Inception made $62.8 million domestically on opening weekend. Not bad at all. But as time marches on, we could find that that weekend will end up marking a turning point in Hollywood; fingers crossed. What? How? Why? Let’s start at the beginning of this experience.
My favorite trailers give me a hint of the broad concept of a movie – “Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime.” They’ll lay out the setting – maybe a dream world where you’ll fly about through the halls of a building, like a sock in dryer, with the remarkably talented and well dressed Joseph Gordon-Levitt battling men in sharply tailored suits; where you’ll take slow-motion baths, fully clothed in a sharply tailored suit; where sometimes, suddenly, everything explodes in slow-motion into the air all around as you sit with Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio at a table outside a café… in a sharply tailored suit. They give a sample of the tone and mood – maybe dark brooding men with haunted eyes, certain men in uncertain realms, getting the job done (whatever that mood is called) and, dare I say it, in sharply tailored suits. Maybe they’ll leave you with a little catch phrase sound-bitey thing – “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” The trailer for Inception was not only a hinty taste of director Christopher Nolan’s new movie but it could also be a signpost, an invitation, for gun shy Hollywood – a sort of wave that says, “Come on in. The water’s fine.”
With the countless sequels and remakes being churned out of the Hollywood machine it’s clear to see that the studios are frightened and distrustful of audiences. They’re struggling to make sure that we find nothing puzzling or thought provoking when we sit together in that dark cavernous room with the ghostly glowing wall of stories. And I’m not talking about thought provoking like, “That character was treated badly. We should learn to be kinder to one another,” or, “I can’t believe such a heinous crime came to pass! We should all make sure it doesn’t happen again,” or even, “Hey, are we using too much oil/fast food/dolphins?” These are issues that are clear to just about everyone – don’t be an asshole, let’s fight crime and do your best to avoid murdering dolphins. I’m talking about the thought that goes into exploring the inner-clockwork of being alive. The mechanics of life. What makes us tick. The undiscovered country worthy of exploration before shuffling off this mortal coil. Although Shakespeare has told us that no traveler returns from the undiscovered country, we now have the technology! Films allow us the chance to delve into various hypotheses on the structures of reality, to slip behind the curtain, glimpse the world from a fresh new perspective and then return to business as usual when we walk back out past the kid selling over-priced popcorn.
Hollywood needs some of its own medicine. Its perspective is clearly that we’re bunch of drooling morons afraid of anything new or unfamiliar. It needs men like Christopher Nolan. It’s a credit to Warner Bros. (who backed Inception) that they seem to be the studio most likely to take risks. Nolan has a track record for questioning reality – Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and the Batman pictures – his actors becoming tools to dig at the root of the issue. He’s earned the chance to present us with intellectual labyrinths because he’s proved to the studios that we’ll gobble them up. They know that we’ll buy another ticket for Nolan to come to us in the dark and paint upon the canvas of our gooey minds with light and sound. The chance to give us a dream, a dream we’ll share with everyone on the planet who bought a ticket to the same dream we did.
Inception is just such a chance – and as it happens, the story works as a dreamy mirror for potential Hollywood itself, blurring the lines between filmmaking and dreammaking. Now I’m not talking strictly about its dream world, the a-dream-within-a-dream originality here, or the idea that the main characters are not unlike a rag-tag guerrilla production crew, creating intricate theatre for an audience of one; I’m also talking about the filmmaking craft that went into this, the construction of a storyworld for you to fully immerse into and weave through. Ladies and gentlemen, the door has been opened once again for true story telling in Hollywood. Storytelling that doesn’t treat the audience like 3rd grade shortbus idiots. Storytelling that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the complicated but embraces them and, to Nolan’s credit, understands the world freshly fabricated so well that its presentation is instantly recognizable and familiar to the audience. This is the territory that David Lynch could never quite connect with – all the out of the ordinary and left to your own conclusions but delivered in a cohesive package. So many confounded artists have tried to throw paint against a wall and call it art (and so many wannabe intellectuals have lined-up to “get it” when no one else does), but it takes a deeper understanding of the human experience to know exactly where to place the colors.
I’m serious here. I feel like I’ve just woken up from a dream myself. This is what a motion picture can be like. This is the potential delivery of every film to hit the cinema. The quality I hope for in my heart of hearts every time I purchase an overpriced ticket at the local googolplex. I’d forgotten what a movie could really be like. I unconsciously thought my favorite movies of the past were just memories colored by the eyes of the younger man I once was – fantasies my silly youth had painted and sold me as memories that still infected my repeated viewings. When would I be rocked as had in my salad days? Maybe it was happening all the time and I was just too jaded to notice. Nope. As the saying goes these days, for hawking some brand of fast food, “you know when it’s real” – and it just got real up in here, yo.
