It seems only yesterday that I began my slightly belated review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight by marveling at its position on the IMDb's list of all-time favorites: at the time, it was ranked first among all movies. That was, in fact, two years ago (it has since slipped to 12th on the Top 250). Now I begin my slightly belated review of Christopher Nolan's Inception by marveling at its similarly impressive spot on the same list -- third so far. The point is that all of us already know by now, as we did two years ago, that Nolan has created an exceptionally well-crafted, entertaining movie. It's good. But I ask again: how good is it?
The story really needs no introduction at this point, which is nice because, even if I tried, I wouldn't be able to outline the plot successfully. Suffice it to say that Inception is a sci-fi movie about a world in which it has become possible to enter other people's dreams and mess around in there. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, an "extractor" -- that is, one who's skilled in the practice of stealing information from unconscious minds. An industrialist (Ken Watanabe) hires him to perform a considerably more difficult feat. The mission is not take away an idea but to impart one -- to plant a self-destructive notion into the head of a dying business rival's only son (Cillian Murphy, who looks like a weirder version of Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne here).
Inception borrows the structure of a heist film -- Cobb recruits a team of assistants (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page among them), each of whom possesses a unique expertise that will come in handy on the job. There are car chases and gunfire, there are unexpected complications, and of course the clock is ticking. Can they pull it off in time? Let me state the obvious and point out here that Nolan is an outstanding director of action. His movies have crisp, limpid, wonderful surfaces; the lighting is always stylish and more beautiful than reality without seeming less real. Most Hollywood action scenes are full of wasted details and movements that muffle other movements and smudgy images. Here, when glass shatters, we sense every shard. Gunplay is convincingly chaotic without becoming inscrutable and is paced to maintain the viewer's interest, not to overwhelm his senses. Nolan will sometimes cut back and forth between scenes of slam-bang activity and nearly static compositions, where two characters are engaged in dialogue; he always gets the rhythm right, and the two forms of drama, visual and verbal, mingle and fortify each other. The palpable tension in composer Hans Zimmer's terrifically appropriate score is enlivening, not suffocating.
Because Inception takes place largely within dreams, Nolan is able to custom-design his world to suit his set pieces. Characters float through the air; hotel rooms tumble like dice. Switching locales at the drop of a hat, he travels from a crowded boulevard to an abandoned warehouse to an arctic James Bond fortress to a post-apocalyptic city without any laborious transitions. Inception is a massive construction, a planet-sized Puzz-3D. It can go anywhere; its landscape can do anything. I won't soon forget the sight of Paris folded onto itself.
The plot is confusing, but it's confusing mostly in an engaging way, like a good riddle. I still don't know whether it makes sense, but Nolan conveys a meticulous and trustworthy intelligence behind the sci-fi mumbo jumbo. One knows, somehow, that the movie's idea is thought-through even before one gets a chance to think much about it. We intuit that Nolan has toyed with all of its possibilities, diagrammed the plot with a ruler and a protractor, and eliminated the mistakes. His characters explain a lot to us, but not a bit more than they have to. There are more dreams within dreams here than in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and it's easy to get lost, but one feels secure even in bewilderment. The cast, too, approaches the material confidently. DiCaprio's febrile agitation remains engrossing, although, four years after The Departed, I'm ready to see a new performance from him. On the other hand, Page's innocuous teenybopper persona doesn't comport with Inception's noirish mood; she seems to have wandered in from a different kind of movie entirely.
So far I've been describing the movie as if it were a ride. Thrilling! Spectacular! And what I believe, really, is that it is a ride, as much as Live Free or Die Hard was, no matter if it bills itself as something else. Even before its release it had gained a reputation as a mind-bending philosophical inquiry into the nature of dreams, but I just don't see how that's the case. Like The Matrix, it highlights the questionability of what we deem reality, but it doesn't move much beyond that base skepticism except to emphasize the addictive draw of fantasy, of creating and inhabiting imaginary worlds -- a theme that was explored more modestly and therefore more recognizably in Coraline. In a nation dazed by television, the Web, and video games, surely everyone has Wachowski moments, but my suspicion is that Inception's reputation for revelation is based on a trick: it dips us deep into confusion so that, when it brings us out again, we feel as though it's shined a light upon us. Memento did the same thing; Nolan's newer picture is just a bigger, better con. It's exciting, and it's brilliant, but it isn't thoughtful.
At times I felt even that Inception would have been better suited for the Xbox 360 than for the movie theater. Its essential juvenility is reflected by its willingness to sacrifice character complications for plot complications. Things are happening all the time, but we don't really get to know the people they're happening to. Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao appear only to enable the story to move where it wants to go. Emotionally, the movie is as predictable as any actioner. Cobb shares his central conflict -- he's haunted by memories of his dead wife -- with innumerable gun- and sword-wielding heroes (Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Maximus in Gladiator); this trend was even lampooned recently in MacGruber. His difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy recalls DiCaprio's last character, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island; Cobb and Daniels have such similar interior lives that their nightmares are, at points, virtually identical.
Inception purports to blur the line between dreams and reality. My feeling is that directors like Nolan fail to see that all movies do this -- indeed, all fiction does it. It actualizes our desires and visions, interprets our anxieties, distorts and condenses and replicates our experience of the world. If we want cinema that is created from dreams and can be experienced like dreams, the visionary ideas of science fiction like Inception and The Matrix only get in the way -- dreams don't have so much exposition; they aren't ingeniously constructed riddles. For me, they usually aren't shootouts, either. Give us visions, and then let us wonder what is the real world and what isn't.
Like dreams, fiction can be something more than an inventive and exciting bit of make-believe. To me, Days of Heaven is a dream. Sunset Blvd. is a dream. Magnolia is a dream. Inception is just a movie.