‘Inception’: The Burden of Dreams

The pitch for Inception could have been a disaster: This is the story of well-dressed men asleep in a dilapidated hotel room, asleep on a train, asleep in a warehouse, asleep on a plane, asleep in a van, asleep in another, fancier hotel, and asleep in a fortified medical facility. Sometimes these men awaken and talk about how they need to go back to sleep. Other times when they awaken, they are actually still sleeping. Whenever they dream, there is a beautiful woman pursuing them, but the goal is to ignore her.

As described above, the skeleton of Christopher Nolan’s script reads like an exercise in boredom and alienation. However, the very point of Inception is to focus the audience’s attention on the action of dreams and the comparative weariness of waking life. The sleeping scenes provide a structure for passageways to the unreal, and the dream-worlds that make up Inception are thrilling to behold.

The characters that inhabit both the real and illusory events of Inception are “Extractor” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his group of thieves, which include “Point Man” Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), “Architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), “Forger” Eames (Tom Hardy) and a friendly chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao). They have been hired by wealthy business man Saito (Ken Watanabe) to use shared dreams as a means of planting an idea in the head of corporate scion Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who feels unloved by his dying father. Cobb takes the job because it will allow him to reunite with his own estranged children. As these characters cascade through levels of lucid dreaming, they are pursued by “Shade” Mal (Marion Cotillard) — Cobb’s dead wife who is now a villainous projection within his subconscious mind.

Inception has been repeatedly and justly described as a “visual feast”, and as visual storytelling goes, very few films released this year compete with the ambition and realization of its nested dream-spaces. Among the most memorable settings that Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister create are a cityscape exploding and folding onto itself, a zero-gravity hallway, and an austere vision of Limbo. Though most of the dramatic action in the film concerns the construction and navigation of these spaces, Nolan and Pfister do not rely on well-worn, overly fantastic signifiers of the unreal. What Dreams May Come this is not. To the contrary, the shared dream locations connect purposefully to the characters and use the appearance of their waking lives to blur the line between the actual and the abstract. This reinforces the plot of the film, in that credulity is crucial to the process of planting ideas. The “Mark” (in this case, Fischer) must believe the illusion in order to fall for the scheme.

Indeed, trust in illusion is the overarching conflict of Inception. The back story of Mal’s death, which motivates the present action of Cobb trying to reunite with his children, is also the cautionary tale of the film as a whole: Beware of getting lost in dreams. The film arrives at this moral early and illustrates it with dialogue that suggests some analogue with the danger of becoming lost in other kinds of fiction, such as filmmaking or simply lying. One could also see in Inception an overall directive to keep the mind clear of falsehood. In addition to these parallels, Nolan’s script persistently links the past trauma of his central character with the shared enterprise of the ensemble. Although she seems like a clunky script device at times, the figure of Mal is an additional aspect of the script that motivates the dream structure and causes the characters and audience to question the nature of dreams and memories.

Editing is another of the film’s strengths. In “Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious”, a documentary special feature included on the Blu-ray edition of the film, Nolan discusses the power of the straight cut and its likeness to moving through space and time in a dream. Nolan and editor Lee Smith arrange the dream levels in a way that preserves the temporal differences outlined in the script. When approaching the big job, Cobb explains to the crew, “It’s basically a week one layer down, six months two layers down.” Ariadne observes, “And ten years in the third level.” The characters’ travels through these levels and beyond are virtuosically cross-cut and triggered by specific cues of music and movement.

The Blu-ray release of Inception preserves the film’s visual wonder. However, to revisit the movie repeatedly reveals a significant drawback. Nolan’s script, though brilliant in many ways, suffers from a surfeit of exposition. On an initial viewing, the freely flowing background information and non-stop explanation of rules are arguably necessary in order to orient the viewer to the movie’s complex structure and sci-fi world-making. But after a viewer has experienced the film a couple times, all such talk becomes tedious — as does Ariadne, a character that exists almost entirely to serve as the mouthpiece for the viewer’s questions.

Other notable “reality-questioning” films such as Last Year at Marienbad, Mulholland Dr., Synecdoche, New York, and Nolan’s Memento have replay value because the rules of those stories are only barely articulated (if at all). These films turn the unreliability of their narratives into strengths, drawing in viewers time and again to unlock mysteries. By contrast, Inception dulls over time because of its specificity. Yes, the film concludes with a question mark in the form of a spinning top, but even that feels more like an avenue to Limbo than a compelling coda.

Despite seeming over-written on subsequent viewings, Inception is a worthwhile purchase on Warner Home Video’s Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo and Digital Copy. The high definition transfer is first-rate, and the DTS-HD audio track for the main feature is supplemented by isolated 5.1 soundtrack selections from Hans Zimmer’s score. Additional special features include an optional behind-the-scenes “Extraction Mode”, documentary “Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious”, animated comic prologue “Inception: The Cobol Job”, conceptual and promotional art, and galleries of trailers and TV spots.

RATING 7 / 10