There's a scene in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's tiny arthouse flick from two years back, that illustrates my conflicted feelings about him as a filmmaker. Early in the movie, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and his henchmen are up to no good in an underground parking garage when they're confronted by a couple of wannabe Batmen as well as the actual Caped Crusader himself. Immediately the movie introduces a key theme -- the spread of vigilantism in Gotham -- yet it's conveyed through a visually incoherent fight sequence where it's virtually impossible to tell who's who and where they are in relation to one another. Still, the scene more or less does what it needs to accomplish to get the point across. This is Nolan in a nutshell: a great idea combined with sloppy execution that ends up sort of working anyway. I'm not sure exactly how he accomplishes it without any semblance of passion, playfulness or wit. He's the directorial equivalent to a plodding pulp novelist who manages to hook his audience while rarely turning a memorable phrase.
To achieve this, it helps to stand out from the pack, and with its intelligence and intensity The Dark Knight was at least a notch or two above the usual summer blockbuster fare. Nolan's latest feature, this summer's Inception, already deserves credit for being something other than a sequel or a remake (though Nolan has made his share of both). As everyone knows by now, Inception is a brainteaser movie about infiltrating dreams, with Leonardo DiCaprio leading a team of dream-invaders to plant an idea within somebody's mind. Nolan, as usual, is onto something, only this time the ingeniousness of the concept far outstrips his grasp.
Dreams have a high risk-to-reward factor in cinema: done well, and they can rank among the most memorable scenes in movie history; done poorly, and they can sink a film. David Lynch is frequently cited as our greatest living filmmaker of dreams, but in my mind he's far too self-conscious about his own "weirdness" and fixations to pull off a convincing dream sequence. A director whose movies do feel to me like dreams is Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark, his amazing one-take historical stroll through the Hermitage Museum, left me in a heightened daze; similarly, The Sun, about Emperor Hirohito's surrender at the end of World War II, is a digital depiction of history that also leaves you in a discombobulated state of mind. The movie additionally features an extraordinary sequence where Hirohito envisions the horrifying bombing of Hiroshima with planes resembling flying dragons spewing fire on the city below. Sokurov understands that real dreams function as an amalgam of the straightforward and the surreal.
Nolan's film, however, contains a fatal flaw. For "inception" to work, explains the protagonist Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), the subject must be persuaded to believe that the dream world is real. Therefore the team's architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), takes pains to construct a world that is just like our own: when anomalies occur, as when Cobb's dead wife Mal (Marion Cottilard) intrudes on their dreams, the risk grows that the subject -- in this case, a young mogul (Murphy again) poised to inherit his dying father's industry -- will become aware that what is transpiring isn't real and will awaken. Except since when have strange occurrences made us conscious that what we're experiencing is a dream? Random oddities are entwined with the familiarly mundane in our dreamworlds: many of the examples in Matt Zoller Seitz's piece linked above show filmmakers who understand this and have created exhilarating flights of fancy. Nolan is even more self-conscious than Lynch, and far more thuddingly literal: he seems to want to distinguish Inception from being even more derivative of The Matrix than it already is, and I would conjecture that the best way he thought to do this was to make the creators of the dreamworld the good guys rather than the baddies.
It's a bummer to watch a movie about dreams where all the dream sequences are like James Bond films without the sex. Inception's impressively ambitious hour-long climax crosscuts between a handful of dream-layers (one of the film's most imaginative concepts), yet all involve our heroes getting chased and shot at by "projections" of the dreamer, who resemble the villains in The Matrix bereft of Hugo Weaving's personality. One of these sequences so closely resembles the bravura skiing shootout in On Her Majesty's Secret Service that I wasn't surprised to learn that Majesty's is Christopher Nolan's favorite Bond movie. Nevertheless, there's no discernible joy in how he stages the scene; it's as self-serious as the rest of the film. Moreover, as Matt Seitz also points out: "how can a film that posits four or more layers of dream world have absolutely no sex, or sexual feelings, anywhere in them?"
This is how Cotillard is truly wasted, in a part that poses plenty of opportunities for mischief. (She comes out of it unscathed, as she did Michael Mann's wax-museum Public Enemies and Rob Marshall's megaton stinkbomb Nine, but she needs to choose her parts more wisely -- admittedly, not that good ones are abundant for actresses.) Cotillard looks more than game to have some fun in the role of saboteur. But Nolan has always had little use for women in his films, not out of any apparent misogyny so much as they don't seem to fit into his mathematical theorems. A truly great filmmaker would approach this as a viewpoint worth exploring and challenging: stretches of Inception seem to want to be about the struggle between order and chaos, like The Dark Knight, only represented by masculine and feminine impulses. I typically loathe reviews that offer suggestions for a different version of a movie rather than focusing on the one that was made, but I couldn't help but feel that Nolan ignored a lot of comic potential in his premise. Making DiCaprio and Cotillard as playful adversaries with an erotic attraction may have jolted the movie to life. Yet even when focusing solely on their characters in the actual film -- a husband still mourning and haunted by his deceased wife -- a missing sexual component dilutes the emotional impact of their relationship.
True to Nolan, and despite these flaws, Inception kind of almost works anyway. Cillian Murphy, in the film's best performance, works wonders for him again, filling in a sketchily written character with emotional resonance. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't come across as strenuously as he did with his similar character in Shutter Island, though I can only guess Christian Bale was busy on The Fighter and therefore unavailable. (Did David O. Russell put Nolan in a headlock again?) I like the idea of "the kick," the name for the common physical sensation of being jolted awake, and which prompts the team out of their dreamscapes. (Using Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" as an exit cue is a nice touch, though it should be more aurally powerful than it is.) The extended climax sticks with you even if you think it's botched, as does one of its set-pieces, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's zero-gravity fight in a hotel lobby. Gordon-Levitt, who plays Cobb's right-hand man Arthur, has the spindly physicality of a silent-film star -- to which Marc Webb, his director in (500) Days of Summer, was acutely attuned, and to which Nolan appears oblivious save for this one scene. Much more could have been done with his character as much as Cotillard's, while Ellen Page proves once again to be in over her head inhabiting a character requiring two or more dimensions. (She and Gordon-Levitt are allowed exactly one fleeting kiss, from which Nolan cuts away with the embarrassment of an eight-year-old eavesdropping on his parents.) Reportedly, Emily Blunt was considered for Page's part, and she'd have given both the character and the movie a much needed comic edge and healthy dose of irony.
But these are Serious Times, mainstream movies continue to remind us, with audiences surprisingly eager to embrace dourness and solemnity. I don't begrudge others their want of entertainment, much as I fail to understand it. (Has there even been a less jaunty putting-the-team-together sequence than the one in Inception?) Perhaps one day somebody will fully illuminate how post-9/11 movies like Inception have tapped into our sense of loss and need for closure on that event. I'm not the man for that job. I can only note that Christopher Nolan remains on my list as a compelling filmmaker: well above James Mangold regarding the originality of his ideas, though far below Martin Campbell in terms of visual dexterity, elegant craftsmanship, and appreciation of his actors. (Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick....don't even go there.) It was in, respectively, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale, that Campbell made stars out of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Daniel Craig and Eva Green. Their characters came across as multi-dimensional, sophisticated yet carnal, flesh-and-blood human beings. What that kind of director could do with the likes of DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt and Cotillard, one can only dream.