There’s so many talking points for this film, one could go on and on, but let me see what I can do to just touch on the ones that occur to me first. No, this film is not the most original piece ever – I’ve heard people saying, “I’ve seen gun fights like that in The Matrix,” “I’ve seen people’s dreams invaded in movies before; like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Dreamscape,” “…Some of those concepts were in Vanilla Sky.” Yeah people, and all those have their roots in Shakespeare, who echoes the Greek playwrights, who based their works on myths and legends passed around by humans living on an utterly mystical prehistoric Earth.
You know why it seems familiar? Because these are facets of the human experience, our ongoing struggles to demystify the seeming chaos around us. You’ll continue to observe these same tropes until the day you die, my friend. Even the impossible and outlandish are diminished, digested and neatly packaged by our human minds into terms we can understand and know. Example? We still talk about the sun rising and setting every day, when it does no such thing. We’ve taken this ongoing event, so outside our realm of feeling, (a near unending nuclear fusion explosion far bigger than even one million Earths, the source of all life on the planet, spinning us in circles through a nothing more empty than we can experience and yet full of more stuff than we can imagine) and put it into terms we can better understand and relate to (light comes up, light goes down). To think in a manner other than human would be inhuman, and to think inhuman you would have to be… inhuman. So this is another story from the edge of humanity; taking the extremities of our encounters of being alive and infusing them with core human knowledge and structures so as to better explore the possibilities that lie out there at our fingertips. If the film were less human, no one would able to feel, understand or like it and Christopher Nolan would still be locked up in Area 51. Inception is fresh eyes on a bizarre world that feels so familiar. That’s storytelling skill.
What I’m talking about here is relatability. This film is assessable to everyone. You don’t need a specialized degree in anything to get it, you only need to have slept once or twice in your life… In the very same breath, this film is not pandering the audience with the assumption the viewers are all morons. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is to feel – how I suddenly realized that that was exactly what most entertainment today was doing. It’s a great feeling to suddenly realize that the director of the film you just paid a ridiculous amount to see totally respects you. That he totally respects his craft. I don’t know what the cast and crew have to say about working with him personally on this set, but I would venture to say that there was a lot of mutual respecting going on. I would be surprised to hear otherwise, because it feels palpable.
The entire cast delivers. There honestly isn’t a lot of emotional range for them to play in the interest of keeping the broody, dark-edged, dreamy tone, but they play well in the little corner of the emotive sandbox they get. Standouts to me were Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page who along with Tom Hardy managed to lace their emotional baggage with levity whenever possible and appropriate.
The visuals/the effects. Awesome. Very much what was absolutely needed and never more, never gratuitous – maturely executed. They only used computer graphics as a last resort when they weren’t able to achieve an effect in camera on the set. The one that most impressed me was the zero gravity. Shifting gravity is remarkable – building a set that can spin like a hamster wheel – but believable authentic looking zero gravity, that’s an arresting sight and tough to pull off. The sets, props and costumes fit perfectly with entire mise-en-scène of the film, never pulling unwarranted focus but adding that extra gloss. Hans Zimmer, nice weighty score, buddy.
If had any negative comments it would be that I wish Christopher Nolan trusted us that extra inch to allow entry for those dream grotesqueries that are commonplace in our dreaming lives – the men with no faces, the difficulty to fight when your fists are heavy as lead, the clock you can never make out because it remains fuzzy no matter how hard you look, the woman at the bar underwater with the wings of a bat, playing baseball with otters from Cleveland,… I suppose that his attempt was to connect with our conscious movie ticket buying minds and steer clear of the comical – his reinforcing dialogue that, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange,” – that this is a movie for our waking minds. I can’t help but wish that he’d trusted us just a little more. Again, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” The only other comment – Leonardo DiCaprio’s pronunciation of his character’s daughter’s name, Phillipa. Every time he said “Fillip-Ah” it broke the spell for me. We don’t pronounce his name “Die-Cap-rye-oh.” I once met a “Feel-eep-uh” spelt Phillipa – rolled off the tongue better. Em-fasses on the wrong sill-able or something there, Leo.
Yeah, those are my two gripes. One I’ll get over and the other rather petty. I’m looking forward to seeing Inception again in the theater and then picking up the home version like a good little Blu-Ray monkey. Need I say that this is one of my new all-time favorite films? Thanks again Christopher Nolan, and to your cast and crew (and to the suits at Warner Bros. who gave in and trusted your vision). I’m still questioning my reality (more than usual – I usually do it seven times before breakfast). Thank you for trusting yourself, because you never could have trusted us if you hadn’t trusted yourself first. I hope that other filmmakers will follow suit. I hope that we are witnessing a new genesis of storytelling in cinema – the dawning of a new age of originality in Hollywood. And I hope to find out who designed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s suits.