Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

. . . As Dreams Are Made On

Christopher Nolan is ill-served by his admirers. In an age starved for movies that straddle the line between middlebrow and highbrow, pop art and the real thing, he’s been hailed as a kind of last best hope for mass-market filmmaking: the artist who knows how to make a blockbuster, the crowd-pleaser who’s also an auteur. The Dark Knight (2008) was lauded as the superhero movie that Shakespeare would have made, had somebody graced him with an ample budget for special effects and the chance to cast Heath Ledger as the Joker. This summer’s follow-up, the high-concept blockbuster Inception, was inspiring similar hosannas before it even reached the multiplex. If you believed the online chatter, audiences could look forward to a James Bond film written by Carl Jung and directed by David Lynch — or maybe to The Matrix as reimagined by a tag team of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick.

Nolan’s movies, alas, don’t support these panegyrics. The result has been backlash: From the blogs to the glossy magazines, critics have lined up to declare the new movie overrated, and Nolan a grim gamesman who lacks the human touch. The new consensus was summed up pretty well by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who dismissed Inception as “a handsome, clever and grindingly self-serious boy-movie, shorn of imagination, libido, spirituality or emotional depth.”

This assessment is basically correct. But in a summer populated by superhero sequels and 1980s retreads (The A-Team and a Predator reboot, Hollywood?), let me say a word for handsome, clever, self-serious boy-movies. If you don’t expect them to outdo Kubrick or Hitchcock or The Godfather, they can be a pretty good time.

So it is with Inception. At its best, this is a heist movie in the spirit of Ocean’s Eleven, with less wit but a bigger “wow” factor. Instead of George Clooney or Brad Pitt, Nolan has Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Cobb, a professional thief who specializes in relieving corporate bigwigs of their intellectual property. His goals are old-fashioned, but his methods are novel: Instead of invading his marks’ homes or offices, Cobb invades their dreams, swiping the crucial ideas from the recesses of their subconscious and leaving them none the wiser that anything’s been taken.

Or at least mostly none the wiser, since the movie opens with the exception to that rule: an “extraction” gone wrong, in which the target — a Japanese tycoon named Saito (Ken Watanabe) — figures out that his dreamworld is a dream. But the botched operation is still impressive enough to convince Saito to make Cobb an offer of his own. He wants the near-impossible: not extraction but “inception,” in which an idea is planted rather than lifted, and the dreamer awakes and follows through on whatever premise the invaders have dropped into the basement of his consciousness.

#page#Cobb wants to turn the job down, but Saito dangles a carrot he can’t refuse — the chance to be reunited with his children in America, which he fled years ago under suspicion of murdering his wife. (That spouse, Marion Cotillard’s ravishing Mal, now haunts Cobb’s own nightmares, and sometimes shows up unbidden when he’s on the job, through subconscious mechanisms too mysterious to quite explain.) So he reluctantly signs up to “incept” Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the heir of a vast energy empire that Saito wants the younger Fischer to impulsively decide to break apart.

For this he needs a team. (Saito actually says “Assemble your team!” — an early clue that this is going to be more of a boy-movie than a masterpiece.) This means an architect (Ellen Page), who weaves the dreamscapes where the inception takes place; a chemist (Dileep Rao), who designs the sedatives that drop the mark and the thieves alike ever deeper into sleep; a forger (Tom Hardy), who can play different parts within the dream; and an aide-de-camp (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who keeps the whole operation running smoothly.

Together, they enter a series of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, following an intensely complicated set of rules that you’ll probably still be puzzling over hours after the film has run its course. (The biggie is this: Time moves more slowly in dreams than in reality, and more slowly still in dreams-within-dreams, so that every time the dreamers drop deeper into the subconscious they gain hours more to work with.) Here Nolan the visual magician goes to work, staging set-piece after set-piece — cities that fold up on themselves, M. C. Escher–style; weightless fights on the walls and ceilings of a spinning hotel corridor; and a finale in the acres of empty skyscrapers that Cobb and his late wife built for themselves in Limbo, the bottom level of everyone’s unconscious and the place where all the ladders start.

The key is to relax and enjoy the ride, instead of hoping for something deeper than a heist movie. Nolan’s dreams are gorgeous but simplistic, more like video-game levels than the irrational, unstable tableaus one enters in real sleep. His allusions to mythology and theory are thudding and painfully on-the-nose. (Page’s character, the dream architect, is named Ariadne; Cobb literally rides an elevator into the darker regions of his subconscious, etc.) And the story’s human drama, Cobb’s wrestling match with the specter that is Mal (another on-the-nose name), plays like a rehash of DiCaprio’s similar dance with dead-wife guilt in last winter’s Shutter Island.

But go in with the right attitude, and none of this will matter. You’ll be wowed by Nolan’s technical proficiency, and come out arguing about the rules of inception, the various plot twists, and the hints that what seems like the film’s “reality” might be an illusion as well. And the characters and themes, such as they are, will fade like an unmemorable dream.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Sheriff McCain

As his fellow incumbents drown in a tea-party wave, Sen. John McCain somehow remains afloat. On August 24, McCain squares off against J. D. Hayworth, a former congressman, in Arizona’s ...

Features

Politics & Policy

A Clash of Opposites

Not long ago, two friends were talking about the current election season. Both of them are conservative, but one especially dislikes the McCain-Feingold law (which restricted campaign finance and political ...
Politics & Policy

Ban the Burqa

Istanbul – I moved here five years ago. In the beginning, I was sympathetic to the argument that Turkey’s ban on headscarves in universities and public institutions was grossly discriminatory. I spoke ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

The Drive to Create

In a castle in Newcastle, complete with reflecting pool, dappled woods nooked with marble sculptures, and pastures lowing with cattle, Matt Ridley, dean of British science writers and author of ...
The Straggler

On Thy Silver Wheels

The recent political ructions over the extension of unemployment benefits brought Norman Tebbit to my mind. Tebbit was Margaret Thatcher’s secretary of state for employment in the early 1980s. There ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Acceptable Risk? In his article “Preferred Risk” (July 5), Iain Murray states that “the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which encourages building in high-risk areas, [exposes] taxpayers to huge liabilities.” I ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Congress has an 11 percent job-approval rating. Who knew there were so many trial lawyers? ‐ Midterm elections are generally referenda on the party in power, and that is especially ...
The Long View

Therapist’s Notes

Patient: Andrew Breitbart First Session: Therapist greets patient, who arrives with three BlackBerrys. Patient is pleasant and good-humored, seems aware of his surroundings, is able to carry on simple transactional conversations. Patient, ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

ADVERTISEMENT FOR “LET’S PRAY” Choreographed by Thandumzi Moyakhe, performed by Nqaba Mafilika and Bathembu Myira, Johannesburg, South Africa They dance there with outrageous zest, Kneeling and swaying without rest, White crosses painted on their chests. Hour after ...
Athwart

Captain Post-America

You can imagine the fist-pumping and broad grins that went around Hollywood when it was announced they were making a movie about Captain America — and the subsequent dismay when ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Blackface Party

I must have missed something: Was there some kind of all-hands white-people meeting at which we voted to kick the Democrats out? Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, Beto O’Rourke — what’s up with all the ethnic play-acting? Isn’t cultural appropriation supposed to be a bad thing among progressives? Isn’t ... Read More
Film & TV

A Right-Wing Halloween

‘The world is not a dark and evil place,” insists an exasperated woman played by Judy Greer in Halloween. “It’s full of love and understanding!” I put the question to the class: Is she right? In the new film (not a reboot but a sequel that occurs 40 years after the events in the 1978 original and ... Read More