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Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception: The IMAX Experience



Hollywood scuttlebutt is that Christopher Nolan spent ten years conceiving Inception. He began not long after The Matrix came out, I wager. With Inception, Nolan takes on the The Matrix at its own game, freed from the juvenile comic book and chop socky kung fu inspirations of the Wachowski Brothers. Nolan dreams his visually dazzling dreams strictly for grown ups. He concocts a mature and sophisticated but sometimes difficult adventure tome about guilt, love and redemption, using the blurred lines between reality and dreams as its proving ground.

Leonardo DiCaprio leads a stellar cast, some of whom are culled from Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight - Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine. The newcomers to Nolan's company of players are DiCaprio as an Extractor of information within dreams. Working for a shadowy corporation, DiCaprio's shadowy job is to invade people's dreams and steal whatever shadowy secrets they're hiding. Jason Gordon-Levitt is his staunch ally, while Tom Hardy is a Forger, a shapeshifter within the dreams. Dileep Rao is the Chemist who induces people to dream. Ellen Page is the newest recruit, the Architect of dreams, able to create and manipulate the reality of a dreamer's dreamscape. How Page is able to do what she does is never explained, but how can you "explain" such awesome sights as an entire addrondissement of Paris inverting upon itself until it's upside down?

Watanabe, their target at the start of the movie, comes to them with a proposal: to plant an idea in the mind of Murphy, his business competitor. ("An idea," DiCaprio informs us," is the greatest virus known to man.") Watanabe wants this idea to be for Murphy to dismantle the business empire he stands to inherit from his dying father, Pete Postlethwaite, lest Murphy's company control 50% of the world's energy and become its own superpower. This would be very bad, Watanabe insists. This process of planting an idea into a dreamer's mind is called "inception".  They say it can't be done, but DiCaprio knows it can. He's done it before. It didn't go so well then, but he'll do it again quid pro quo if Watanabe uses his far-reaching, shadowy connections to allow DiCaprio - a fugitive ex-pat - to return to the US and his children.

With that set up, DiCaprio and his team go after Murphy to commit inception and to extract a secret in a high-tech vault buried deep within Murphy's subconsciousness. To accomplish this, they engage in an elaborate subterfuge to take Murphy not just within a dream, or a dream within a dream, but into a dream within a dream within a dream.  Three layers of dreams, from which they all must wake and survive attacks from Projections, depicted as assault teams from Murphy's mind trained to defend and protect him within the dreams.  There is also a dreaded fourth layer, Limbo, where a dreamer can be lost for decades. DiCaprio knows about Limbo all too well.

DiCaprio's work with Martin Scorsese (The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island) has enabled him to master portraying tortured characters suffering from deep emotional wounds, unsure of their own reality, desperately grasping at tenuous threads to maintain their sanity. In Inception, DiCaprio is haunted, literally in the dream worlds, by his wife Marion Cotillard. Page is the audience's link to understanding DiCaprio's gradual, emotional unraveling. Without Page asking questions, prodding him, and occasionally betraying his wishes within the dreams, we'd never understand why he can't bear to see his children's faces (an amazing device Nolan employs) and why Cotillard waits for DiCaprio in a shambles of a penthouse suite or in the kitchen of their home, chef's knife in hand.

Even more affecting to me than DiCaprio's torment over his wife and his inability in the real world to return to the United States and see his children without being arrested and imprisoned for his wife's death was Murphy's relationship with his father. Assuming the identity in dreams of Postlethwaite's consigliere Tom Berenger (Principal Skinner thinks Bart Simpson would love this movie; it has Tom Berenger), Hardy is the means for the audience to delve deep into Murphy's issues with Postlethwaite's "disappointment" with him as his son and heir. Murphy turns out to be the most sympathetic person in Inception; he is simply a son coping with his father's expectations and lack of affection, while struggling to be his own man.  Our "heroes" spend the entire movie kidnapping, manipulating, and emotionally mindfucking Murphy. Though he comes out of Inception with "inception", he also finds the personal strength to become the man his father knew he could be.

Nolan expects the audience to side with DiCaprio, Page, Gordon-Levitt, Hardy, Rao, and Watanabe (poor Ken spends half the movie slowly dying from a bullet hole in his chest) in their gambit against Murphy, but they are all actually scoundrels. They're likable and charming together; Hardy is a terrific commando and I liked Gordon-Levitt's flirtation with Page and his tricking her into kissing him. To be clear, they're all the real bad guys here. They willingly and purposely invade an innocent man's dreams under questionable circumstances (would it really be so bad if Murphy, who seems like a good man, controlled half the world's energy supply?) and nearly get him and themselves killed.

It's very easy to become lost in the maze of Nolan's dreamscape. His ambitions sometimes extend his reach, especially in the chaotic and action-packed dream within a dream within a dream sequences that comprise the second half of Inception. Nolan does maintain a visual clarity for each dream level: the first, rainy Los Angeles, the second, a luxury hotel, and the third, snowy mountains with a forbidding fortress. Inception's fascinating first half involves DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt explaining the rules of manipulating the dreamworlds to the inquisitive Page, but when the action kicks in, Nolan keeps it purposefully relentless, perhaps necessarily, so that there's no time for the audience to question the logic or reality of what they're seeing. When Nolan pauses the action and spectacle, his dialogue repeats in rhythms, but he also tends to have his characters over-explain their motivations and actions.

Inception's spectacle is truly awe-inspiring. Even when not in the dream world, Nolan shoots all around the world in Paris, Kyoto, and Los Angeles, using the scope of IMAX to present their real life city scapes in breathtaking fashion. Within dreams, Nolan masterfully uses CGI to create wonders like DiCaprio's personal dream world of decaying skyscrapers cliffside on a breaking beach, and stairwells that become a never-ending maze. Inception also presents us with the longest slow motion van-drives-off-a-bride-and-falls-into-the-water sequence in the history of film.

Nolan's homages to his favorite films are fun to spot. He once again milks his love for Michael Mann's Heat, staging his own version of the famous machine gun shootout on the streets of Los Angeles, this time with rain machines pounding the actors.  An assault on a snowy mountaintop fortress complete with snowmobiles, machine gun ski chases, and an avalanche seems to be Nolan's tribute to James Bond and On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Gordon-Levitt has the best action scene in the whole shebang: a spectacular, physics-defying fight with Projections in a hotel hallway  that's jaw-droppingly convincing. (It ends, in a sly nod to WWE, with Gordon-Levitt applying the Million Dollar Dream sleeperhold!) When Murphy sees his dying father one last time in the dream within the dream within the dream, Postlethwaithe's room looks suspiciously like a holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Inception's ending leaves us with a dangling question, all determined by whether or not DiCaprio's dream "totem" continued spinning forever or whether it stopped and toppled. Nolan leaves us in mid-spin, implying that DiCaprio never left Limbo and gained his heart's desire there.  I'd like to hope that the totem eventually stopped spinning, that DiCaprio really did return to reality and his children, but I believe Watanabe made good on his promise to DiCaprio in Limbo. The sudden appearance of Michael Caine waiting for DiCaprio at LAX indicates that DiCaprio never woke up from the dream and remains trapped in Limbo. For DiCaprio, the ending of "it was all just a dream" is exactly the kick he was always searching for.