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I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night
by Lucius Shepard
July 25, 2010

Christopher Nolan’s seventh film, Inception, has been described as dazzling, thought-provoking, stunning, mind-blowing, and a masterpiece, and the director himself has been hailed as the new Stanley Kubrick. Since Kubrick’s seventh film, Lolita, is a legitimate masterpiece, and since his eighth and ninth films were Dr. Strangelove and 2001, by any reasonable standard it would seem that Nolan has some catching up to do, especially given that his next project is the latest, as-yet-untitled Batflick, a surefire non-masterpiece. Be that as it may, I’d like to examine whether or not Inception, in fact, merits any of the adjectives that have been applied to it.

The economically named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an extractor, a person capable of entering someone else’s dreams, navigating their subconscious, and extracting their secrets (industrial espionage is Cobb’s specialty). Thankfully, Nolan does not delve too deeply into explaining the technology underlying the process, because what little he does attempt by way of explanation involves a machine that resembles a primitive Game Boy, a device that appears to have the technical relevance of a tin-foil helmet and a handful of frozen peas. And this is bolstered by a hodge-podge of psycho-babble delivered at such a rushed pace during the film’s opening act that it calls to mind the axiom, If you can’t persuade them with logic, then dazzle them with bulls**t.

So I suppose it might be said that Inception is, indeed, dazzling.

Cobb is done with extracting, he’s burned out on the whole gig, but is lured back into his profession for One Last Job by Saito (a woefully underused Ken Watanabe), who claims he can get murder charges against Cobb dropped (he’s accused of killing his wife), thus allowing him to return to the US and be with his children. Saito wants him not to extract, but to plant the idea in the mind of his billionaire rival, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), that he should break up his father’s business empire, which he is soon to inherit. This process, known as inception, has long been considered impossible and yet it turns out that both Cobb and another member of the team of experts he assembles for the job have achieved it. I imagine that might explain how the adjective “thought-provoking” applies. (Thought-provoking would also seem to apply to the improbable wedding of Freudian symbology and Jung’s collective unconscious that informs Nolan’s conception of the dream state; but I’m holding this in reserve in case I need it for “mind-blowing.”)

The film’s second act consists of Cobb gathering his team, starting with Ariadne (Ellen Page), a bright young architectural student of Cobb’s mentor/father or father-in-law (which one Michael Caine plays in the film is not made clear), whom Cobb recruits to design the architecture of the dream they intend to seed in Fischer Junior’s brain. On one occasion we see Ariadne in the team’s workshop surrounded by sketches of buildings, but we learn nothing of the process by which these buildings are chemically replicated or otherwise produced in the dream state. Science fiction cinema traditionally glosses over the science portion of its fictions, so that’s okay; but to ignore the psychological ramifications of such a critical part of the process . . .  Well, I’ll get back to this.

During a conversation between Cobb and Ariadne, we learn that Cobb is unhealthily obsessed with his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cottilard), and Ariadne recognizes that Mal’s habit of popping up here and there during his dreams while on the job poses a severe danger to everyone involved—she does not, however, feel compelled to mention this to the others.

The remainder of the team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), Cobb’s longtime associate, whose expertise appears to be hand-to-hand dream combat; Eames (Tom Hardy), who is skilled at impersonating other people in dreams (in this specific instance, he impersonates Tom Berenger); and a master chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), with whom Cobb has a singular exchange. They are discussing the incredible difficulty in achieving inception and it’s stated that part of this difficulty is due to the fact that they have to go in so “deep” to plant the idea, creating a dream within a dream within a dream, that keeping the subject asleep becomes tricky. Yusuf’s solution to this conundrum? A more powerful sedative. The general reaction from those party to the conversation seems to be, Wow. Genius. How did you come up with that?

Inception is essentially a caper picture and, when viewed as such, it’s rather less effective than, say, Ocean’s Eleven, mainly because the objective is too readily achieved and serves merely as a MacGuffin—Nolan is much more interested in Dom’s issues with Mal, who may still be alive (at least virtually) in a dream place he calls “Limbo.” The acting is forgettable and the characters are blank slates. Once a talented actor with enormous potential (see This Boy’s Life and Gilbert Grape), DiCaprio here furrows his brow, grimaces, and goes unshaven, habits he’s come to rely on in many recent films to express emotional torment. Page, whose strength as an actress is to give good glib, seems lost without the opportunity to crack wise and stands out only for some unpardonably bad line readings during the expository section. She is less a character than a plot device, inserted into the script as a surrogate audience member to provide Dom with a sounding board. The true star of the picture, as with most summer movies, is the visual effects team, especially during the caper itself, which occupies the final eighty minutes of the film and takes place entirely within Fischer Junior’s subconscious. Except for one unfortunate passage in the snow that looks as if were ripped off from a James Bond Nintendo game, the images during these sequences are for the most part brilliantly handled. Arthur’s fight scene in an environment of shifting gravity is a particular stand-out. But the chases suffer from jump-cuts, a dearth of establishing shots, and a subsequent lack of focus, much as did Nolan’s chase scenes in The Dark Knight.

