Wednesday, 21 July 2010


'You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger...' It's a simple enough phrase but one that conceals hidden depths, much like the whole of Christopher Nolan's extraordinary new film, Inception. Ostensibly, a fairly straightforward tale of cerebral espionage, it comes to unfold like the layers of a subconscious puzzle box, both reinstating and expanding in metafictional fashion on those wonderfully rich and velvety themes Nolan has explored in the past: guilt; consciousness; love; and, of course, the ever fickle nature of time itself, always putty in the hands of this brilliantly talented director.

It's a breathtaking multiplex achievement for the way Nolan refuses to compromise on ideas and intelligence in face of his $200 million budget. In fact, it's certainly one of the most uncompromisingly intelligent blockbusters ever made, driven entirely by its own logic which has to be explained, piecemeal fashion in every other scene, by its cast. Normally, this would grate...but Nolan also knows how to cast actors comfortable with exposition, and here Inception pulls another trump card, driven as it is by attractive yet enormously talented performers.

Always at the centre is Leonardo DiCaprio's engrossing central performance as James Bond of-the-mind, Cobb. Able to invade the id of his chosen victims and extract any secrets his employers wish to purloin, he is beckoned into performing the opposite task, inception, by industrial magnate, Saito (Ken Watanabe). This involves infiltrating the mind of rival businessman, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), and planting a literal seed of doubt, in order so his business collapses, leaving the way open for Saito. In exchange, Cobb gets a one-way ticket back to America and his estranged children, products of his earlier marriage to dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a malevolent presence kept alive in his memories who frequently emerges to disrupt his business. With his team assembled - architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), action men Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) - can Cobb maintain the subterfuge?

After a bewildering opening 20 mins, a leap of faith designed to introduce us to Nolan's cerebral trickery, the director really hits his stride in inhabiting with relish an entirely new universe, a baby he first began scripting a decade ago. Refreshingly, he avoids explaining the nitty bitty mechanics of his dream invading; it's akin to watching The Matrix without seeing the characters physically plugging in from the real world. No, Nolan has much larger philosophical, meta-fictional targets in his sights, both broad (the nature of physical reality as a Parisian street flips on itself) and intimate (the differences in scale between dream-time and real-time).

Besides the brains, it's also physically and visually astonishing, the result of a director finally able to fully inhabit his own universe and make it up as he goes along, rather than be hindered by franchise expectations (Batman) or pre-existing source material (brother Jonathan Nolan's short story inspiration for Memento). Trains barrel down streets and Gordon-Levitt fights in a rotating hallway. Later on, one can positively sense Bond fan Nolan's excitement in staging an extended On Her Majesty's Secret Service-esque snow sequence. Yet none of it is there for show; although it might appear en-mass in a confusing muddle, there's always a rich, literary, classical seam to Nolan's visual metaphors, and eagle-eyed (and eared) viewers will pick up on cues planted in scenes minutes before.

Yet none of this would mean anything without that most tender of emotional threads weaving its way through between Cobb and Mal. Frequently criticized for lack of emotional compassion, Nolan here strikes exactly the right balance: the most human quality of all is what drives us deep inside, and it's hard not to feel chills as Page's Ariadne invades this, Cobb's most personal, disturbing place. It also defies the other criticism leveled at the director that he can't fashion interesting or plausible female characters; Cotillard's is likely the best of any Nolan film, the dark, and darkly beautiful, beating heart of the piece.

In the end though, the most extraordinary thing is how Nolan bottles the essence of dreams themselves; maddening, haunting, disturbing, thrilling, confusing. It's a blockbuster possessed of a stunning texture and mood. Dream a little bigger, indeed: it's a statement that can not only be applied to mass-produced cinematic drivel but to the audience itself, emerging bleary eyed and profoundly altered by a truly unique cinematic experience.