Going Ten Layers Deep


I don't know if it's still true now -- certainly a film like Tenet, which is just an utter mess of a film, could take some of the luster off anyone's career -- but there was a time where Christopher Nolan could pitch any kind of film and studios would fall over themselves to get his idea. His BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. films, namely Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, were cultural events that shifted the course of superhero films at DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s., and since then the director has pitched a ton of really weird, gonzo films that I doubt any studio would have greenlit before he became the de facto voice of the Dark Knight.

Think about it: after Batman Begins he didn't immediately get to work on a sequel, instead electing to tell a science-fantasy story about two magicans having an illusory feud in the early 1900s (before Nikola Tesla shows them real magic). That kind of film is completely ridiculous on paper and yet Nolan had the power after his first Batman to say to Warner Bros., "you want me to direct more of Batman? Let me tell this other story first." And they did (and, personally, I think it's a great film).

That kind of power is amazing, and yet Nolan was able to do it again when The Dark Knight became an even bigger smash than Batman Begins. Not even sure if he wanted to do a third film in his Man-Bat trilogy, Nolan instead came up with another gonzo idea: people invading dreams so they can perform corporate espionage. Really? That's the film you wanted to make, Nolan? It's such a weird, hard to parse idea that audiences should have fled in droves. Instead it had Nolan's name attached to it and managed to pull in $860 Mil against a $160 Mil budget. Warner Bros. head Nolan's pitch for dream-thieves and said, if it gets us more Batman have whatever money you want," and it paid off.

Thing is that while I think the film is still very watchable even now, Inception certainly does seem nearly as intelligent and deep now as it did when it first came out. Going back and watching the film again, years later and with a critical eye as I try to actually understand what all is happening in the movie, it comes across less like a master class in artistic mind-fucker than a freshman script turned in right at the end of class from an author that thinks he's so smart (which, in reality, it's just this Mt. Dew-fueled fever dream of ideas). It's fun, but it's not "smart" at all.

In the film we're introduced to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the leader of a team of dream thieves, guys who hook themselves up to marks and invade their dreams so they can steal corporate secrets. Cobb was forced into this life when his wife, Mal (Marion Cotiliard), killed herself but made everyone think Cobb had done it (there's a whole storyline explaining this that, well... it kind of makes sense). Since then, Cobb has been on the run, working with his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and whatever team members they can find so they can construct dream mazes and steal whatever secrets their clients want.

Inevitably this puts them on the radar of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a rich industrialist who has one request: invade the dreams of Robert Michael Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so they can implant (not steal) the idea that Fischer should break up his father's empire. Implanting ideas is called "inception" and while theoretically possible only one person has ever pulled it off: Cobb. Incept Fischer and Saito wiil (somehow) clear Cobb's name and let him go home. All it will take is a team to join Cobb and Arthur -- architect Ariadne (Elliot Page, going by "Ellen" at the time), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and financiar Saito -- to pull off the dream-heist of the century.

On its surface Inception has a lot going on that works. For starters it has a cast that can both spout off Nolan's lines and make them sound deep and interesting. The film is filled with more techno-babble than a season of Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. and it spends a lot of time going over ideas, explaining them, reworking them, and then redefining its rules, again and again. It works in the moment as this film has a lot of ideas it has to explain to its audience the first time around. At the same time, though, these sequences also drag the film down once you understand the mechanics and have to sit through all of this again on a second watching.

The film also has a problem of setting up rules and then purposefully breaking them. Sure, I could point to a film like Ghostbusters where the heroes say "don't cross the streams" of their powerpacks only to then cross said streams to win at the end of their film, but that's one silly thing in a very silly movie and it doesn't matter that much. Inception is loaded with sequences like there where Cobbs very blantantly says, "don't do this," only for the film to then go, over and over, breaking its own rules. By the end of it its hard to keep up with what you can and can't do in dreams because the film largely has no rules at all anymore.

This really hurts in the last act of the film when Cobb is forceds to dive deeper and deeper into the dream levels, building dreams within dreams as he goes down to "Limbo" (or, as Rick and Morty called it, "dream bedrock"). It's supposed to seem thrilling somehow, I think, but because all the rules have been broken we have no idea how dreams work this deep into the experience nor do we get what they hell is going on in limbo at all. It's just a needless complication plopped onto an already needlessly complicated film.

Even at a basic level I'm not sure how everything is supposed to work in the film. To incept Fischer the team has to go into a dream, and then go into a dream within that dream, and then another layer deeper. Each time they use a machine that allows them to all tap into each other's dreams. Except, that's a real world machine so how the heck can they bring one of those in with them let alone actually have it work properly? Saying, "oh they just dream it," doesn't really make sense unless they're all electrical engineers with a causal Masters in sleep study. And the same could be applied to anything they use, from explosives to guns to anything else in the dreams. Dream logic apparently is the handwave for everything but it only waves away so much before you start questioning the logic of anything in the films.

At the same time, though, the film really works at a visceral level. The stunts are great here, with a lot of cool action, especially as the sequences are stacked on top of each other in the dream-within-a-dream on top of the dream-within-a-dream. The film's use of practical effects (and the stars' willingness to do their own stunts) goes a long way to selling the action and making it feel like it has real impact. A sequence in a hotel hallway is a real showcase of this, using a hall (and attached bedroom) all built on a rotating structure so that the actors flops and bounce around in the hall as the dream forces the whole structure to rotate around. It's very cool and feels awesome in the moment.

You could also probably ascribe depth to some of the decisions the film makes. For instance, Mal killed herself before Cobb thinks he incepted her to assume that her reality (within the dreams where they went too deep and lived for years in dream time) was fake onto to then realize that Mal assumes there's another reality to her life above this "real world". Was she right? Is she actually out and the times she haunts Cobb in his dreams (which he thinks is his own mind torturing himself) its her in the dream trying to lure him out? Or is she just a fignment and the movie uses her as a bogeyman that, really, shouldn't exist because Cobb's figments shouldn't show up in other people's dreams (if we follow the rules of the movie whichm, naturally, it ignores every chance it gets).

Then there's the ending where the film cuts-away just before it's revealed if Cobb actually has escaped limbo or not. Much was made about how brilliant this ending is but I actually have to wonder about that, too. It seems like it could go either way but, at the same time everything about the sequence indicates that Cobb is still dreaming. It's more frustraiting than interesting and while the idea you aren't supposed to know the truth of the film was thrilling when the film came out, going back now I'm just annoyed that the film can't commit to anything, especially not its own ending.

And I think that ends up being the issue with everything in the film: nothing really matters. In the dreams anyone can do anything and the rules (and limits) get thrown away the second they're inconvenient. The films charms come in the moment, when you don't know what's going on and you're experiencing Inception for the first time. Going back and revisiting it, though, you're left struggling to care about anything, the characters, the setting, or the events going on. It's all very cool looking, but like the rules of the scenario, it all gets hollowed out an empty over time.

Inception remains a fun, casual watch if all you want are some jaw-dropping effects sequences and a decent bit of action. But this comes at the price of having to sit through a number of scenes of characters talking like what they have to say is super important when none of it really matters. All the best bits come at the end of the film and it takes a long time to get there. I think the movie works best when you only watch it once; if you have to see it again it's better to watch it with people that haven't seen the movie before so that even if you're bored by the film you can at least enjoy other reactions to what's going on.