Friday’s release of the psycho-action-drama-thriller “Inception” is shrouded in narrative mystery. Still, someone should be able to explain what it’s about, right? Right? “Please don’t ask any questions,” pleads actress Ellen Page, who’s in the movie. “Don’t look at anything, don’t sniff around. Just go see it.”
Lucky for Warner Bros., Page doesn’t work in its marketing department, which is doing a pretty good job of not giving away the plot to a movie it doesn’t seem to understand — or, at least, know how to describe. Despite this, and a concept that is distinctly un-Hollywood (because it apparently requires more than 10 words to explain), “Inception” is poised to become one of the bigger hits in a summer that could use a few more, and is being advertised via effects-heavy trailers and oblique references. Clearly, narrative is not what the studio is trying to sell. And that alone may make it the most intriguing film to come along all year.
“I’ve been interested in dreams my whole life,” said director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), who based “Inception” on his own original script. Roughly speaking, the Leonardo DiCaprio headliner involves a group of dream “extractors” who steal secrets for their clients from unconscious others. Charged instead with implanting an idea, they wind up crossing multiple, overlapping realities (or unrealities) that were shot in six different locales, including Tangier and Calgary.
“I think, really, for me the primary interest in dreams and in making this film was this notion that when you’re asleep, you create an entire world,” Nolan said. “It’s something I found fascinating.”
Co-starring Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, “Inception” is also a bit of an oxymoron: a thinking person’s summer movie. Producer Emma Thomas doesn’t disagree, exactly. “I don’t think audiences are given enough credit,” she said. “People do like to be challenged. One of the things I love about this film is that if you’re the kind of person who wants to really think about a film — the intricacies of the plot, and how the technology works, the dream levels — you can do that. But there’s also an enormous amount of fun and action and a great love story.”
Besides, any trailer that would adequately explain the story would be 15 minutes long. “It’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and wanting to keep it fresh for the audience,” Nolan said. “My most enjoyable moviegoing experiences have been going to see something where you don’t know everything about it, you don’t know every plot turn. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, and that’s what we’re trying to do. But obviously, we also have to sell the film.”
DiCaprio, who plays Cobb, chief infiltrator of the unconscious, admires Nolan’s nerve. “Few directors in this industry would pitch to a studio a multilayered, at times existential, high-action, high-drama surreal film that’s sort of locked in his mind, and get the opportunity to do that. And it’s a testament to the work he’s done in the past, like ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia.’ He’s able to portray these highly complicated plot structures and get the audience fully engaged in the process.”
Never mind that “Memento” was virtually an indie release and “Insomnia” was a remake: It’s “The Dark Knight” — No. 3 among all-time domestic moneymakers — that has given Nolan his clout and has whipped up so much anticipation for “Inception.” The director may be as much an attraction as any of his stars, including DiCaprio, who has been making solidly profitable movies, if not exactly the type, at least recently, that pop stars are made of.
“I don’t really question that,” DiCaprio said. He picks a script, he said, “if I feel I can be of service to the role, and it emotionally engages me and, obviously, if I feel the director has the capacity to pull off the ambitious nature of whatever they’re trying to do. I guess a lot of my films have been more serious in tone, but that’s something I don’t try to deny.
“I’m a very fortunate person,” he adds. “I get to choose the movies I want to do. I have a lot of friends in this industry who don’t get to do that. I grew up in L.A., I have a lot of friends who are actors and so I realize every day how lucky I am to have that opportunity. So while I’m here, I’m going to do exactly what I want.”
Among the things he seems to want to do is Clint Eastwood’s movie on J. Edgar Hoover, although he doubts he’ll wear a dress. (“We haven’t done any fittings.”) As evidenced by the baroque realities portrayed in “Shutter Island” and the intrigue of, say, the Iraq war movie “Body of Lies,” what DiCaprio is after is what Nolan has given him — the opportunity to be interesting. “I’ve tried to work with the best directors I can, and these types of films, which are psychologically dark at times, I find extremely exciting to do.
“There’s nothing more boring,” he added, “than to show up on set and say a line and know your character means exactly what he says.”
THESE FILMS ARE THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF
“The dream remains the epitome of the fantastic in film,” wrote French critic Andre Bazin — meaning that the shared realism of cinema and dreams are perfectly matched to manipulate the perceptive power of the human mind. Filmmakers have always known this and, like Christopher Nolan in “Inception,” have mined the unconscious mind to keep audiences awake at night.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939) — Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but Dorothy does get a smack on the head and eventually wakes up back in her own bedroom. In the meantime, the people from her life in Kansas — from the evil Miss Gulch to farm hands Hunk, Zeke and Hickory — show up fantastically transformed by her musical unconscious.
“Spellbound” (1945) — Classic Hitchcock thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and Leo G. Carroll includes the analysis of Peck’s troubled character and his dream — in a sequence designed by Salvador Dali that includes eyes, curtains, scissors, blank playing cards, a man with no face and a man falling off a building. Out of this, somehow, the characters solve a murder.
“8 1/2” (1963) — Federico Fellini’s masterpiece of introspection (and musings about his own genius) chronicles the agonies and exasperations of a film director named Guido, who, in trying to sort out his life and art, retraces his memories and dreams.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) — The original and all the little “Elm Streets” were based on the idea that the razor-fingered Freddy Krueger would kill his victims in their sleep, unaccompanied by Harold Arlen.
“Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” (1990) — Image-driven series of vignettes based on the fabled Japanese director’s own dreams. It features a turn by Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh.
“Arizona Dream” (1993) — Underappreciated black comedy from Emir Kusturica stars Vincent Gallo, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway and Johnny Depp, who dreams about an Eskimo catching a rare halibut and winds up in Arizona with a bunch of other dreamers — including Gallo, who re-creates the crop-duster scene from “North by Northwest.”
“In Dreams” (1999) — Neil Jordan-directed thriller sums up an entire genre of dream-oriented fiction, in which the protagonist (here played by Annette Bening) dreams about things that later happen.