Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Inception

As the lights went down at the Electric, we had been talking about the use of language. How the way you write and follow the conventions of style and grammar can have a strange, pure beauty of its own. Loving the sign for its own sake rather than what it signifies.

Quite by chance, Inception, the new Christopher Nolan film, often felt like another exercise in form over content. Although not based on anything Philip K Dick wrote, it's so successful an exercise in bringing his tics and tropes to the screen that it pretty much out-Dicks any actual adaptation past in its successful conflation of the real and the unreal.

So, we get a core plot of subconscious corporate espionage: infiltrators of dreams offered the job that can't be done - planting an idea in the mind of a sleeper as opposed to merely stealing one - inception, rather than extraction. We get a vengeful female anima in the dreamscape of the male lead (Leo di Caprio) which takes the form of his dead wife. We get moments of jaw-dropping effect, such as when Ellen Page's character (Ariadne - shades of the Matrix's wearisome obsession with Greek mythology) realises that she's in a dream of Paris rather than the real thing. The cityscape explodes into fragments around her as she awakes. And we get three-ton lumbering ambiguity as characters ask themselves how you can tell whether the 'real world' is just another dream. That way, my friend, lies solipsism...

All very phildickian - and I didn't make that adjective up - only pushed through the Hollywood subtlety mincer and SFX engine. The PHD novel it reminds me the most of is Ubik, that strange little novel about dream vampires in the shared consciousness of the almost dead.

Inception is masterfully directed and carefully plotted - once the film leaves behind the slightly sluggish and confusing initial scenes it not only holds the attention rock solid, but manages to convey the woozy unreality of the dreamworld as waking minds imagine it.

There are sequences towards the end of the film where as many as four levels of dream are running in the mind of one man like Russian dolls, all on different time sequences. To keep this conceit going and make it not only comprehensible to the audience, but deliriously watchable, is a feat indeed. Nolan deserves serious credit for this.

Where Dick and Inception part company is in the film's relentless pursuit of style over depth - the sign, not the signifier again. Every Dick book I've read has been rooted - consciously or not - in his restless speed-freak paranoid world-view. You might not agree with it or understand it but every novel is underpinned by it. Inception, on the other hand, seems happy to borrow Dick's tropes without engaging with his ideas or providing others in its stead.

This is surprising given that dreams have provided such fertile intellectual soil for neurology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and so on. Instead, the best Inception can provide is a reductionist take on father-son relations which reeks of Freud 101 and a dreamworld which looks - as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian pointed out - like a series of Bond movie locations. I wasn't expecting David Lynch (although a film which crossed Inception with Inland Empire would be awesome), but come on!

Similarly, the plot feels like a rather linear and simplistic long con. I've seen episodes of Hustle with more complexity than this.

The actors do their best too, but it's a director's film. Di Caprio as ever makes a great trickster and a lousy emoter - like the film himself, he can't be relied on for psychological depth. Tom Hardy steals every scene he's in, but doesn't get enough to do other than sneer and shoot.

But to criticise Inception for lack of depth is perhaps to miss the point - it remains a great application of phildickian style to the blockbuster format. And better an exercise in pure aesthetics than one with cracker-barrel, trenchcoat and mirrorshades philosophising tacked onto it. Yes, I'm talking to you, Wachowski Brothers.

So while I might regret the film it could have been, it's still a resounding success: fast-paced after the first third, kinetic, frequently breathtaking, not overly gratuitous in its violence and utterly watchable. And head and shoulders above the other big action movies I've seen so far this year.

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