Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)
‘Your mind is the scene of the crime’

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dominic Cobb, a specialist thief known as an “extractor” who can infiltrate a person’s mind through their dream in order to poach information, or more surreptitiously influence thoughts and individual actions. We spend time with Cobb and his trainee dreamscape architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), who labours to create and monitor the levels of an artificial world into which a team of extractors position their subjects for the routine purposes of extraction. For this endeavour to work, dreamscapes are designed with a fixed architecture that neutralises the fantasy and reflects society’s regulated banality. In order to put dreamers at ease, the dream worlds must give opportunity for thorough exploration, the use of an elevator, a controlled descent down a cliff face even, but architects are discouraged from creating boundless cities of light or mendacious sculptures of unblemished beauty. They are unspectacular things of artifice constructed expressly for the purpose of shared dreaming. Ariadne’s world is used, however, not for the purposes of extraction but for “inception,” an unlawful action which forces the subject to accept within the dream an idea it may have previously rejected on grounds of good conscience or reason. Inception, therefore, is the act of corrupting individual freedom, a powerful variation on the process of extraction and one that is wholly alien to many of the players at work in Cobb’s team (the petulant Ariadne included, though not of course Cobb himself).

Ariadne (Ellen Page) and Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)

Compared with an existential view of the dream (which is very nearly the sole preserve of David Lynch, whose The Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) particularly observe human behaviour in relation chiefly to the agonies of desire, and they do so admirably), Nolan’s is a shallow and unsatisfactory perspective, on the face of it a flippant homage to the mass-produced dream fantasies circulated by Hollywood for which he has been systematically criticised around the internet, and maybe to a point rightly so. But there is a significant caveat which puts pay to such arguments. Nolan’s fantasy has a logical structure, each dream a beginning and end point, there is some fitting coherence to all of this, not for the sake of commercial spectacle, not as a means to trump the idiosyncratic narratives of Lynch, but to give credence to our protagonist’s contention that it is possible to train the self to remain lucid throughout a dream. In Inception, the trained extractor can sustain a clear sense of perspective within any number of dreams, on condition that the dreamscape is supported by an orderly and regulated infrastructure. Our own sense of spatial orientation thus remains consistently fixed, the mise-en-scène bland, the editing concise and never disjointed: everything about this film it would appear conforms to the classical Hollywood style but such is the point and such is the intention of the regulated dream.

The spine of the film reminds us of Kris Kelvin’s attempts to fight off constructions of his own imagining in Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal and brilliant Solaris (1972), constructions which position him as a desiring subject in mourning for his lost wife and longing to re-experience family life back on Earth. Following a string of traumatic incidents which become psychologically unbearable, Kelvin succumbs to the illusory temptations that entice him on the planet Solaris, a micro-world composed of those memory fragments that weigh most heavily on his conscience. Inception isn’t so visually pleasing or consummately well organised, nor is Cobb’s fate a carbon copy of Kelvin’s, but like Solaris the protagonist must wrestle with the anxiety produced by the suicide of his wife if he is to avoid slipping into the mystical void. One interesting (for being so damaging) consequence of extraction, or indeed any activity performed by the lucid dreamer for that matter, is that the trained extractor can carve into his world a personal space for holding memory fragments that extend beyond sentimental value. This is both a reassuring and haunting notion, perhaps the most truthful and well related in this ludicrous film. Cobb stores memory fragments of his late wife, Mal (played by Marion Cotillard) and their two infant children in a corner of dream space of his own design. Critically, it is not the fantasy of the loved one which Cobb spends his time with here (in this case Mal), it is rather an anthology of depthless memories and captured shared experiences that have lost their quality and purpose with repetition; his sense of the essential one-dimensionality of the memory now predominant over the three-dimensional complexity of the person. However, Nolan has drawn criticism for articulating these memory fragments as conventional fantasies and reducing them to a cinematic shortform. At issue is the aesthetic perfection of the memory—in Nolan's film, Cobb has little, if no, problem recalling in the face of his lost loved one the detailed beauty, character and mannerisms which so originally enchanted him; in reality, memories more accurately degrade (particularly as we inherit others), likewise our visions of the people we desire to be with most desperately. I think Inception gets it right by intentionally getting it wrong. False step though it may be, Nolan is nonetheless pointing to the role that unconscious desire plays in the rendering of desired objects in dreamscapes. If the appearance, disappearance or reappearance of those we desire within the dream is only of concern to our conscious self once we return from the dream, it follows that within the dream our unconscious self is convinced of their presence by our compulsion to encounter the memory again. Desire within the dream confirms (unreliably) that our encounter with memory is perfectly credible, is perfectly real. Thus, desire, even within the world of Inception, has the power to corrupt the trained extractor. Why does the ordinarily lucid Cobb permit his conscious self to be duped by each and every appearance of Mal? Because he desires it, he still craves it so, and this part of the unconscious the trained extractor cannot temper.

Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)

Of the other extractors helping Cobb we know next to nothing. We admire the five rather than understand them. Ken Watanabe’s Saito and Dileep Rao’s Yusuf are dependable sorts in Mission: Impossible-like conditions but the intentions of the former are at best opaque and we barely register the presence of the latter. Tom Hardy is winning plaudits for his naturalistic performance style, and not unreasonably, but he is an acquired taste and his character Eames another indispensable smartarse of some pedigree. Non-action slumps occur regularly here and inspire handsome conversation of a sort that shames most of us, as the expository sequences between Page’s clever clogs and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur attest most clearly. Our involvement with these invisible participants rarely moves beyond indifference, but what matters is their relation in geometric terms to others, they are allocated positions within the architecture so that mini-crises may be constructed around them. My acceptance and understanding of this I owe pointedly to the film’s definitions of dreaming: the film constantly reminds us of our ignorance about the fantasy, try though we may to apply logic to any form of dream the power of the fantasy frustrates our efforts. We remain none the wiser when the dream returns us. Why, then, should we mind if characterisation echoes this sentiment, particularly if the film is in and of itself a comment on the depths to which Cobb has fallen? We should therefore take into account the likely possibility of his inception team being conventional emblems of his fantasy only, totemic guardians of barely three-dimensions with one clear goal in mind, to anchor Cobb within the fantasy in more ways than one.

It is, then, at first glance an unremarkable fiction; the gripping fantasmatic scenario at its core is a waste and were it not for the film’s origami unicorn moment it may sit a little less comfortably in the popular consciousness. It is on closer inspection sexless and soulless: the more I dwell on this the more the absence of the former bothers me. However, I like the thought of an Inception movie that behaves like a blockbuster. Its dim setpieces unfurl with evidence of much padding, it essays with an unearned sorrow the grim afterward of a relationship torn asunder, it too undercuts (and simultaneously inspires) itself with a fashionably tricksy volte-face that doubles as a nippy visual gag, and yet the thing is riddled ostensibly with unblockbustery ambiguities. In this, the film is so tightly constructed that structural or temporal inconsistencies provide opportunities to question later their precise meaning in relation to the final outcome. When, for example, do you pin down the moment at which Cobb enters the dream world seeking respite from the guilt that plagues him? Between Saito, Ariadne and Michael Caine’s enigmatic Miles, how many are themselves guilty of inception? I like the thought of this all more than the experience of bearing actual witness to it. If truth be told, Inception is superfluous to the act of meeting with one’s peers to lock horns on any number of issues to do with it that energise, define us and ultimately bring us together in argument. This is not the purpose of cinema or art, for that I refer anyone to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Obayashi’s House, Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Scott’s Blade Runner, the list can run into twenty, forty films without a problem. Popular cinema is unfortunately no great leveller but it can inspire great water-cooler moments, the success of last summer’s Paranormal Activity being one, the connoisseurship Inception inspires being another. I am glad that we have a film of Inception’s thematic breadth in cinemas, its presence mocks industrial noise like Avatar (overweight bollocks that it is), and in looking back to Resnais, Kubrick, Jackson and the Wachowskis I hope it looks forward to finer blockbusters also, but with this much in mind, if I see Inception listed on some fool’s Best Movies of 2010-20 vlog on their YouTube channel in years to come I will box their ears.

2 August, 2010


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