Christopher Nolan’s new film had me intrigued the moment I heard about it. After the runaway success of his big-budget comic book caper, The Dark Knight, it felt like he’d been given a blank cheque and told to let his imagination run wild. What could the writer and director of the excellent Memento do when given a blockbuster-sized palette to paint on?
Now, personally I was far less impressed by The Dark Knight than most people seem to have been. By trying to force comic book characters into the real world, it fell uncomfortably between two stools. It went to such effort to depict a gritty and believable world, yet was littered with obvious fantastical elements that just didn’t gel properly with the setting. It’s perfectly acceptable for Superman to don a pair of glasses and become Clark Kent, unrecognisable even to those closest to him. It’s acceptable because we know this is a comic book and we expect to suspend our disbelief on such matters. But when the film-makers seem to be suggesting that Gotham City is a fictional place but one that plays by the rules of the real world, then Batman’s disguise (a mask that fails to cover most of his face and a silly voice) just becomes a hole in the plot.
That said, it was visually impressive. Undeniably so. Despite the partial retreat from comic book sensibility, it remained stylish and sumptuous. Shades of David Fincher. And it was this that made me so interested in Inception. The constraints you must accept in order to get your hands on a major studio franchise put serious limitations on a film-maker’s creativity (as Kevin Smith explains in this wonderful anecdote about working on a draft script for Superman). So given how amazing Memento is, I was more than willing to credit Nolan with the good parts of The Dark Knight and absolve him of responsibility for the bad.
Which is why Inception held so much promise. Suddenly Nolan had the big budget and the creative control. Plus Leonardo Di Caprio plays the lead character; an actor whose recent work with Scorsese has been excellent. And then I heard the majority of the film was set inside the dreams of a character and my anticipation turned to genuine excitement.
But, as you’ve probably guessed from my tone, I was setting myself — or rather, the movie — up for a fall. The basic story is a good one… di Caprio plays a spy who, with a combination of training and technology, can enter the dreams of others (and bring a team of accomplices with him). While in the dream, he can subtly direct the attention of the dreamer and so access their memories and unconscious. He uses this ability to steal top secret information for high-paying clients. Then, one day, he gets a different request… to enter someone’s dream and plant an idea that will blossom into conscious action once the dreamer awakes. Specifically, Cillian Murphy — who has just inherited his father’s industrial empire — must be convinced to break up that empire.
Frankly that’s a fantastic plot and it could definitely make a great book or movie.
Unfortunately, it’s never going to be a great movie in the big-guns-shiny-metal / Hollywood action blockbuster genre. Having a shed-load of money to throw at a film set in dreams could have resulted in something utterly spectacular. Instead we have car-chases through mundane streets, fist-fights in hotel rooms, gun battles in the snow; all of which go on for far longer than they need to. That there are three separate sequences occurring at three different levels of the same dream is a good plot device. That they are three rather clichéd action scenes is a terrible waste. Especially since none of them seemed in any way dream-like, with only the shift between them illustrating that they’re part of the same dream.
And ultimately this is my main criticism of the film. It’s great failing. The dream sequences that take up the majority of the film are almost never evocative of real dreams. There’s an occasional Escher-influenced staircase, a couple of set-pieces where the environment shifts in unpredictable ways and one or two other optical illusions that provide pleasing little jolts, but almost nothing is authentically dreamlike.
Dreams are the product of a collision between our conscious and our unconscious minds. But despite plenty of talk about it, Inception never truly accesses the unconscious. Everything feels solid and rational even when the characters insist it’s not. The interminable fight scenes are no different to the fight scenes in any action movie. A train suddenly appears out of nowhere during a car-chase, but you don’t think “oooh… just like in a dream!”. Because it’s not just like in a dream.
Yes, the bit when di Caprio’s character finally gets to “the bottom level” of the dream gets vaguely interesting, but it only lasts for a few brief minutes (unlike the constant fist-fights).
In the end I emerged from the cinema feeling distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve subsequently read reviews that complained that the plot got too convoluted, which — frankly — was the precise opposite of my impression. The plot took a glorious premise, one that could have become a brain-bending, visually magnificent masterpiece and instead played it dreadfully safe, offering up an action movie with a minor twist. Which is sad, because I know there was the seed of a great film in there, and based on Memento I suspect Christopher Nolan could have made it.
He just didn’t this time.