Saturday, July 17, 2010
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
The sleep of reason
It's okay. Easily the best movie of the summer, though from what I've seen so far that's not saying much. Easily the best thing Nolan's ever done to date, though from what I've seen of his Batman movies, that's not saying much either.
Plotline bears remarkable similarity to Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both are overwrought, both strain mightily, both hinge upon Leonardo DiCaprio piercing the elaborate veil of illusion and coming to terms with his private family tragedy. Plotline also borrows heavily (very heavily) from Philip K. Dick's remarkable Ubik--down to an elaborate case of industrial espionage involving of telepaths and anti-telepaths (Nolan calls them 'extractors'), and of unsettling, even menacing shifts in reality. Nolan borrows the device of using a commonplace object--in Ubik a coin, in Nolan's movie a spinning top--to suggest a meta-twist on top of all the other twists.
Nolan's reached a personal best here. Unlike in the Batman movies, his action sequences here are actually coherent--or at least semi-coherent (he still has trouble with car chases); perhaps the best bit involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing both Spiderman and Neo on the walls and ceilings of a hotel hallway--that showed some demented wit. I actually prefer this over The Matrix--the latter was almost all clunky CGI effects, while Nolan's puzzle-box picture features clean slow-motion footage and on-camera stunts that actually look dangerous.
That's about as far as this goes: it looks dangerous. Nolan's constructed a hundred and fifty minute house of cards built entirely on the premise of dreaming; for all that, there's little in the picture that has the authentic feel and, well, solidity of real dreams. Vans may skitter off bridges and elevators drop down shafts and snowbound strongholds go up in flames, but one's sense of reality is never really threatened, not the way Dick constantly threatens to pull the rug out from under you.
In Ubik, a gritty reality is convincingly presented, a fast-moving plot introduced to capture your attention and whip things along. Unsettling little details show up--milk spoils quickly, technological devices regress to their equivalent in 1939 (a process of devolution, you might say), and the face of one of their associates suddenly starts appearing in coins and on television. It's a nightmare situation, and the ultimate explanation provided at the end of the book offers little comfort--if anything, only adds to the general sense of paranoia and despair.
Paradoxically, one needs utter realism to sell the fantastic, and Nolan betrays his hand early when he folds an entire city like a taco, then has the veteran extractor (DiCaprio) explain how things work to a neophyte dream architect (a slight and pretty Ellen Page). Dick doesn't work like that; he throws you into the situation, to sink or swim as best you can.
The movie might have sold its ungainly package if it had style--but that's Scorsese territory. Nolan manages a handful of striking moments (DiCaprio and Page stepping on and walking up a wall a la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding; DiCaprio recovering his luggage from the airport carrel, looking around, and realizing that every other face is familiar) but compared to Scorsese he's strictly a rookie at dream imagery (DiCaprio hugging his wife,who turns into a pillar of crumbling hot coals; a woman mental patient caught pantomiming the drinking of a glass of water; a man carrying children to a lakeside, the man moving backwards, the footage projected forwards), not to mention establishing a sense of menace (DiCaprio's portentous arrival at the island dock).
All that said, even Scorsese's intriguingly overdone little thriller pales in comparison to a true Dickian film, David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Think Ubik crossed with Behind the Green Door--not easy to find examples of science-fiction pornography. Cronenberg's masterpiece is one transgressive dream image after another (a man kisses a pair of lips on a TV set, his face sinking into the screen; a vagina-like opening appears in the same man's abdomen, into which he inserts a videocassette--funny how, of the two primal subconscious drives (violence, sex), Nolan's dream images contain so much of one, so very little of the other). Compared to Scorsese, Cronenberg, Dick, Nolan's picture, which heavyweight film critic Roger Ebert calls "wholly original, cut from whole cloth" starts to look rather threadbare, not to mention secondhand.
There's been criticism of the criticism that the film's too linear, too literal and bound by logic. "Of course, it's literal, it's meant to be. Those are constructed worlds with rules to them that the heroes are meant to circumvent. Thrillers in general are films where the hero bends or breaks the rules at his peril--that's the very source of the thrill" Good point, though I'd mention films like Michel Gondry and Charles Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a perfectly valid thriller that doesn't rely on linear logic, and that Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.--easily one of the greatest and most beautiful films ever made--is not only a first-rate thriller that doesn't need much linear logic but is wonderfully funny to boot.
Eduardo Dayao of Piling Piling Pelikula labels Nolan's latest a heist film, and I think he does a better job of calling it better than most critics have so far. I'd consider it an excellent heist film, then, that attempts an extra twist. Problem with Nolan I suppose is that he doesn't do twists very well--his mind's too linear (even his breakthrough hit Memento goes backwards in a more or less straightforward fashion). At most, Inception manages a half-twist that lifts it above, say, Steven Soderbergh's Ocean movies.
And even redefining the picture as a heist movie...Jules Dassin's too great an artist, in my opinion, to just do straight genre. His Rififi is the defining heist film, with the actual crime committed in real time, using almost no dialogue. I submit that when things start to go wrong in the story--when destiny (for which the crew's intricate plan makes few provisions) start to unravel the crew members' respective lives, Dassin for no apparent reason (a reaction, maybe, to all the grim realism that came before?) throws in a final drive from the countryside back to Paris that feels very much like a dream, more nightmarish (yet free-floating) than anything in Nolan's movie. Even Dassin's most offhand efforts, it must be said, seem superior to Nolan's big-budget strainings.