Sharing a Dream
Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week (at the time of writing) – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that's about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn't have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week's cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan's 2010 film Inception.
Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced-up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan's latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren't for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan's abilities.
I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).
And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.
What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.
One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there's a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the 'kick' used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I'm not going to pretend Inception isn't convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).
Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone's subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.
And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard technique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.
Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he's not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.
For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer's score to all the other things I've mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.