I found “Inception” disappointing, but only during its first 10 minutes. Before I bought a ticket at the box-office and ordered my Sproke (that’s half-Sprite, half-Coke), I had read only two reviews about it: one tore it to pieces and micropieces (Rex Reed), the other one was ecstatic (Richard Roeper). In my case, by the middle of the movie, let me just say that I was swept away. As the final credits ended, I concluded that this movie was, visually, a landmark, and in terms of montage, a masterpiece. Three months later (as I repost this), I still feel the same.
Surely its weakest point must be the premise that dreams could be extracted and that ideas could be planted like viruses inside dreaming subjects’ brains. That’s quite a stretch. The mechanics of how this is done are hazy, or probably I wasn’t listening. But once I accepted it, then I was in for some rewards.
First, there’s a fine ensemble of actors, particularly Leonardo di Caprio, who became more and more sympathetic as the story unfolded and who ultimately must be credited for making us Believe.
The visual concepts and their execution are mind-boggling, hallucinatory and refreshing even if I seem to have seen them before. And the special effects are nothing less than exhilarating: the spatial distortions, the sense of being neither here nor there, the extraordinary editing. Nolan’s best images are M.C. Eschers in motion or an architect’s nightmare. A Parisian arrondissement folds up like a child’s picture book, bodies seem to slip in and out of mirrors and there’s a ghastly panorama of a city (New York?) in ruins by the sea.
But what places Inception among landmark films is its labyrinthine narrative and how they were pieced together. There are two strands in the plot: one about dream extractor Cobb and his ghostly wife (played with neurotic intensity by Marion Cotillard), and the other one about the inception operation. The Cobb-wife strand features several brief dreams and dreams within a dream, including dream architect Ariadne’s intrusions. They move back or forth in time: sequels, prequels or story movement played out in real movie time. And they’re strategically embedded throughout the film.
The anchor story, the inception operation, includes three dreams within the main dream, i.e. the young Fischer’s dream. I told my friends later that the key to enjoying the movie was not to fuss about the seeming complexity and asking: which dream am I watching now? But if you insist, I said, remember that those four-layered dreams move in parallel, and in logical progression. Plus, the settings tell us which dream layer we’re in: the hotel corridor, the city road, the jumbo jet luxury class cabin, somewhere in the Alps, and the river.
“Inception” hits an explosive point when each of those subplot dreams reaches its climax in breathtaking sequence. They are beautiful, elegantly flashy, and grand in a way the climaxes of classic films are. The resolution of the Cobb-wife story neatly wraps up everything. Or does it? Cobb’s operative “token”, a top, continues its endless spin, indicating that he, and us, are still caught up in a dream.
Christopher Nolan has all the credentials to be hailed as a master of the deconstructed narrative and classical montage. I believe that it will end up not just one of the top 10 movies of the year; it will be one of the top three. The French L’Express newspaper reviewer wrote that “Inception is a cinematic miracle disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster.” I couldn’t agree more.