Inception: A meta-magical matryoshka

This review of Inception contains light spoilers.

We've just returned from seeing Inception at the local IMAX.

Christopher Nolan has created a masterpiece of communication. A sci-fi action drama about lucid dreaming, Inception is an expertly acted, character driven tale about a man wracked with guilt and regret who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his family. While the special effects deliver in a variety of ways, the film's most satisfying feature is its self-referential plot structure. The plot itself is simple and conventional: a man who stands accused and has no prospect of exonerating himself has to find another way forward, so he assembles a motley team to pull off one last job. The pleasure in the plot structure lies not with the plot but with the structure, a meta-magical matryoshka.

Nolan proposes a nest of stories four layers deep in which the successful resolution of each layer's conflict depends on success in the next layer down. Since each layer operates on its own time scale — lower is slower — the film builds suspense by stretching the spring loaded telescope as far as it will go and then allowing it to snap back all at once. A focus on the remote becomes insight into the immediate as the audience wonders whether the force of the retraction will shatter the lens that looks out onto reality.

Michael Caine makes a cameo, but the chemistry belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and the splendid Ellen Page as sympathetic figures whose relationship is a gentle dance of developing friendship and trust. Inception is not a probing exploration of character and meaning, so most of the characters in the film lack depth and predicates. (Not by accident, the film lays a foundation for justifying thin characters and abbreviated context.) But there's enough between them– enough that resists exasperating conventions– to lend humanity to what is essentially a sci-fi contrivance in which the mise en abyme is what really matters.

Nolan's most remarkable achievement here is the clarity of the communication. Despite the complexity of the nested layers, their temporal differences, and the interconnections of plan and potential that motivate each plunge within a plunge, Nolan sustains a clarity of exposition that brings the audience along with enough understanding to appreciate the structure and texture of the journey. By giving each layer its own look and feel, and by providing dialogue that draws analogies to video games, childhood memories, and the art of M. C. Escher, Nolan renders his four-tiered Inferno intelligible and unforced.

Most admirably, Nolan does this without resorting to the pseudo-technical jargon or cheesy special effects that a less effective storyteller might have employed in a risky attempt to acquire buy-in. Instead, he launches a simpler craft and then never lets the win out of his sells. Nolan's simple exposition and clear visual differentiation make navigation a blast, if not a breeze. When the narrative unwinds, the wave is a thrill that tickles the brain. The plot contains no secrets, no twists, and no Shyamalanisms. It's not about guesses, but ingresses. The movie answers the first question it posed and then lands just where the viewer has been taught to expect and hope it will go.

The satisfaction is in the going.

One thought on “Inception: A meta-magical matryoshka”

  1. Two afterthoughts:

    In my review above, I point out that the movie gives a justification for the two-dimensionality of ancillary characters– they're window-dressing in an artificial construct. This is part of the mise en abyme effect. This movie's "Is Deckard a replicant?" is the question of whether this adventure itself is all in Cobb's head. And the reasons for thinking so– reasons articulated by Mal at the heart of the nest– are actually quite good. Nolan invites us to suppose that the primary story is a dream.

    In his review of Inception, David Denby wrote:

    But who cares if Cobb gets back to two kids we don’t know? And why would we root for one energy company over another? There’s no spiritual meaning or social resonance to any of this, no critique of power in the dream-world struggle between C.E.O.s.

    This is precisely the point at which I most strongly disagree with Denby. He laments that the movie doesn't offer a thinly veiled critique of Wall Street, or Enron, or BP, or some fashionable target of disdain. He mourns the absence of social relevance.

    Ick. Most of the time, though not always, movies that try to infuse the story with a layer of social meaning– complaints about social justice, or the cultural insensitivity of the military-industrial complex, or whatever– end up treating a hideously complex real life issue in a lamentably thin, superficial, and embarrassing way.

    Look, for example, at the ludicrous handling of military, corporation, environment, colonialism, and indigenous peoples in Avatar.

    By avoiding the easy path of trendy critique, Nolan makes his picture less dated, less specific, and therefore more lasting and resistant to cheezy political criticisms mired in the question of whether art should be engaged instead of autonomous. That's where Denby wants to take us, but it's a wayward path.

    Nolan isn't an arch-formalist, as Denby maintains, but he tilts enough toward formalism here to avoid blunders of taste and comment that might look, in the short run, like "depth" and "meaning".

    I went in fearing that this film would be a Matrix clone– and Denby suspects that the Youtubing masses and "theologians of pop culture" will use it as such. But what I found, to my relief and delight, was something a bit more pure– something closer to Blade Runner. The latter is, of course, rich with emotional pull and philosophical probing, while Inception is not. But what they share is a distance from the temptation of the topically Now and a willingness to embrace the potential of their tropes.

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