that is a threat to the whole team. Dom’s guilt is what creates this “shade”, a nightmare projection. I love the fact that Nolan suggests that nightmares are manifestations of guilt, sorrow, or any other unresolved issues of the dreamer. It is because of the role that Dom plays in Mal’s death that he is unable to return home to the United States and see his children. Coming home to see his children is what motivates Dom, but he will need to overcome his issues with guilt to keep his team safe within Robert Fischer’s dream. The emotional hook really allows the viewer to connect with Dom’s character, and adds a personal layer of conflict to the film.
With that setup, Inception provides a platform for all areas of filmmaking to succeed brilliantly. In order to complete inception within Fischer, Dom’s team eventually passes through four layers of dreaming. Each layer—a rain soaked urban city, a chic hotel, a snowbound mountain fortress, and an infinite city being eroded by the ocean—gives the production design team a variety of settings in which to showcase their skills. The production filmed on four continents (Europe, North America, Asia, Africa) in the dry deserts of Tangiers (doubling as Mombassa), to the snowy peaks of Alberta (where the snow scenes were filmed—Nolan was inspired by the alpine scenes in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when filming these sequences). Inception literally uses the whole globe to bring the film to life.
The already impressive visual effects are made even more so because Nolan shot 90% of the effects in camera instead of using CGI. For comparison, Inception used only 500 shots of computer generated imagery, compared to the 1,500 to 2,000 shots used in other VFX heavy films. (Even Batman Begins, which by comparison would seem like a film that would use less CGI, had 620 CGI shots to Inception’s 500.) To achieve this, the filmmakers built massive sets and used camera trickery to create the illusions. Perhaps the signature set piece of the film—a fight between Arthur and a projection in a 100 foot long hotel corridor—significantly alters the viewer’s perception of gravity; the two actors appear to have Spider-Man like abilities when attacking one another. The effect was achieved by constructing a massive, cylindrical set that could rotate a full 360 degrees, knocking the actors around like pinballs. The lesson here is that Nolan knows that for all CGI can achieve, it isn’t a replacement for actors or sets. Nolan knows that special effects need to be used to enhance a scene instead of becoming the scene itself. In this manner, for as outlandish and over-the-top the story becomes, the effects in Inception are grounded in reality.
Finally, in discussing the technical elements of the film, I would be remiss to exclude cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith. Pfister establishes a clean look for the film when so many other contemporary action films tend to be dark and busy—see the Bourne trilogy. Also, unlike the Bourne trilogy and other films, there is a blessed lack of the handheld, “shaky-cam” cinematography that muddles the look and makes the action hard to follow. Pfister favors a classic look reminiscent of Ben-Hur and the David Lean epics. He works in tandem with editor Smith, especially in the final act of the film, when Inception cuts in-between the four dream layers. Pfister gives each dream a distinctive look, and Smith is largely responsible for lining up how the layers of dreams interact with one another. Especially cool is how Smith sets up a synchronized kick that awakens the team members up through each layer of dreaming. Inception is a film shot and pieced together with absolute precision, with the craftsmen understanding that if each element is not executed to perfection, the entire story of the film is liable to collapse under its outlandishness (and the fact that Lee Smith didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is mind boggling, as crucial as the editing is to the success of the picture).
The story concludes with one of the all-time great ambiguous endings. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Upon completion of the mission, Dom and his team are successful with inception; Robert Fischer does decide to dissolve his father’s company, and Saito arranges for Dom to return home. When Dom arrives home, his father-in-law meets him at the airport, and he goes to home to see his son and daughter—and the audience sees the faces of his children for the first time. He spins his totem—a metal top—and has been established, if the top stops spinning, Dom is awake. If it continues, he is dreaming. Nolan ends the film with a shot on the top as it begins to wobble slightly; the audience is left to draw their own conclusions as to if the top stops or continues. There have been many interpretations of the ending, and the beauty of the film is that one could make a case for any of those interpretations to be correct. One interpretation I particularly enjoy comes from Nolan himself saying, “I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me—it always felt like the appropriate 'kick' to me…” In other words, Nolan understands that the audience watching his film—or any movie in a theater—is, like the characters in Inception, engaging in a form of collective dreaming. The ambiguous ending is what snaps the audience out of their dream state and into reality. And like actual dreams, we are left with much to discuss and ponder. By crafting Inception—a film about collective dreams—as a collective dream for the audience watching the film, Nolan makes the ultimate case for his film to be experienced with a crowd, in a darkened theater. The cinema is the only way to truly experience Inception.
So, is the film worthy of Best Picture? Abso-fucking-lutely. Yet the Academy made one of the biggest snubs in its history by not nominating Christopher Nolan for Best Director. It is a shameful omission. I hope I have demonstrated to you that the entire success of the film comes Nolan's orchestration. He nurtured the screenplay over decades, and as producer, Nolan made right choices at every opportunity in the creation and casting of the film. Nolan was rewarded with a screenplay nomination and is a credited producer for the Best Picture nomination, but by failing to nominate his work as director, the Academy massively overlooked that Nolan is the engine that makes the film work. He is the ultimate creative drive behind the film. It also represents a failure to recognize the director responsible for making the most consistently innovative, acclaimed, and commercially successful films over the past decade.
What can explain this oversight? The Academy has notoriously overlooked films in the science fiction genre as inconsequential, immature and not worthy of award recognition. The failure of any member of the cast to receive a nomination is also indicative of this bias. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt give star making performances, Page is rock solid, and DiCaprio and Cotillard are heartbreaking in the doomed romance. DiCaprio, like his director has been consistently great over the past decade and consistently overlooked. Cotillard, who won Best Actress in 2007 for her performance as Edith Piaf (because of this Nolan almost didn’t use Piaf’s “Non, je ne regretted nien” as a key music cue—which would have been unfortunate, because the song perfectly complements the film and also led Hans Zimmer to construct elements of his fantastic, Oscar-nominated score around it) gives an unhinged, affecting and truly original performance. She creates a haunting presence that serves, in many ways, as the dark soul of the film. While Inception did garner a total of eight Oscar nominations, the failure to recognize Nolan or any of the cast is still indicative that the Academy doesn’t take science fiction seriously. It’s a damn shame, because science-fiction is rarely as well crafted and insightful as Inception.
What likely will happen is that Inception will join the ranks of the many films that are simply too cool for the Academy. Of the ten films nominated for Best Picture, Inception is the most likely to endure as a classic. It is a film about a subject that everyone has experienced at some point—dreams. What human beings dream and how we experience dreams are an endless source of mystery and inspiration. Christopher Nolan understands that cinema is a form of dreaming and truly great movies find ways to bring what we dream to cinematic life.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger
Studio: Warner Brothers
Total Oscar Nominations: 8 (Best Picture—Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas; Best Original Screenplay—Christopher Nolan; Best Art Direction—Guy Hendrix Dyas (Set Decoration—Larry Dias and Doug Mowat); Best Cinematography—Wally Pfister; Best Score—Hans Zimmer; Best Sound—Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo, Ed Novick; Best Sound Editing—Richard King; Best Visual Effects—Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, Peter Bebb)
NEXT BLOG: The Kids Are All Right