To wrap up her gothic novels, Ann Radcliffe explained away her supernatural trappings at the conclusion. Imagine a story that explains away its action in every scene. Hitchcock was heavy-handed when diagnosing Norman Bates and unmasking his own mystery; Nolan extends what the master of suspense couldn’t pull off in one scene. Sisyphean from the drawing board, Inception discusses its speculative universe so often that we don’t get a narrative, but a frustrated attempt at genre execution. Granted, we need some groundwork for a surreal filmic universe like this one, but writer-director Christopher Nolan has a device on his hands too dense for the medium. In fact, too dense for any narrative form, it’s better suited to a nonfiction work of pseudo-psychology. That medium is all description, with no concern for character.
Inception essentially delivers a Chinese box dream structure – and I wish, the script could use such brevity. The film’s device, a means to enter one’s mind and dreamscape, is used to steal information in one’s memory. Easy enough. But the crux comes when a third party (Ken Watanabe) asks the technicians (led by Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio) if they can plant a fake dreamscape so to steal something already there, this being called inception. Now it gets as screwy as it seems clever. Characters must pause the narrative and explain all this, as they do countless times over for the plot to plod forward. At one point, well into the film’s (anti-)conflict, a newbie accomplice to Cobb, Ariadne (Ellen Page, an odd casting choice), lays groundwork with him over rapid gunfire – they can barely get out the explanations in between blasts. The shape of the scene is as odd as the choice to put them on what looks too much like Planet Hoth.
As for the Chinese box ‘o dreams: when the technicians enter the mind, they realize that a dream world may shift to another dream – a Philip K. Dick-ian pattern aiming to trap its viewers in wonder. But there’s no wonder – it’s just the “is this real” conceit masked and worked over. See Wes Craven, circa 1994.
Leonardo DiCaprio wants to be the new guide to the antireal, even though he keeps falling into hands unskilled at such. He leads a heist to steal a safe combination from a wealthy heir, Fischer (Cillian Murphy, in a thankless role). To achieve this, Leo and co. must construct a dream environment they can manipulate. We get some thrill-ride visuals of city streets bending and folding over, but Nolan’s vision of the surreal goes no further than manipulating environment and architecture. (And there’s some nonsense with a falling car of dreamers that makes Joseph Gordon Levitt, part of Leo’s co., looking like a levitating bellhop who carts bodies. Sad note: he was likely cast for his slight size to suit this scene.)
Don’t psychology and identity shift in dreams? – i.e., ever see someone in a dream whose face you don’t recognize, but you still know? Aside from a couple of convenient disguises – yeah, that’s Tom Berenger as Fischer’s uncle – Inception‘s surrealism is just gassed up virtual reality. Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York reflect shifting identity without confusing the audience. But now we’re talking about an able surrealist versus a filmmaker out of his depth. Films like this should lay the groundwork early (and succinctly) and let the action indicate any adjustments. After all, stories should show, not tell, and Nolan keeps telling us that he can’t tell this story.