Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clockwork, grey - 'Inception'

I hate being warned about spoilers. I'm over 18, I can vote and hold credit cards and I get irritated when my wrist is patted gently by an unseen author whispering 'You might not want to read this next part if you want to be surprised, dearie.' I don't even want to dignify the process by avoiding potential spoilers while discussing Christopher Nolan's Inception. But readers of a sensitive nature can take heart: I've racked my brain but I can't sum up the film with anything more complicated than well dressed operatives with unspecified skill-sets and dodgy financing sneak into your dreams to fiddle about. This process can fry any of the brains involved, but it usually doesn't.

Voila. It's nothing you haven't picked up from mind-reading genre flicks like Strange Days on the techie end or (shudder) What Dreams May Come on the dreamy, fanciful side (feel free to toss in Dreamscape or Brainstorm if you can go back that far). A few voices have suggested a Mulholland Drive influence, which I don't buy for a second: Lynch is millimetres away from absurdity at the best of times (brilliantly so, occasionally), while Nolan is very aware of what he's doing and imposes rules and regulations (in terms of physics and dream-logic) with every frame. His influential-but-not-quite-real states of consciousness make it easy to toss a Matrix label on it, but it won't stick. There's a sentience behind the false world in the Matrix, while Inception stems from the reflective reality in the subconscious ramblings of dreams. It isn't about simulacra as much as psychological response and self-awareness, and how thin that awareness can be in the face of stimulus or the desire to relive (or avoid) a memory.

Or, not. It's also about suits, trains and the colour grey. The Dark Knight looked cold and metallic: Inception might have been lathed and polished rather than photographed. Nolan's physician-like cool and spotlessly clean environments suggest he should think about healing himself before fretting about his character's fragile grip on reality. An outsider's advice: if you want your audience to spend time in a perfectly realized dreamworld, you've got to start somewhere that's pointedly dissimilar to that same world. Nolan avoids the obvious tactic of making reality grungy and the dream world especially fantastic, but the clean, minimalist lines of high speed trains and straight-outta-GQ suits appearing outside of the dreamworld are pretty much mirrored inside the land of nod (except for that On Her Majesty's Secret Service riff- but I've said too much). After the first hour, you almost feel that you've slipped out of Nolan's subconscious and ended up in an after-work doze of his production designer Guy Dyas in the backseat of his limo on the way home from the studio.

That said - Nolan should be commended for not making it all too dreamy. The rules are established early on through a minimum of exposition and some unobtrusively (but still exceedingly) weird visuals. The agents and their architects can tinker with dream logic and provide a forum for that dream to take place, but anything too unusual will activate the dreamer's subconscious and take them out of the dream. Perspective bends and landscapes impossibly fold themselves into new locales, but for the most part these aren't showy effects, they're just out of place for anywhere but a dream.

When the action really begins - a multi-layered dream penetration and the eponymous inception - every gear clicks into place on schedule, even when the dream rules get tweaked (rather than broken or ignored). It's essentially a beautifully made heist flick with some serious guilt issues hiding (and popping out from time to time) in the background. Nowlan takes it seriously and never cracks a smile, but he does prove that he has a heart if you wait long enough. There's a quiet 'live by the sword, die by the sword' message behind it all, finally boiling down to one's inability to get away from something in one's own head. Even if you vacation in another person's consciousness, you're still stuck in you. And when you least expect it, you might sneak up on yourself with the force of a freight train.

Inception is being lauded for being intimidatingly smart, but I don't know if I can agree with that definition. Complicated and intelligent aren't the same thing, and while I'm delighted that there's a sci-fi blockbuster that won't spearhead a Happy Meal campaign, I don't know if it's as clever as your average critic has hoped for after their collective horror at last year's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I'm not saying that Nolan didn't spend Warner's $160 million wisely, but I almost want to cut his budget (and some of his script) to produce an even smarter, leaner product. I think about how 2004's Primer played with just as many unknowable concepts (short-term time travel and the nature of paradox) on a budget that would have only covered a portion of Inception's first-week catering bill. And Aronofsky brought Pi in on small-time loans and credit cards while questioning the mathematical formulae of random patterns and the unmentionable numerical name of God. If Nolan's budget gets cut in half for his next film, he might be motivated to ram the same imagination and vision into something with more weight than a dream. I'll be the first in line to see it.

Both Primer and Pi riffed on unknowable premises without window-dressing; Inception is the best dressed window I've seen for a long time, all in almost stiflingly good taste. There's not a lot of colour or a lot of fun, but you can't help but respect the craft and consistency of the vision. When the dreams get too thick (or strangely motivated - think about the Bond comparison above) it strains the balance between Nolan assuring us that these things happen, or shrugging and saying 'it's a dream, after all.' Like the best dreams, I've held onto the way I felt watching it unspool while not being convinced that any of it really matters.

On the flipside, that's the price of being a well-made clock; the mechanism (all those tiny gears) doesn't matter as much as the overall impact (keeping time in line). I'm sure Inception is exactly what Nolan wanted to make, I'm just not sure if it's something that should have been encouraged outside of an academic exercise in dream-scheduling and invisible CGI. With Inception, He has built something with the clockwork, self-contained logic of a dream, right down to how your own perception (and lack thereof) populates that sphere. If it all fades rather quickly, then it's done its job. Some things can't be explained, just experienced. Like a good dream. Or a well-made representation of same.


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