[This two-part review was originally published at Good Letters, the Image blog. Here are Part One and Part Two.]

Part One: Mind Over What Matters

If Inception sounds a bit heavy, that’s because it is.

The summer moviegoing standard is Fast Food for Juvenile Appetites. But Christopher Nolan’s film joins Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone as 2010’s exceptions. Inception has the necessary superstars — Leonardo DiCaprio, up-and-comers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy, Juno star Ellen Page, and veteran Michael Caine — and thrilling effects.

But it also requires your intellect to run on all cylinders.

Imagine if the finale of TV’s Lost were televised in four parts simultaneously, on four different channels, and you had to switch from one to the other constantly, hoping to make sense of things. That gives you some idea of Inception’s complexity.

Here’s the idea:

In the not-so-distant future, an A-Team of secret agents — Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir calls them a “Scooby-gang”— have become burglars for hire. But they don’t bust into banks. In order to steal priceless information, Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team infiltrate their targets’ dreams.

Remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Anything can happen as these guys explore a stranger’s subconscious.

And they’re so good at this unthinkably complicated work, they make the Ocean’s Eleven team seem like a bunch of amateurs. Eat your heart out, Neo — Cobb and Company don’t just step into a “matrix”; they can descend into a dream within a dream within a dream, with time measured differently on every level, and still manage to find their way out.

But wait — there’s more.

Inception’s Scooby-gang doesn’t just enter a dream. First, they design the dream. Then they load it, like a multi-player video game, in a sleeper’s mind. The oblivious sleeper then fills that architecture with his own ideas and knowledge. The agents can learn a lot that way. Manipulating the dream, they can find their way to the sleeper’s valuable secrets and collect them. Then they have to escape before any flaws arouse their subject’s suspicions.

This process is called “extraction.”

So what’s “inception” then?

Inception is the act of planting an idea inside the dreamer’s mind — something that will influence his behavior—and then escaping unnoticed. That way the dreamer wakes and acts on the idea without ever realizing it isn’t his own.

Basically, inception is what advertisers do all the time — tricking you into thinking you want something.

Cobb, forced into a corner by a powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe), must agree to perform an inception in order to buy his way back home to his kids, or else live on the run. His target will be the heir to a corporate empire — Robert Fischer, Jr. (the excellent Cillian Murphy) — and his goal will be to make Fischer want to break up that company’s monopoly with incredibly subversive tactics.

Inception looks like several million bucks. Because it is. And it’s full of fantastic ideas. (I’ll say more about those in Part Two.) Is it a must-see? Absolutely.

But let’s not get carried away. It could have been better. Much better.

The Scooby-gang’s process requires so much explanation it overloads the script, preventing us from getting to know the characters. And their explanations — some elaborate, some as pithy as “Five minutes in the real world give you an hour in the dream!” — are delivered with such over-the-top solemnity that the film makes parodies unnecessary. (YouTube spoofs will start dropping in 3… 2… 1…)

Thus, the characters remain so undeveloped, they make The Dark Night’s good guys and bad guys seem positively Shakespearean.

Even worse, they behave so unethically, I wanted them to fail. Cobb is so unstable, so free and loose with the rules he sets for everyone else, so willing to risk others’ lives as he neglects his own disruptive troubles, I quickly lost my sympathy for him. Though the end might be desirable — the breakup of a corporate monopoly — Cobb’s means are reprehensible. By the conclusion, I could only see him as “a rapist of the imagination.”

Nevertheless, the film moves right along as if the only real crisis here is Cobb’s subconscious turmoil. Leading him toward an overdue leap of faith is not enough closure for this story.

And DiCaprio makes the same error with this performance as he has in many others. He mistakes intensity for complexity. He’s becoming Tom Cruise. He delivers a sustained act of ferocious, laser-eyed determination, but gives Cobb no idiosyncrasy or personality.

As a result, my brain was busy with the puzzle, but my heart was not engaged in a human story. That’s a shame. The film’s backbone is an intriguing story that wants to come to life. And I’ve seen plenty of elaborate films that put characters over coolness.

Take Shane Carruth’s fantastic 2004 sci-fi thriller Primer, for example.

Primer is every bit as challenging, and yet it’s populated with characters who seemed real. They made decisions that carry incredible weight. They speak like human beings. I was tied up in knots as they became entangled in the consequences of their own designs.

And Primer only cost $7,000. That’s about what it would cost for me and my friends to catch an IMAX showing of Inception.

Finally — I was disappointed that a movie about dreams would feel so practical, so digital, utterly lacking in the surreality that comes so naturally to Lynch, Kaufman, Gondry, and Gilliam. Inception is full of slow-motion falls, but I never once felt the sensation. The effects deliver information without creating sensations.

