Life Is But A Dream, Sweetheart

John Hudson at The Atlantic with a round-up

Dana Stevens in Slate:

With Inception (Warner Brothers), Christopher Nolan definitively proves that he’s more interested in blowing the viewer’s mind than in tracking where the mind-shards land—or how and whether they can be pieced back together. The director who gave us Memento and The Prestige, along with Batman films The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, may be unmatched among contemporary filmmakers for solemn bombast—but he’s also unmatched for visual elegance and genuinely original action. There are plenty of movies that will give you a spectacular chase scene through the streets of Paris, but how many of them would think to fold a Parisian street onto itself until it resembles a three-dimensional game board designed by M.C. Escher?

Escher is a good reference for Inception, and not just because the film includes the image of a Penrose stairway similar to the one the Dutch artist created in his lithograph “Ascending and Descending.” The action in this psychological thriller pivots on questions of perception and perspective, questions of exactly the sort that fascinated Escher. How do we know the difference between reality and projection, past and present, memory and dream? If we agree to stop asking these questions and simply live in a shared delusion, what have we lost? These are admirably ambitious riddles for a summer action movie to pose, reminiscent of the shape-shifting and romantic trickery of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in place of Puck’s rueful speech enjoining the audience to imagine “that you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear,” Inception is content to end on a Keanu Reeves-esque “Whoa.”

Dustin Hucks at Film School Rejects:

I will say this now, without reservation and fully confident that many will agree; Inception is easily the best big budget film of the year thus far. I’ll go further and say that it’s one of the most beautiful, well written, and fully realized high dollar films of the last five years. Inception, is close to perfection.

Christopher Nolan is the reigning king of the non-linear plot, and master of deeply layered narratives that hook audiences and reel them in slowly. He salvaged the reputation of The Dark Knight on the big screen, and retooled the psychological thriller. Nolan’s body of work is compact, with seven films over twelve years — the most recent being Inception; and what an addition to the collection it is.

Inception is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief of the mind called an extractor who enters the dreams of high powered individuals and steals their secrets via an architect. The architect is responsible for building the world of the dreamer, convincing them their surroundings are real. Dom is assisted by his friend and colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the voice of reason in Dom’s life. We’re brought into the main part of the story in the middle of an extraction, in the mind of sleeping energy company CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). What seems to be a routine extraction turns into what the entire film ends up being; a question of what is what, when, and who is aware. Much of the groundwork is laid early on, though true to fashion, Nolan makes sure we’re not aware of it.

Dom and Arthur are at an architect-built compound, attempting to lead Saito’s subconscious through the process of tipping his hand and leading them to his greatest secrets. During this event we’re introduced to the mysterious Mal (Marion Cotillard) — whose appearance disturbs Arthur. Mal and Dom have a relationship, the details of which we’re not immediately aware. All we know, is Dom can’t trust her.

Very soon the dream is compromised, Saito aware that they are in his subconscious mind and Mal holding Arthur at gunpoint. Here we learn some rules — if you die in the dream, you simply wake up, but being injured does not have the same result, however. Dom kills (wakes) an injured Arthur, and we’re introduced to the other side of the dream. Cobb is asleep, as is Saito; both hooked intravenously to the machine that makes extractions possible. It is here, through a series of events I won’t ruin, that we learn about the concept of dreams within dreams.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

While Nolan’s images are visually impressive and powered by state-of-the-art digital effects and accomplished stunt work, they’re always ordered and organized with anal precision. They don’t look or feel anything like dreams. (Or, at least, not like my dreams.) They look instead like mediocre action films from the ’90s, or in the case of the supremely boring ski-patrol vs. Arctic fortress shootout found on Level Three, like the Alistair MacLean adaptation “Ice Station Zebra” from 1968. (With Rock Hudson! And Ernest Borgnine!) “Inception” may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan’s dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay.

OK, I know — you want me to back off the high-minded analysis and tell you whether “Inception” is a good destination for those summer moviegoing dollars eager to leap out of your wallet. Sure, I guess so. It’s a cool-looking action movie, carefully constructed and edited, that uses all kinds of nifty locations and a lot of portentous-sounding expositional yammering. It inhabits a Philip K. Dick-style universe of psychological warfare that suggests “The Matrix,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” — all of them, by the way, better movies — but it’s fairer to call “Inception” a maze movie or a labyrinth movie than a puzzle movie. Because, as the wisecracking fellow critic sitting next to me observed, every time the story gets puzzling the characters call a timeout and explain it.

So, yeah, if you approach “Inception” with lowered expectations it’s a pretty good time. Problem is, there are no lowered expectations around Christopher Nolan, whose adherents have proclaimed him as the heir to Kubrick and Hitchcock and declared “Inception” a masterpiece. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but let me suggest that the comparisons aren’t entirely misguided. They’re just not helpful. Nolan has inherited some of Kubrick and Hitchcock’s worst tendencies, most notably their defensive, compulsive inclination to work everything out about their stories and characters to the last detail, as if human beings and the world were algebraic or geometrical phenomena requiring a solution.

