‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to dream.’
Why Christopher Nolan’s latest is far from being his greatest
Thinking about a Christopher Nolan film feels like opening up an exquisitely crafted wristwatch. All manner of elaborate coils are wound around precisely placed sprockets, and so immaculate is the structural design that removing one cog — or even nudging it an inch — would ground the whole perfect, beautiful machine to a halt. Everything stays magnificently in place in his latest film, Inception, which is, in a way, the problem. Sure, it’s a remarkably accurate watch — you know the kind, with a slew of dials and meters which exude an impressive, if irrelevant, air — but like even the finest of timepieces, all it does is tick.
While dreams happen to be anything but clockwork.
Nolan’s almost always experimented with peculiar stories, and this time he aims to startle by taking textbook Hollywood formula — a fugitive thief, putting together an eclectic band of specialists to do that ‘one last job’ before he goes straight — and running the clichés through surreal territory. Yet he never quite goes surreal enough, and this remains a visually overwhelming, frequently hollow action film. It offers nothing new, exploring territory encountered before in movies like The Matrix and Minority Report, while giving us nothing of the seismic shock they caused while breaking conceptual ground. Perhaps it is worth noting that those films were born out of writing by Grant Morrison and Philip K Dick, respectively, and Nolan’s own finest feature, The Prestige, out of a novel by Christopher Priest. Inception marks the first time the director has written solo, instead of tag-teaming with brother Jonathan, and the result is both spectacular and sloppy.
Nolan’s biggest strength as a storyteller is his ability to play with and yet stick solidly to structure, and while all the elegance is on show this time — in fact, perhaps more now than ever — he has been far too generous to himself as a writer. Frequently the narrative is padded with clunky exposition as characters wax eloquent about the physics of Nolan’s latest world, going on justifying a flimsy *what* when all we need is the *how*, and far too often do things seem merely, regrettably, convenient. Things fall into place for Danny Ocean too, but the universe doesn’t bend itself to suit his scheme. Here, the underlying logic of the film is built out of sheer pragmatism: otherwise, well, lets just say it would have a lot more folk floating in the air.
In an absolute nutshell, Inception is about Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, a man who specializes in entering dreams and stealing ideas, now tempted to do the reverse and plant an idea inside a brain. It’s a heist film, make no mistake, cleverly packaged inside enough pretty malarkey to seem like a puzzle. It isn’t. That final twist is disappointingly easy to see coming, and that last scene gimmick almost sinks the film whole. There is no underlying significance — though I’m certain Lost-fans are debating feverishly about self-constructed subtext on the Internet right now — and nothing challenging what we already believe. It doesn’t blow your mind, but it sure as hell blows your eyes.
And yet it doesn’t do this dreamily enough. Parisian bookshops explore in a flurry of wasted words, a city folds in on itself, and Penrose stairs appear rather dramatically — all as Hans Zimmer goes trombone-crazy. The film’s finest sequence features Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting in a hotel corridor that rotates round and round, miraculously taking the combatants from wall to floor to ceiling, and this isn’t computer generated, Nolan making the room and camera rotate at the same time. Jawdropping as the sequence is, look up Fred Astaire doing the same in Royal Wedding, using essentially the same technique, 59 years ago. Dreamier.
And those are the good bits; the rest is video-game. A massive chunk of the film is set around a snowy fortress, with people interminably and indistinguishably shooting at each other, cutting away to other characters being verbose about this dream logic. Previously, after much conversation about personal totems to keep track of reality, we see the appropriately curious looking Ellen Page carve herself a striking Bishop — which never comes into play. Perhaps minefields just don’t make good chessboards.
It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Nolan could have explored more and exploded less. Or just shown us more of Marion Cotillard’s gorgeous face. At one point in the film, a charming Tom Hardy grabs a massive gun and shoots an extra, telling Gordon-Levitt that he ‘mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.’ Nolan has the diametrically opposite problem, and maybe its time he started dreaming a little more intimately. Darling.
For Christopher Nolan, dreams are just another exotic location, a lush, lesser-used backdrop, chosen like picking Greenland over Saint-Tropez, and he certainly uses said venue — and the flights of fancy mentioned in its tourist brochure — to visually devastating effect. Yet as followers of Terry Gilliam are well aware, Brazil has absolutely nothing to do with the name of a country.
Originally published Mumbai Mirror, July 28