LOCKDOWN CINEMA CLASSIC
by Symeon J. Thompson
Ten years ago Christopher Nolan’s jaw-dropping Inception came out, heralded by the crashing chords of Hans Zimmer on the endlessly repeated trailer.
An intellectual, almost mathematical, approach to emotional catharsis dressed up within a sci-fi-ish heist film about dream thieves trying to plant an idea into someone’s subconscious, the film was visually and aurally stunning, bending minds and cityscapes in an effort to simulate the experience of our own internal virtual reality.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a professional dream thief. The military have developed a technology to enable shared lucid dreaming, partly for training purposes and partly for therapeutic ones. The mixtures of compounds and training allow particular individuals to enter another person’s dreams to access their subconscious and get crucial information. Through elaborately constructed dream spaces, “architects” fashion worlds in which secrets are kept in vaults allowing them to broken into by those who know how.
After a job goes wrong, Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are offered a special deal by their former target, the industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe): plant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up the business empire of his father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite) after his imminent death.
Thanks to a tragedy in Cobb’s past involving his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) he can no longer enter the United States or see his children. Saito claims he can fix this, and fix the bounty on their head by their former employers.
So, Cobb assembles a team for the most elaborate mind-heist imaginable. However, things do not go to plan, and they must fight against time to succeed in their mission and wake up in the real world.
True to form for Nolan, Inception is both emotive and icy, a narrative where the characters are ciphers and the plot and its depiction is the point. But it scarcely matters when you see someone bend Paris streets into a box and construct impossible staircases.
The structure of the story – like the architecture of the dreams – is complex but intelligible, at least on a second viewing. And the action is so beautifully shot and cut that, like Nolan’s later films such as Interstellar and Dunkirk, the cinematic experience itself becomes emotional – like listening to a symphony or watching the night sky.
Nolan prefers to use as little computer-generated imagery as possible. He has no social media presence and does not use a mobile phone or email. Sure, he has assistants to help out with his communications needs, but this ties in with the heart of many of his films – the friction and competition between the artificial and the real, and an ultimate preference for reality and truth while accepting that some people struggle with it.
Rather than a computerised cyber alternate reality like The Matrix, Nolan crafts similar escape worlds without resorting to computer domination. The Prestige is about conjuring, Memento about memory, the Dark Knight trilogy about lies and secrets. His films point out a paradox: we often need things that are not true, or not true in the way objective, physical reality is true, but that we can become lost if we forget this distinction.
It is like the cinema, or artistic creation itself. Creativity is integral to our humanity. If we accept the thoughts of Tolkien on this matter, we are sub-creators and it is through our acts of sub-creation that we share in the divinity of the Creator.
However, if we use this talent to escape the world, if we turn it into a drug, then all that creativity – be it through movies, novels, whatever – ceases to give life and becomes a prison, a self-imposed exile with only our ego for company. And in the process we lose the ability to create.
It is not for nothing that the point of Inception is catharsis, for it is through catharsis that the real and the imagined coincide, the imagined sparking a purification of the real that enables growth and betterment.
This could be called the human dialectic – a continual give-and-take where creativity begets genuine progress and improvement, but only if the real is always kept in mind.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).