Thursday, February 17, 2011


Inception has been hailed as a groundbreaking film that utilizes cutting-edge special effects with state-of-the-art postmodern narrative. Director Christopher Nolan made his mark in the The Dark Knight (2008) with intensely somber and moody visual presentations of an oversized American city, the aesthetics of film noir, and a fully realized Byronic hero. The visual aspect of Inception is perhaps its most striking element--in scenes where the main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) demonstrates to a new recruit the ability to manipulate the content of dreams, where a modern city seems to rotate in upon itself; where confetti spontaneously erupts into the air; where decaying buildings collapse into the sea of what appears to be an earth in the distant future – these are rendered with overwhelming detail, imagination, and artistry. Such scenes occupy a relatively brief portion of the film, but they certainly capture your interest. Almost as important is a narrative plot that sets its own ground rules and adheres to them. The film is built on an unlikely premise. To say that it's unlikely is not to say that it's impossible. The technology, the scientific knowledge, that would make it possible, as this film suggests, to invade the dreams of other people, to alter what they're dreaming about, to discover secrets they're hiding, is simply not within the realm of the near future. It may be possible one day, or it may not. The notion that we could one day read the thoughts of other people by scanning their brain waves would have seemed ridiculous 10 years ago. It's now beginning to happen, at least in a rudimentary form, and it's likely in another few decades that electronically reading human minds will be commonplace. Although by current levels of technology the film's claims about invading the dreams of other people are unlikely, at least they are conceivable.

The characters in Inception work for a security agency that specializes in invading the dreams of people who have important information that others—the government or a corporation--want. One company wants to plant in the mind of the owner of another company’s owner an idea that will affect business decisions he must make in the near future. The film never really questions the ethics of trying to do this. It's as if the film occupies a post-ethical world where such considerations are irrelevant. What the film pays attention to is the process, and director/screenwriter Nolan weaves around that process an exciting and innovative adventure. The people in this company determine that they will have to penetrate through six nested levels of dreams to carry out their assignment. This means that a character invades one dream and then in the dream contrives to go to sleep and have another dream in which he contrives to go to sleep and have a third dream and so on. This is convoluted, and at some point I lost track of where we were. But the concept as a narrative form works.

There's a complication. The main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio lost his wife two years before. He feels responsible for her death and constantly dreams about her. In fact he goes to sleep with the intention of meeting and talking to her. He’s grief stricken but can't let go of his grief because he's able to see his wife in his dreams, literally. The film does make clear that when DiCaprio encounters his dead wife in dreams he's not literally encountering her—she’s not a spirit--he's encountering his memories and his guilt over her loss. As he talks to his wife he's attempting, perhaps unwittingly, to come to grips with her death. But he’s still so wrapped in grief that he puts himself and the whole team at risk as they penetrate deeper and deeper from one dream to another. His dead wife is continually appearing in his dreams, at times interfering with the project, and in general offering added layers of distraction.

Director Nolan and the rest of his crew effectively keep multiple narratives in motion—the action within each dream takes place at different rates of speed. In one case the members of the team are on a van that drives off a bridge and plunges towards the river. The 2 1/2 seconds that it takes for the van to hit the water are in fact the time period during which much of the rest of film takes place. In other dreams narratives occur in real time, and the film switches back and forth from the people on the bus as it careens towards the river and to what people in other parts of the film are doing. This could become so confusing that the narrative of the film simply collapses into meaninglessness, but that never really happens. Nolan employed a somewhat different use of fragmented parallel narratives in his early film Memento (2000)

Inception offers an effective fusion of state-of-the-art special effects, an innovative script, and many good elements of filmmaking. Excellent actors include DiCaprio and Ellen Page. the young student he recruits to assist in the project. The music is effective, similar to the music from the The Dark Knight written by the same composers, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.

The nested narratives central to Inception are not new. They’re a primary device in modernist and postmodernist literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. One film Inception particularly reminded me of was Flatliners (1990), where medical students experiment with near-death experiences to discover whether there is life after death, and in which one character tries to contact a deceased relative.

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