Christopher Nolan has always been a director of paradox. From his back door storytelling in Memento to his flip side characterizations in Insomnia and The Prestige to the necessarily inevitable, but still unfairly tragic finale of The Dark Knight, the auteur has spent the better half of a career (or at least the better half of the early stage of a career, being that the young director has only been at it for little more than a decade) developing stories and movies where the apparent truth shown on screen is not the truth of what is really going on inside the film. Whether it be characters who claim to be something they are not or characters who are opposite sides of the same demented coin, there are always hidden layers throughout all of Nolan's films. Even in those films where the hidden layers are eventually revealed to the audience, there is always something held back - something that leaves a lingering question in one's mind.
Now, in Inception, the filmmaker's seventh work, Nolan has taken this idea of paradox, already completely ingrained in the auteur's oeuvre from day one (which incidentally would be the mostly unknown, pre-Memento fame debut feature Following), to a whole other level. Which is a quite apt thing indeed, considering the multi-leveled storylines running through this newest mindfuck of a movie like a demented sodoku coming out of an opium-induced trance to find itself in a world it doesn't recognize. A movie in which the idea of paradox is not only used, and even explained quite frequently (replete with M.C. Escher-esque imagery!), but which is also relied upon to make the film work - and work it certainly and most paradoxically does. Or does it? I suppose that is part of the paradox. The movie is certainly "awesome" as some would say, but beyond the effects, do we get what we got in Nolan's The Dark Knight? Perhaps to a point we do, but never so deeply entrenched as in that movie.
To attempt a brief - if not wholly unnecessary, considering - plot synopsis, Nolan's movie is about a group of espionage experts - thieves if you will - who have the technology to break into people's dreams in order to steal secrets and/or implant ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, the team leader - a team that consists of Oscar nominees Ken Watanabe and Ellen Page, Bronson's machismo-charmed Tom Hardy and that suave fucker, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as a somewhat reluctant Cillian Murphy and the drop dead gorgeous Marion Cotillard as Cobb's wife/nemesis (their relationship can surely be labeled as "it's complicated") once again stealing the picture from everyone else around - and we first meet him - and them - inside the delirious dream of one of his marks. A fast-paced and disorienting opening to a film that just gets more and more of both as time marches on - Cotillard making these disorienting episodes figuratively (and literally) explode like the thespianic exclamation point that she has always been. Once we come out of this initial dream, we are never quite sure if we are truly out or rather inside someone else's dream instead. This effect lasts for the entire two and a half hour running time of the movie. I suppose one must assume this all takes place in the future, but then time is of little significance once you fall into the workings of Nolan's movie. All this said, the film works as a veritable paradox upon itself.
Outside of the incessant talk of paradox (I do ramble on) when one looks at Nolan's film as pure visual audacity, there are some gorgeous set pieces to be found throughout - Ellen Page playing with the architecture of a dream and literally folding a cityscape over unto itself, Gordon-Levitt dancing about a zero gravity fight scene as if he were Fred Astaire inside the Matrix - but in some ways, one can surely make the argument that Nolan has actually not gone as far as he could have or should have with this so-called visual audacity of his. The most glaring proof of such is a late-inning battle scene set in the snow-capped dreamworld of one of the characters (with the somewhat confusing logistics of Nolan's film, I am not absolutely sure who's dream it is?) where the penultimate shoot-em-up finale seems oddly ordinary when compared to the rest of Nolan's twisty (albeit in an inevitably safe Hollywood manner - not the real twisted worlds found inside the oeuvres of directors such as Lynch or Almodovar or Von Trier!) latest blockbuster.
Never one to advocate the overuse of that dreaded CGI (mainstream cinema's over reliance on the technology has, in many ways, taken any real imagination out of modern cinema), I had actually hoped for perhaps some more of it here - especially considering that most, if not all, of Nolan's film takes place inside a dream - and surely had wished there had been more when my time was up and I had to leave the theater. Being that this is indeed a big budget Hollywood blockbuster (even if it is directed by an Indie-inspired auteur of sorts!) and is meant to make hundreds of millions of box office dollars (as well as aspiring to be watched by as many of the populace as possible - which is punctuated by its PG-13 rating!) one would think the general attitude would be the more CGI, the better. After all, this is the normal modus operendi of modern mainstream moviemaking - even those delivered from former Indie prodigies such as Nolan.
Yet, at the same time, while the movie is no doubt big budget biz, it is still directed by that aforementioned Indie prodigy, and thus owns an artistic cred not usually associated with such big budget biz. The psychological inner workings of the film - the relationship between DiCaprio's Cobb and Cotillard's Mal first and foremost among them - and the much bally-hood paradoxical nature of the dreams within dreams within even more dreams is evidence toward that summation. Yet it is the comments of such quote whores as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who (plastered right there in big fat print atop the movie's poster) described the movie as "James Bond meets the Matrix" that sells the movie quite short. Granted it is a popcorn action flick (no doubts!) and is full of near non-stop thrills, but it is more than just that, and even though it is by no means the "game-changer" so many are hoping or calling for, it is in that aforementioned "more" that makes Inception work as well as it does (which is perhaps not as well as one would hope, but still well enough for what it is) and makes it as thrilling of a ride as it is (both action-wise and in a somewhat deeper, more resonating manner, thanks especially to DiCaprio and Cotillard's bravura performances) - even if sometimes you wished it would go even further than it already does. [07/17/10]