A couple weeks ago, I published my spoiler-free first take on Inception. It was positive. A rave. A bubbly exclamation that was openly questioned out there by other media outlets. But I stand by every word.
In fact, the more I think about it, the richer this tapestry becomes.
I have since spoken to several people about Inception, about its many twists and turns, its head-spinning structure, its metaphysical melodrama, and have been surprised by how many have replied that its ambition exceeds its abilities. They suggest that the movie is making promises that Christopher Nolan can’t quite deliver. It’s asking a lot of good questions, while running dry on a couple of the answers.
But as I look back over my all-time favorite films, I think it starts to become clear that I’m a big old sucker for ambition. I love the movies that swing big – and for me, the swinging is the juice. I see a movie like The Fountain or The Fall or 2001: A Space Odyssey and love it purely for its gusto. Show me something I’ve never seen before, something truly new and unique, and I’ll show you a giddy film critic. (See my top 10 sci-fi films of the decade)
So let’s start right there: I’ve never seen a movie do what Inception does. It uses all the familiar devices and genres, and scrambles it all up into an insane, exciting, hallucinogenic stew that is a true hybrid original. Yeah, it’s a really thick stew – one of lengthy setups, trippy concepts, and muddled conclusions – and I realize some people don’t take their movies this way. But Mr. Nolan: Dish me up some seconds please; I’ll be seeing “Inception” a second time this weekend (let’s meet here again Monday to discuss).
Boiling the storyline down to the essential, it’s about the dangers of mistaking dreams for reality – not only the dangers of losing track of where you stand, but also in becoming haunted by that which you cannot change. I know the ads are making the movie look like a rip-roaring tour through your most exciting psychic fantasies, and you do indeed get a couple shootouts here, but it’s actually far more somber than you might be expecting. Behind all the exciting stuff is a sad, sad guy desperately trying to find the exit sign from his most depressing nightmare.
(More at Techland: Edward Cullen, and the worst movie characters of all time)
The exposition is thick in this movie – clearly too thick for some – but once you see where the trajectory’s heading, it’s not all that different from, say, The Matrix, where we had to learn the rules before we could play in the sandbox. In Inception, the conceit is that you can journey into someone’s mind, into their dreams. And then within that dream, you can find the dream version of that subject, make them fall asleep again, and plunge into yet another dream, spiraling down their subconscious. Just think of those dreams you have, where you wake up, only to discover you’re still in a dream.