Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a film that requires high levels of mental engagement from its audience. It’s the summer blockbuster that might have been concocted had Freud, Dali, Esher, Lacan, Baudrillard and Jung been able to brainstorm a movie together. But this is not a committee-made picture. It’s the singular vision of one of cinema’s most visionary contemporary directors, Christopher Nolan. It’s an expansive, ambitious, unlikely triumph that started with an idea from an artist, expanded with the resources of designers, actors, technicians and a movie studio, and is now filtering into the consciousness of moviegoers worldwide. Such is the power of inception. An idea conceived.
This is not a film about emotions or characters. It’s not Toy Story 3 and will not make you cry. But that’s ok. It’ll make you think. Man will it make you think.
Unlike any film I can remember, Inception surely puts the psychological in “psychological thriller.” This is a film that is about the mind, takes place in the mind, and will stick in your mind. It’s energy comes not from explosions or cheap thrills but from the steady, deliberate way that it wraps itself around your brain, python like, a tighter and tighter coil as the film goes along.
To say Inception is a layered film is a vast understatement. It is about the idea of ideas on so many levels: 1) The plot: A group of hired professionals who plant an idea into someones subconscious via shared dreaming, with the hopes that the seed of an idea–the “inception”–will grow to a predictable, causal conclusion. 2) The form: The film’s visual style and narrative structure evoke the labyrinth-type trajectory that an idea embodies as it is born, expands, and takes unexpected turns. 3) The ideas raised: By the end of the film, the audience is left with ideas to consider. One in particular (I won’t spoil it) is foreshadowed throughout the film and encapsulated in the closing shot. It’s a familiar meta idea (The Matrix raised it 10+ years ago) but fits particularly comfortably in this film, which oddly seems more real (even in dreamscape) than most “realist” films one might encounter.
Some have complained that this film doesn’t develop its characters or make us care for them. One hardly should expect time for that in a film so frantically and economically devoted to taking us down the wormhole of consciousness, memory, and idea inception. And what does it actually mean to “care about the characters” anyway? If Inception reminds us of anything, it is that film–like our dreams–is ultimately about us. We are the ones whose minds puts flickering images together. We are the ones who connect the dots and navigate the maze. Characters in our dreams–like Leonardo DiCaprio playing some fictitious protagonist or Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing cool gravity-defying fight scenes–are important only insofar as we see ourselves in them, or recognize some curiosity about the world through what they say and do. In the case of Inception (and particularly by the end), what’s most interesting is how we the audience make sense of the chaos, where our minds go, and what we ultimately conclude (I think Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon is another stellar example of this).
In my case, what I concluded is that I am finally going to get around to reading Richard Weaver’s classic book Ideas Have Consequences.