"What's the most resilient parasite? An idea."
-- Dominic Cobb, protagonist in Inception
If you buy the basic premise of the new film Inception, most of our ideas (perhaps all of them) begin deeply in our subconscious, in our dreams. There, they are born and grow, fertilized and fed in a world in which they are bound-- not by logic, not by physical laws, not by morality, nor by possibility or practicality, nor even by death-- but only by the limits of our imagination. In the futuristic sci-fi world of Inception, technology has advanced to the stage where the secret ideas that we keep locked away in our minds can be stolen by thieves who visit our dreams. But the film suggests that to have the deepest recesses of our minds invaded and plundered is not the most grave danger. Worse than having an idea stolen is having an idea planted, a complex and difficult task called "inception." At least according to the film, our minds are hard-wired to detect ideas of foreign origin, and the challenge of inception is to plant the simplest seed of an idea so deeply in the target's subconsciousness that he or she comes to believe that it was self-generated.
The film's creator and director, Christopher Nolan-- who brought us Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), The Dark Knight (2008), and one of my favorite films of all time The Prestige (2006)-- makes his trade in (more or less) high-concept, sci-fi adventure movies, and Inception is entirely in keeping with what we have seen from him before. Inception is reminiscent of the 1984 thriller Dreamscape, which was also centered on the idea of invading people's dreams for nefarious purposes (and which scared the living bejesus out of me when I watched it as a kid). Unlike Dreamscape, though, no one needs special psychic powers in Inception, as advanced technology and pharmaceuticals make it all possible. Nolan's dreamworld is complex, multi-layered and labyrinthine-- at times, too much so-- but it has its own rules and its own logic that remain, however precariously, just this side of plausible. To its credit, Inception is a visually stunning film and paced well for its 2-1/2 hour length. There are a few too many shoot-em-up action sequences for my taste, and the characters can be a bit one-dimensional, but the real problem with the film is... well... Nolan himself.
Here's what I like about Nolan: he's got some really good ideas. All of his films, including Inception, are in some way explorations of the fragility of the human mind. Nolan has a knack for pressing on those weak spots in our gray matter-- memory, pathology, dreams, obsessions, imagination, delusion-- and seeing what balance of order and chaos ensues. His two best films, Memento and The Prestige, straightforwardly dramatize interesting philosophical questions. We're given characters, a story, a host of twists and turns, and we are left to parse the meaning of it all. In his worst film, The Dark Knight, Nolan stepped in and ham-handedly attempted to parse all the meaning for us, as if he was afraid his audience might be too dense to get the (overestimated) brilliance of his concept. Everything is made obnoxiously, redundantly, explicit in The Dark Knight, even to the point of staging-- and then didactically narrating-- a straight-out-of-the-textbook moral dilemma. (The ferry boat scene in that film is a variation on the prisoner's dilemma, a staple of every introductory Ethics class.) Unfortunately, Inception suffers from the same just-in-case-you-don't-get-it Nolan hubris. It's terribly over-narrated, unnecessarily so, and the frequency with which the characters feel compelled to engage in explanatory dialogue feels forced and more than a little patronizing. What's worse, Nolan really gives us two separate and poorly integrated films here, both of them more or less dramatizing the same idea. The story of the protagonist Dominic Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempt to plant an idea in the mind of his target, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is a complete and coherent story in itself. The story of Dominic's planting of an idea in the mind of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) is another. Nolan desparately needed to choose one or the other, as the coincidental development of both stories felt like another just-in-case-they-don't-get-it insurance policy.
I don't think Inception was a "bad" film. It was a good film done poorly, in my estimation. But one thing that I find interesting about the particular manner in which it was done poorly is that Nolan's mis-execution of his idea did (ironically) serve as an effective demonstration of that same idea. The premise of the film is that "inception" is a very difficult, if not impossible, task. To "plant" an idea in someone's mind such that it feels home-grown requires circumventing all of the security features of human consciousness that are designed to reject infiltration by foreign assailants. And so, despite my incessant sighing and eye-rolling at the limpid implementation of Nolan's concept in his film, I nevertheless still found myself compelled to think that Inception was, at its heart, radical and visionary. Almost as if someone planted that idea in my head! Whoa.
Go see Inception. It's a bit like someone telling you that they're about to tell you the funniest joke ever, and then laughing hysterically after they deliver the punchline, such that you can't help but think to yourself: yeah, that was hilarious. For all of its faults, Inception is a perfect metaphor for itself.