Friday, 10 September 2010
Two years on, who would have thought Christopher Nolan still had more to prove. The Dark Knight was a huge artistic and financial success, a sweeping epic which elevated the comic book genre to a state of respectability and merged blockbuster bombast with the narrative power of the tragedy. He had hit peak, defined his career. Yet Inception proves Nolan is far from finished. It is a marvel, a triumph in creative filmmaking, and it establishes the British director as the best working auteur in the world right now.
As with Memento and The Prestige, Inception is a film of and about layers. Nolan crafts in his films an audience experience of confusion to enlightenment, a gradual peeling back of perceptual barriers; his films are odysseys where you appreciate the journey. Whereas Memento took its audience captive through its retrograded plot, Inception arrests through the sheer grandeur of its ideas: it is both about the perception and power of dreams and imagination, and is itself a product of Christopher Nolan’s long conceived dream of bringing Inception to reality. The multi-layered plot centres around a team of dream extractors who mine the deepest secrets from within the subconscious of targeted individuals. After a botched extraction in the mind of powerful businessman Saito (Ken Watnabe), Cobb is presented an opportunity to return to his home and family after being exiled. The condition: plant an idea in the subconscious of Cillian Murphy’s Fischer, the heir to a vast global empire - to forge inception. An ingenious set-up, which is on first intuition in danger of being convoluted and exposition heavy - of course, that’s exactly what we get, but it is never laboured or hopelessly confusing, and the concept is so imaginatively original that you cannot help but admire the sheer creativity behind it all. Nolan’s obsession with illusion and distorted perception finds its most fertile ground within dreams themselves, as the ability to tell real from fiction is diminished. Especially when the haunting of Cobb’s repressed memories and nightmares begins to jeopardise their mission. It is a brilliantly intertwined character study of Di Caprio’s evidently pained Cobb, and an exhilarating action movie at the same time. The sequence in which Arthur has to synchronise the ‘kick’ back to reality using C4 vaults the tension way up, Nolan crosscutting between the three different dream levels and timelines, keeping his finger pressed firmly on the audience’s pulse as Cobb’s team gets ever closer to the point of inception.
But the film doesn’t just rest on its spectacular, mind-blowing (ahem) set-pieces. A terrific ensemble cast led by a now predictably superb Leonardo Di Caprio gels together with the right balance of drama and adventure exemplified by the professional friction between Arthur, the focused operator, reminded by Tom Hardy’s English quick wit that he needs to ‘dream a little bigger’. Dreams are after all realms of wonder and adventure, and there is always a sense of fun in Inception in the idea of being able to recreate wild fantasies and grand feats of imagination. Yet beneath its blockbuster visage, there is a murky, tragic latent content, to paraphrase Mr Freud. Cobb’s nightmares keep intruding on the dream worlds architected by Ellen Page’s Ariadne, and - without relinquishing the plot - centre on his dead wife Mal, played by Marion Cotillard. Cobb may be able to control the higher levels of the dreaming mind, but he cannot repress the spectres of his sub-conscious. The presence of psychological guilt is a recurrent theme in Nolan’s films, and is portrayed with superb, signature melancholia in Leonardo Di Caprio’s Cobb. He is a figure in limbo, here which is represented as a dream state between dream levels, and acts as an eternal landscape from which he might never return. There is always a poignancy to the story of a man trying to get home, not least travelling an eternity through his own psyche just to get there, and Di Caprio represents the ultimate world weariness.
Inception is a rarity. A film with big, original ideas in a time of remakes, unnecessary sequels and reboots (although there are some damn good ones about), Inception is one of the most audacious films of contemporary cinema. But not audacious to the imagination of Christopher Nolan.