Leonardo DiCaprio caught between dreams and reality in Inception
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Marion Cotillard (Mal Cobb), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusof), Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer), Tom Berenger (Peter Browning), Pete Postlethwaite (Maurice Fischer), Michael Caine (Professor Stephen Miles), Lukas Haas (Nash), Tallulah Riley (Disguise woman)
What is reality? It’s a question that for many of us never comes up. But in the artificial and exciting world of film, it’s a legitimate question. These worlds we watch unspooling before us on the cinema screen, so large, so real, so exciting. Could we get lost in them? And how much do the films we love echo the dreams that fill our nights, the movies we create in our mind to keep our brain active during those hours of complete physical inactivity? And what happens when the world of imagination and possibility becomes more compelling, more comfortable – and perhaps more real – to us than the actual flesh-and-blood world around us? These are ideas tackled in Inception: the blockbuster with a brain.
Set in some unspecified point in the not-too-distant future, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are “extractors”, shady corporate espionage experts who use experimental military technology to enter shared dream states with their targets. While in their dreams, they have complete access to their subconscious mind, where secrets can be extracted. A wanted man in the States, Cobb is forced to ply his trade despite his yearning to return home to his children. After a job goes wrong, their would-be target Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the pair to take on a far more challenging role: rather than extract an idea he wants them to plant one – a technique called “inception” – into the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy) to get him to dismantle his father’s empire. To do the job, Cobb needs a new team, including dream “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), dream identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and dream compound chemist Yusof (Dileep Rao) – and needs to try and control his own dangerous subconscious version of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who is determined to destroy his missions.
Just a plot summary should give an idea of the twisty-turny world of imagination and ideas that Christopher Nolan mixes in with big budget thrills and excitements, in the most original sci-fi/philosophy film marriage since The Matrix. Of course it helps when you have the clout of having directed a hugely successful comic book series, but Nolan was brave enough to trust that an audience for this sort of action-adventure caper wanted to have their brains stretched as far as their nerves. So he creates a dizzying and challenging piece of escapism that plays around with the audience’s perceptions and understanding of the nature of dreams.
In the world of dreams, the film is a fabulous tight-rope-walk of dazzling concepts. Here everything is possible, with Nolan throwing at us worlds from film fantasy: intricate Samurai houses, brawling third-world streets, luxurious hotels, Bond-style winter bases and entire cities that literally fold, bend and reinvent themselves around the film’s dreamers, worlds that defy conventional rules of physics and time. This world is presented with genuine visual panache at every point, Nolan’s mastery of the language of film leading to a sensational series of slight-of-hand tricks and compelling set-pieces, all the while making you question which events are real and which are dreams or even dreams within dreams. In these worlds, the characters have the ability to literally shape a world to meet their needs, and the dangerous attraction of these worlds – even if they are not real – is the dark temptation that hangs over every frame.
Because it’s those ideas beneath the action that give the film depth as well as excitement, that ability to ask questions and openly invite the audience to begin theorising themselves to fill in any blanks. Within the world of Inception, characters can create dream states within dreams, to share one person’s dream while simultaneously all being inside the dream of someone else. These multiple levels are cleverly established as being as much of a risk for the characters in getting confused as they are for the audience, with the characters carrying personal “totems” to help them judge if what they are seeing is reality or not. This is made all the more difficult by the establishment that your subconscious will manifest people to populate the dream worlds – and these will turn on invaders they detect in the dream.
All of this tunnels down into the deep limbo of our subconscious – and also introduces as a concept Nolan’s fascination with time. In dreams, time moves at a different pace, and this differential becomes all the greater as you descend down levels in dreams within dreams. A few minutes can become an hour in a dream and become almost a day in the dream within it – and years within the dreams beyond that. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Nolan in the film’s dazzling central sequence as the film intercuts between three timelines in three different dreams – each impacting the other.
It’s another masterful touch – the impact of actions on dreamers’ bodies in the level above can be felt in their world. A slap to the face in the real world can send someone in the dream flying across a room. A bucketful of water turns into a tidal wave in the dream. The dreamer falling in the world above removes gravity in their dream (giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt a cult fight scene in a gravity free world that sees him gracefully leaping from floor to ceiling to wall). The visuals are extraordinary, but the intriguing logic of the inter-relation between reality and the dreams – and the way dreams struggle to explain external effects – lend all the more credence to the mixing of reality.
But then, as Nolan suggests, isn’t that film after all? In dreams we move from location to location and struggle to remember the journey in between. We find ourselves doing tasks and not knowing how we started. Chases, faulty logic, sudden reversals and changes – these are the rules of film, it’s editing slicing out the boring bits and focusing on the reality. We are dropped into the middle of Cobb’s story and only slowly find the backstory, a gun filled chase through an African city is almost indistinguishable from similar sequences in the dreams. The final sequence of the film is a purposefully cut series of images that are very true to the rules of film, but feel alarmingly close to the rules of dream (unsettling us about whether what we see at the end is truth or dream, a debate that continues today). It makes for fascinating stuff, as well as a commentary on film itself.
Nolan’s film is gloriously entertaining, even if in its haste at points it does fail to explain how certain events and concepts truly work – but doesn’t really matter so compelling is the journey. The cast, enjoying the chance to mix action hijinks with genuine characters and dialogue are very strong, with DiCaprio anchoring the film wonderfully as the conflicted, lonely, defensive and daring Cobb. Hardy made a name for himself in a cheekily flirtatious performance, which sparks wonderfully with Gordon-Levitt’s more po-faced Arthur. Page creates a character both naïve and at times almost gratingly intrusive. Cotillard makes a difficult balance look easy playing a character part real and part dream figure. Watanabe is archly dry as the investor. There isn’t a weak link in there.
It may at times move too fast and not always make itself completely clear. It might be a bit too long in places and take a little too long to make its point – but it’s ambitious, challenging, intriguing film-making that rewards repeated viewing. Not least with its cryptic ending in which we are forced to ask how much of what we have seen is real and whether - like Cobb perhaps? - we should even care at all if the end result is so positive. With the fascinating world of dreams – and the rules there that we encounter – it gives us a firm grounding for the its meditation of the dark attraction of fantasy, embodied by the genial wish fulfilment of the movies where adventure lies around each corner and the heroes triumph.