Property The Daily Gamecock
Dreams. Few topics have so beguiled and frustrated filmmakers since motion pictures were first shot. For as long as critics and theorists have written about film, they have emphatically suggested that films themselves resemble dreams — they are projections of the world, an artificial reality resembling our world but always slightly eschewed from it.
Director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to experimenting with film narrative. “Memento” (2000) told a murder mystery in reverse chronology, while “The Prestige” (2006) mimicked the structure of a magic trick. With “Inception,” he takes on the meaning of dreams and consciousness, creating an awe-inspiring and fully enveloping parable of obsession and human frailty against a series of miraculously staged spectacle.
Leonardo DiCaprio, adding to his list of fractured characters combating their own tortured souls, stars as Dom Cobb, a thief trained in the art of “dream sharing” and “extracting” — entering a client’s subconscious dream space and stealing their deepest secrets. Living abroad as a fugitive from the United States, he struggles to overcome visions of his deceased wife and to find a safe way to be reunited with his children.
Asian businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers him a deal: if he can perform the elusive art of “inception” on Saito’s competitor Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), he’ll make Cobb’s criminal record disappear. Unlike extraction, which is portrayed as a refined art, inception is a little trickier — it involves planting an idea in a person’s mind so carefully that their subconscious believes the idea has been organically created.
Using the generic conventions of the heist film — the “one last job,” a gritty cityscape, dizzying layers of exposition and narrative complication — allows Nolan to counterbalance lofty discussions about the philosophy of dreaming and the nature of reality with a discernible and relatable narrative structure.
What’s most fascinating about “Inception” — even more than the spectacular action scenes that include a gravity-defying duel in a rotating hotel hallway — is the deep control over the narrative Nolan wields. Even though it’s almost impossible to know where the story will turn next, it’s always easy to follow what’s happening and why.
Filmmakers have always struggled to figure out how dreams should “look,” be it wild camera angles, bizarre lighting, incongruous editing or a general lack of logic. Nolan takes the opposite approach: his dreams almost always work by the established conventions of cinematic verisimilitude, albeit soaked in a thick level of mood.
Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who has shot all of Nolan’s features, uses misty blues in exterior cityscapes and saturated oranges in interior sequences, creating popping and lush colors against fluid tracking movements and even compositions. He often adds highlights through dips into heavy lighting contrast and boldly geometric visual constructions.
Every step of the way, “Inception” is gorgeous to look at; a film truly in tune with how its visual conceit can aid the motion and arc of the story.
At the film’s climax, Cobb and his team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his business associate and Ellen Page as a “dream architect” who can construct environments that double as mazes, they subject Robert Fischer to four levels of dreaming — a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream.
With different characters existing in each level simultaneously, one would suspect Nolan’s film would go off the rails and devolve into an indiscernible mess, a clutter of action, noise and space. Not so. Editor Lee Smith expertly coordinates the time and motion of each moment with an unbridled precision and rhythm.
While much happens in the labyrinthine narrative, screenwriter Nolan makes this film squarely about Cobb — his neuroses, his trauma, his struggle to separate dream from reality.
Further, part of Nolan’s economy is assuming we can catch up, balancing the given exposition against visual cues along the way to paint a picture of Cobb’s ever-deteriorating world without over-explaining the technology and circumstances. With the help of an intense performance by DiCaprio, Nolan’s epic and bombastic science-fiction vision is actually just as much a carefully rendered human portrait.
Ultimately, “Inception” retreats into the inner space of the subconscious, into the very genesis of an idea. It is about creation and destruction simultaneously. It is about mankind’s potential and also the consequences of exceeding one’s reach.
It’s also a wholly original piece that mesmerizes incessantly over its long runtime, ending with one final, ambiguous question: what is a dream, and does it matter what’s real and what exists solely in our subconscious?
Hollywood has been charmingly referred to as a “Dream Factory.” With all the industry he can muster, Christopher Nolan has constructed a paradoxically staggering dream of a film — “Inception” defies all logic, yet is perfectly logical.
We need dreams to make sense of our world. For Christopher Nolan, and for many impassioned cinematic spectators, films can provide equal opportunities to discern the world through an artifice.
“Inception” is a masterpiece of the mind, and a film that dares to take our breath away and pin our jaws to the floor, to show us what dreams — and films — are made of.