Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Runtime: 148 mins
There are not many films that manage to comprehensively warp reality with a sophistication and subtlety to rival that of The Matrix, but Inception may just be one of them. While The Matrix suggested that what seems real is not, and presented an already fully-formed conspiracy as to the alternative, Inception goes one further by merging possible and probable realities, putting far greater emphasis on the judgement and agency of characters and audience alike.
But in spite of the nitpicking over consistency this ambivalence is bound to invite, there can be no doubt that Christopher Nolan has surpassed himself conceptually. His 2000 mind-warp Memento is surely a hard act to follow where conceptual originality is concerned: it is a mostly backwards narrative that addresses themes of what we take to be true and false. Inception, however, is arguably all the more impressive because its many ventures into and across the characters’ psyches are anchored within the solid framework of linear time, keeping together a sprawling web of plot layers that could well have disintegrated and shattered the dream otherwise.
In order to successfully achieve ‘inception’ (the art of planting an idea deep into a person’s subconscious), ‘extractor’ Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team set to work constructing a three-layered dreamscape (a dream within a dream within a dream) for subject Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to experience, incepting the idea that is to take root in Fischer’s mind within the third, deepest layer. The further down these dream layers the characters travel, the more screen-time is spent on each, giving the sensation almost of real-time, which involves the audience on a much deeper, more subliminal level as it mirrors the film’s obsession with deepening dimension. Though Murphy’s at times lukewarm performance is markedly at odds with the rapidity of the plot, DiCaprio blends distractedness and tenacity to create a character of knotted complexity.
But this is much more than the average swift, slick thriller. As the architects of the film’s dreamscapes are constantly praised or criticised for their levels of detail, perhaps Nolan, as ‘architect’ of the film, should be judged on the same principle. To have realised such a nuanced idea is no mean feat – though the plot is by no means watertight, as the countless possible interpretations testify. Nevertheless, each layer of unreality is distinct enough from the others to give the film genuine, lucid depth and dimension: surely the true test of the plausibility of any work that deals so ambitiously with the elusive (and illusive) nature of reality.