Inception probably needed to be an hour longer. The film is belted so tight it can’t breathe. A longer film might not have been a blockbuster, but it could have been a more affecting work of art. As it is, Nolan was determined to draw me into his dreamscapes, but here I am, disappointed, wide awake.

Inception

Part Two: The Long Road Home

[WARNING: This commentary contains spoilers—it’s for those who have seen the film, not for those who haven’t.]

In Part 1 of my Inception review, I confessed that Christopher Nolan’s film, for all of its impressive ideas and intriguing ideas, disappointed me. It was too busy being awesome to be great.

But its central ideas are inspiring, and it asks timely questions.

Inception is about people who manufacture dreams, and then they use those dreams to their own advantage, while the dreamer doesn’t realize he’s being deceived and robbed.

This endeavor mirrors what’s happening in so much business, media, and marketing. Advertisements seduce us and appeal to our baser instincts so that we’ll hand over our valuables. Politicians present us with appealing dreams while they seek their own advantage. Movies and the internet indulge our wildest fantasies, tell us lies, and fuel our delusions. (A friend of mine noted that Cobb’s dream-making team is like a filmmaking crew: There’s a director, a set designer, a producer, an actor, and an editor.)

As I watched Inception, I thought about people close to me. I’ve seen some invest countless hours in immersive forms of fantasy — especially video games. They get a lot of thrills from learning how to play those games, control those systems, and score points for themselves. If they fail in those alternative worlds, they can say “Game Over” and start again, without lasting real-world consequences.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not judging people who love video games. But I have observed some avid players “waking up” a decade after college and wondering why they haven’t developed meaningful relationships or achieved the dreams they’d once had for themselves.

Far be it from me to claim the high ground. I’ve been largely absent from “reality” for fourteen years.

This week, I surfaced from a project (a four-book series) that has kept my imagination immersed in a fantasy world for more than a quarter of my life. Like Cobb and his Scooby-gang, I’ve been developing elaborate, otherworldly scenarios. When I wasn’t investing energy in my demanding day job, I was diving deep into these worlds that only exist in my head. And I found it difficult, at times, to surface from those dark waters and focus on my the necessities of “real life.” (Anne, my wife, has been very patient.)

Now that the story is written, I’m in a sort of rehab, learning to live in the real world again.

Cobb has learned one hard lesson: Designing a dreamworld from happy memories, he and his wife wandered for years in a world of good feelings. But when they returned to the real world, they found its hardships intolerable. (Wim Wenders thoughtfully explored this idea 20 years ago in his film Until the End of the World.) The temptation to give up and say “Game Over” grew too powerful for one of them. The other lives with the guilt.

The farther Cobb goes, the more he tries to ignore the phantom that’s haunting him. She manifests his failures and his fears. She wreaks havoc in the worlds he’s made, endangering him and his friends. And until he deals with her — a matter of the real world — she will never leave him alone.

I can relate. When I step back and look at the fantasies I spent fourteen years imagining, what do I see? Phantoms of my fears, failures, doubts, and grudges as well as visions of my hopes.

This is, I think, one of the great purposes of the imagination. In the work of creation and art, we see ourselves reflected in ways that can humble and inform us. At our worst, we indulge our fantasies and desert our lives. At our best, we imagine things that, like x-rays, reveal wonders and damages so we can learn from them.

Cobb, training Ariadne, tells her that the dream-design was conceived — like so many video games — as a training program by the military “to allow soldiers to shoot, stab, and strangle each other and then wake up.” Similarly, his team crafts dreamworlds in which they can carry out crimes.

“How did architects become involved?” Ariadne asks.

Cobb replies, “Someone had to design the dreams, right?”

Later, Ariadne breaks into Cobb’s own dreamworld as an agent of compassion and grace. She reaches out to Cobb in the midst of his downward spiral. She challenges him to find the one way out of his self-made labyrinth. That will mean Cobb has to give up this game of constant striving. He’ll have to face his fears. Surrender control. And take a step of faith. He’ll have to return to the sad and broken world, a place of uncertainty, where real life and love and redemption are possible.

Perhaps someone will design a dream for him that helps him escape this labyrinth back into the light.

We’re all dreamers. We’re all collaborating in the creation of the world. But so much depends on whether we see ourselves as the designer, or as servants of a larger design.

What kind of architects are we — in the worlds we make, the stories we tell, the pictures we paint?

Those are the questions Nolan’s Inception asked me. “What kind of world are you creating? A sentimental prison? A context for conflict? The scene of a crime? Or a place where wounds can heal, where grace can flourish? Is it a world based on the illusion of certainty, where you think you have control? Or are you working in humility, serving a larger design?”

 

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