Last summer, when I was watching and pondering Mad Men, I mused a little bit about things that have greatness presumed upon them. Mad Men feels like it is supposed to be iconic, carrying itself with a sort of air of superiority. The more I think about the source of that feeling, the more I think about the title credits with the neoclassical music and the abstract art, clearly symbolic and thus giving itself a literary air. Together they create the expectation that what follows has weight and meaning (Even if I feel that the show itself sometimes lacks those things).
I got the same feeling from Inception, that I'm supposed to find the package has more value than any other summertime action flick. I have to admit that part of that comes from the knowledge that Christopher Nolan is both writer and director: after Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, I expect strong writing and directing from Nolan. And, once again, Nolan does not fail to deliver; in fact, Inception may be the most writerly movie I have ever seen outside of the art house.
The movie is not slow, but it does take its time to set up where it is going, making sure that the audience does not get lost on what could truly be a mind-boggling premise, that of entering other people's dreams. It's not like this is completely virgin territory; Dreamscape
touched on similar subjects, but compared to Inception, Dreamscape was ham-handed and abrupt. And to be honest, I didn't notice any audience members struggling with the concept; it was an engaging opening that seduced the audience into accepting a deeply science fictional concept without any qualms at all.
Nolan does include a twist that gives Inception a good bit of nuance—instead of removing something from the dreamer's memory, the plan is to place an idea there so that the dreamer will think of it as his own and act on it. And so there are scenes that resemble the stereotypical heist movie, including bringing the team together with the requisite banter and interaction that develops the characters—including our leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) having a Big Secret that one of the team (Ellen Page as Ariadne) stumbles on. There are also scenes of the team preparing and practicing the skills they will need on the job.
What makes Inception go beyond the standard heist movie is the storytelling that the central conceit makes possible. And at the heart of that conceit is that the job involves writing a story that the dreamer can find believable, making DiCaprio's character the lead writer in a team of writers. In fact, the first lines DiCaprio speaks are about the parasitic nature of ideas:
What's the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.
And what has been the most effective and widely used method of sharing ideas? Writing.
The metaphors and allusions bloom from this starting point. For instance, as the team works out how their plans, Ariadne offers to show Dom the plans for part of the dreamscape she is pulling together. Dom turns his head, not wanting to know because the knowledge would be obvious as the job is played out, making it easier for the dreamer to see the machinations behind the dream. Of course this also has the effect of teasing the audience, offering a spoiler but pulling it away so that our eventual enjoyment of the scenes where that information comes up is not ruined by too much information.
Similarly, Inception eventually becomes a movie that is working at five different story-telling levels, that is, five different sub-plots all related to moving the entire story forward (literally a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream). In hands less deft than Nolan's, this could easily become an unworkable mess, but it actually works very smoothly, with enough difference between the various levels and enough repetition of the key points of difference that it never becomes confusing. Inception even warns about the author putting too much of himself into the story for fear of alienating the dreamer/reader.
The result is a fairly elaborate framework for what is ultimately a pretty simple idea. That elaborate framework, going back to my original idea, makes this move feel like it has Important Things to say, but at its heart, Inception remains a caper movie with fairly predictable movement. To be sure, it is a thoughtful and sometimes exquisitely lavish caper movie, and its setting eventually reaches the psychedelic as dreams are more deeply penetrated. But the fairly standard story pieces are all in play and can be ticked off the list of any sufficiently experienced movie-goer. The difference is that Inception's set pieces are that much bigger and evocative than the usual fare because of their setting within dreams. In particular, the extended scenes of weightless combat and maneuvering are breathtaking and should set the standard for any space movies for the next decade.
Also setting Inception apart from a number of movies is Hans Zimmer's alternately bombastic and ethereal score. If you have seen a trailer or commercial for Inception, you've already heard the bombast (which adds a great deal to the idea this movie is Important Stuff), and Zimmer and Nolan use it effectively for scene-setting and general shock and awe. But equally powerful are the quiet moments, fraught with emotional tension supported by the score, especially the brilliant mix of Zimmer's original work with the music of Edith Piaf.
The result is a movie that can be viewed on a couple of different levels. As an action movie, the caper movie, it is very good; but its bones don't really do anything new with the clichés of that genre (as paradoxical as that might seem). It's just really big. As a meditation on the power of writing, Inception offers more depth and thought-provoking ideas, but it doesn't offer any easy answers (or perhaps any answers at all), thus feeling somewhat like an exercise in taunting the reader (the equivocal final image drives home just how much the audience may have been played with).
I liked the movie, but it doesn't seem filled with nuance. Repeated viewings may help me find the nuance, and to be honest, there are moments that seem like bloat—scenes that serve very little purpose. But they are gorgeous scenes, worth seeing just for the cinema art and magic behind them. All the buzz points to this movie being an instant classic, and I will give it tons of credit for so seamlessly introducing a radical SF concept into the mainstream. I just don't see the overawing brilliance of it; I enjoyed it and would recommend it. But it has not changed my life (unlike say Children of Men), but instead given me ideas to muse upon. Ultimately, I find it to be good, but not great.