My main problem with this final section (apart from the fact that if you don’t see the movie’s last shot coming from a mile off, you’ve never heard of Philip K. Dick) was Nolan’s decision to turn the subconscious into a multi-leveled video game (though I expect this will be well received by innumerable people with names like dark_arthur and teenagejesus23, who will no doubt mob up and send via email a surfeit of suggestions as to how I might better spend my time). Granted, this objection might be neutered to some degree by the fact that the dream was designed, tailored to suit the man and the situation; but the subconscious is nothing if not unruly. It occurs to me that one’s control over it could never be so precise and refined as to prevent vagueness, unravelings, surreal and terrifying interruptions in the scripted dream’s schemata . . .  more than are shown, at any rate. Fischer Junior’s subconscious struck me as altogether too cleanly drawn, too corporate and tame to be believable. One recalls other movies that have mined similar terrain and done a more credible job of evoking a turbulent dream life, notably Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street. A touch of Craven’s darkness and unpredictability would have been welcome here.

In the end we’re left with another over-hyped summer movie, a mash-up that quotes from a dozen genre pictures—The Matrix, Fantastic Voyage, Dark City and so on—and a handful of caper movies, a superficial entertainment whose mind-blowing-ness is entirely technical and whose effect upon the viewer evaporates the instant he or she steps out of the multiplex. It feels as though all the film’s sturm und drang was exercised in the interests of little substance. Choosing not to make Dom a dream designer was, I believe, a massive mistake. That portion of the film, left totally unexploited, had tremendous dramatic potential. The feeling of godlike power that would derive from being able to orchestrate a proceeding within another person’s mind, to exert that measure of control . . .  it speaks to the process of art and artists, especially to the art of film, and would have added an extra layer of engagement for both director and audience. Further, it would have made of Dom a more intriguing, erratic and multi-faceted character, affording him the complex inner life that Nolan failed to provide, and could have played into the resolution of his conflict with Mal.

As summer movies go, Inception does a serviceable job of assaulting the senses and making the world go away for two-and-a half hours; but it falls far short of being a masterpiece. It’s a gigantic missed opportunity, because the materials for an amazing picture were there; but the new Stanley Kubrick made too many fundamentally boring script choices, perhaps in the interests of audience accessibility, dictated by the exigencies of his 160-million-dollar budget.

Pity the old Stanley Kubrick wasn’t around to direct.

Most recent British horror films have gone for the splatter, often to comic effect, but I want to make brief mention of three films that, though they do not eschew gore entirely, reflect an enlargement of ambition. Philip Ridley is best known for writing the script for the fine English gangster movie The Krays, and for his 1990 directorial debut, The Reflecting Skin, a not altogether coherent, yet effective and disturbing Lynchian nightmare that mixed themes of vampirism and child molestation. His latest, Heartless, is marginally more coherent and more thoroughly grounded in the horror genre. Jamie (Jim Sturgess of Across The Universe) is a young man living in a London neighborhood that is rapidly deteriorating into a crime-ridden slum, plagued by a gang of hoodlums who, according to some, wear demon masks under their hoodies, but are perceived by others to be actual demons. Born with an unsightly heart-shaped birthmark that covers half his face, Jamie’s a depressed loner who wanders the streets taking photographs, feeling trapped by his deformity. Following the death of his mother at the hands of the gang, he encounters the mysterious and demonic Papa B, who offers him a devil’s bargain that will rid him of the birthmark. Graphically violent in parts, the movie begins well enough, but turns into an unengaging muddle of grisly detail and sentiment when Ridley’s ambition exceeds his grasp. Still, Ridley is such an immensely talented visual artist that horror fans may find this worth their while.

Conner McPherson is an acclaimed Irish playwright who dabbles in film, and The Eclipse, his third picture, is a beautifully observed portrait of a love triangle set in a small town in Cork during a literary festival. The acting is outstanding—Aidan Quinn’s boisterous turn as a boorish American best-selling author will get most of the ink, but Iben Hjejle (Jon Cuzak’s love interest in High Fidelity) as a writer of books about the paranormal and Ciaran Hinds as a local widower with two children are every bit as good. Some will feel, as did I, that the interjection of a bloody ghost story into the mix was handled clumsily, but nonetheless the interaction of the three main characters carries the film through the rough spots.

Most successful (and least ambitious) of the three is Johnny Kevorkian’s debut feature, The Disappeared. Set amid the rotting wharfs and disconsolate tower blocks of South London, the picture is so atmospherically shot as to make you ignore its budget constraints. Young Mathew Ryan (Henry Treadaway) blames himself for the abduction of his kid brother Tom, five months previously, an event that occurred while he was partying in a council estate flat that he shares with his father, who doesn’t bother to disguise his loathing for Matthew. Haunted, perhaps literally, by his brother, Matthew begins to investigate the disappearance with the help of his best friend, Simon (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter movies), and a girl (Ros Leeming) who has family issues of her own. This is a solid horror picture, likely to please any fan of the genre.

And so . . .  Oh, I nearly forgot! As regards Inception, there’s yet another adjective left to apply: “stunning.” Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score for the movie is nothing if not stunning in the purely concussive sense of the word. It nearly drowned out the gunfire in certain scenes and produced T-Rex ripples in my Diet Pepsi.