But the mysterious power of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” cannot be explained by the ludicrous official story revealed in the final act — indeed, it nearly scotches the whole movie — and the attack of “The Birds” is never explained. As Kubrick’s career progressed he was increasingly drawn to stories that defied or challenged rational analysis, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Shining.” (I think I’d put “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” in that category too, but let’s discuss some other time.) Nolan seems to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from these mentors. For all the complexity, craftsmanship and color of “Inception,” it’s yet another of his ultra-serious schematic constructions with no soul, no sex and almost no joy, all about some tormented dude struggling with his ill-managed Freudian demons. That same guy sitting next to me cracked that Nolan needs to stop seeing a therapist; there’s not nearly enough sublimation in his movies.

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

Like the performances (DiCaprio has finally won me over), the special effects are absolutely flawless and serve the story perfectly. From your own dreams you’re sure to recognize the various visual moods Nolan explores: chaos, the inability to move quickly or escape, moments of inexpressible beauty and how an emotional connection conceived in your dreams can profoundly penetrate your waking reality. Nolan could’ve obviously gone anywhere with this idea but using the conceit of an “architect” (that’s all I’m going to tell you), we’re not subjected to dinosaurs or space aliens or any of that other crazy story-killing nonsense designed to sell the film’s trailer.

Like I mentioned earlier, “Inception” is a triumph and certainly one of the best films you’ll see this year, but until an absolutely exhilarating climax, the intricacies of the plot always feel a little further ahead of you than they should be and even then require an awful lot of exposition for the pieces to finally click into place. Also, the characters and their relationships are surprisingly and unnecessarily clinical. Cobb’s team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an efficient fixer, Ellen Page as the “architect,” Tom Hardy as the “forger,” and Dileep Rao as the “chemist” – never gels.

Individually, each character is well-crafted but there’s very little chemistry between them and this causes the second act to be more mechanical and less involving than it should be.  From the beginning, Cobb’s personal journey, which involves his wife (Marion Cotillard), promises to give the film a much needed emotional core, but that promise is always just a whisker out of reach until the very end, which, to be fair, is quite moving.

There are reports that “Inception” cost as much as $200 million to produce, and for that we should be thankful to Warner Brothers. Nolan is a once-in-a-generation auteur whose career is just getting started (he’s still a few days shy of 40) and his talent deserves a studio willing to finance it. Because there’s still a little justice in the world, that’s happened with this bold, challenging, slightly imperfect journey into the true final frontier that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

Nolan’s film overflows with narrative ingenuity and cinematic showmanship. Snatches of dialogue recur, their meanings refracted through levels of reality and unreality. Gordon-Levitt tousles with henchmen in a rotating hotel hallway, putting to shame his own anti-gravity acrobatics on SNL. Allusions to Penrose stairs rub elbows with canny wordplay (e.g., “Mal,” whose name conjures both “moll” and the French term for her predisposition). Four concurrent climaxes are piled one atop another on interdependent dream layers. And, perhaps most impressive, Nolan assembles the kaleidoscopic elements into a nearly seamless whole and buffs it all to an immaculate polish.

Quibbles can be found for those inclined to look. It is quickly evident to viewers, though somehow not to his teammates, that Cobb’s deep psychic scars make him perhaps the least reliable dreamcrasher imaginable. (It can hardly be a good sign that, around the two-hour mark, Cobb confesses, “There’s something you should know about me—about inception.”) And bravura editing notwithstanding, the four-headed finale tends to undercut the impact of each of its components. It’s one thing to marvel at a master juggler, but rather another to feel as if you are one of the balls.

But in this end, it may be Inception‘s greatest strength, its precision engineering, that also proves its signal weakness. Nolan has always been a nimble, meticulous director, but his best work has exceeded such technical virtues. His first major film, Memento, may have taken the form of a gimmick movie, but it transcended its own structural ingenuity to become one of the most unique and resonant tragedies of the past 25 years. His last movie, The Dark Knight, was also his messiest, with flaws that included a collapsing final act. Yet it, too, perhaps in part thanks to that messiness, found unexpected grandeur and gravity in its subject.

For all its elegant construction, Inception is a film in which nothing feels comparably at stake. (In this it resembles Nolan’s The Prestige, another admirably heady tale of perception and reality that never quite found a hearty emotional grip.) The dangers that loom with the failure of Cobb’s mission range from the inconsequential (Saito’s firm goes out of business!) to the inauthentic (Cobb won’t be able to return to pretty, talismanic children he was forced to abandon: parenthood as MacGuffin). The sorrow of Cobb and Mal’s doomed marriage, too, for all of Cotillard’s hypnotic allure, feels nonetheless remote, a motivation in search of real meaning. Though questions may linger at the film’s conclusion, they are less likely to be moral than mechanical: How many minutes of dream-time comprise a minute of waking life? How, again, did the heroes wake themselves up from their ultimate dream?

Like his protagonist, Nolan excels as an implanter of subversive ideas. This time, alas, he didn’t dig quite deep enough for them to take root.

Scott Tobias at Onion AV Club:

Nolan sets up a uniquely difficult challenge for himself: In order for Inception to work, it has to reconcile the rational and predictable (represented by Page and her maze-like constructs) with dangerously fluid, irrational impulses (represented by DiCaprio and his fevered psyche). The Nolan of The Prestige and Memento is more naturally suited to the former than the latter; the vast cryptogram of Inception has a core of real emotion, but it isn’t always matched by an abundance of visual imagination. Nonetheless, the film is an imposing, prismatic achievement, and strongly resistant to an insta-reaction; when it’s over, Nolan still seems a few steps ahead of us.

UPDATE: Heather Horn at The Atlantic

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One response to “Life Is But A Dream, Sweetheart

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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