This afternoon I saw Inception in a packed house at BAM, with friend of the blog YarnGuy and his brother and sister-in-law. It's been a long time since I got as stoked about a new picture as this one. I'd heard it was great. I'd heard it was awesome (there's a difference). I'd heard it was disappointing. I'd heard it was a masterpiece that would save us all. One of my pet theories about pop culture is that if people are arguing, it's worth seeing. Another one is, if people aren't giving away whatever secrets a movie may have, it's really worth seeing. Brief digression: 'member when The Crying Game came out back in '92, and you sorta kinda knew what the twist was, but cats wouldn't tell you about Jaye Davidson's dick at first and told you “Ya gotta see it for yourself?” The Crying Game was fucking awesome. Now, recall The Sixth Sense. People didn't start openly talking about Bruce Willis being dead the whole time for about six months. Now, sticking with M. Night, check the flipside of that shit: everyone walked out of The Village loudly moaning their fucking balls off about how it all took place in the present day and saying “what were those assholes supposed to do when a plane flew overhead?” The less willing people are to blab a picture's surprises, the better it probably is, and the more people are like “GAH RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! THE ALIENS MELT WHEN YOU THROW WATER ON THEM! DO NOT WANT!” you can infer that the movie sucks.
The thing that's been funny to me about Inception is that in this modern age, with leaks and spoilers lurking around every tree in the forest that is the Interwebs, no one has been talking about what actually happens in Inception. We saw the trailers (not to put too fine a point on it, but I haven't needed porn for weeks), we read little teases like “Leo DiCaprio plays a guy who can break into people's minds while they're dreaming,” we saw the cast and went “Holy fucking shit, is everybody in this?” But very little actual “this happens and then this happens and then it ends like this” type of stuff came out. Since it opened, sure, the plot synopsis has been posted. The above mentioned obligatory swipe at M. Night isn't really applicable, as Inception doesn't really have his lame-o type of twist. But it still is the sort of picture that spoilers would fuck up, so if you haven't seen the picture yet, bookmark this post until you have, then scroll down past this picture of Marion Cotillard and continue.
Inception opens with an arresting visual image (woo hoo! Chris is learning!) and some intriguing non sequiturs, like a Japanese guy with a machine gun poking an ocean-bedraggled (and armed) Leo DiCaprio in the back and hollering at him. He drags Leo in to talk to Ken Watanabe, who's under about eighty-five layers of age makeup that make him look like Andy Garcia in Dead Again. Ken Watanabe asks Leo, “Are you here to kill me?”
Then we flash back to how Leo and Ken Watanabe met. There's Joseph Gordon-Levitt with slicked-down hair and some fucking bangin' threads. There's Leo lookin sharp. Hmm, there's Marion Cotillard. Oh, Marion Cotillard, you know how to make oblique, ambiguous dialogue sing, baby. (In what might be a funny deliberate touch, “Non, je ne regrette rien” repeats over and over in the movie.) Leo and Joe pull some James Bond shit, and Leo gains entry to Ken Watanabe's safe . . . but they're all dreaming. Joe wakes up in an apartment somewhere in the Middle East with an angry mob fucking shit up outside and tells Lukas Haas they might have a problem.
Leo is vexed by Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard before he can get the document he needs. Bullets fly, shit starts exploding because they're in the Middle East, and eventually they have to wake Leo up, so they toss him in a bathtub (in a fucking hot slow-mo shot), which causes water to come in all over the place in the dream.
Once everyone wakes up in the Middle East, Ken Watanabe pulls some heat, but Leo pins him to the ground, whereupon Ken Watanabe's face is mashed into the carpet, and he calls out Lukas Haas. The carpet is supposed to be wool, which makes Ken Watanabe realize he's in a dream (the whole thing with the safe was a dream within a dream), which means Lukas Haas fucked up. So, Leo and company have to get themselves out of that dream, which they do, and find themselves on a train in Japan with a still-asleep Ken Watanabe. They make their exit.
Leo, in his hotel room, talks to his kids on the phone, revealing his kids as a random pair of kids he saw in the opening scene, and when they ask when mommy's coming home, he has to tell them she's not. Because mommy is Marion Cotillard, the mysterious broad from Leo's dreams. And she's dead.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up looking awesome (this is the biggest surprise in this movie: when in the sweet living fuck did Joseph Gordon-Levitt turn into the coolest motherfucker in the universe? I mean, Brick and The Lookout were both great, but wow this sonofabitch is wearing tailored suits and firing guns and all kinds of crap now . . . they grow up so fast!) and there's a bit of terse dialogue about how the Cobalt (sp?) Corporation is going to want them dead now and about how Leo can't go back to the States for Unspoken Mysterious Reasons. They go up to the roof to find their chopper . . . where Ken Watanabe is sitting there chilling with an ass-kicked Lukas Haas, who has given Leo up to the Cobalt Corporation (who we're left to safely assume are evil white guys in suits), so Ken Watanabe does the whole Kyle Reese-as-a-Japanese-plutocrat “come with me if you want to live” routine, so Leo and Joe say, hey, sure.
On the chopper ride, Ken Watanabe pitches an idea to them. Usually, what Leo and team do is “extraction,” breaking into people's minds to steal information (somewhere William Gibson is watching with his lawyers saying, “Wait, let's watch the rest of the movie . . . if it's good, I won't sue.”) But what Ken Watanabe wants to do is called “inception,” which is to say, breaking into someone's mind to plant an idea. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, being the pragmatic dude who gets Leo's haunted, unstable ass out of trouble, scoffs, says inception is impossible. Ken Watanabe ignores him, turns to Leo, and says, “If you can pull this off, I can make one phone call and all your problems are gone and you can go home to your kids.” Leo replies, “You know, now that you mention it, it is possible but it's going to be really fucking difficult and we might not make it out alive, but what the hell? We're only twenty minutes into the movie and we've got two-plus hours to go, we got some time to kill, let's give it a try.”
Because this is for all practical purposes, all the SF shit about dreams vs. reality and the dangerous power of the subconscious aside, a heist movie (I could seriously hug Chris Nolan) they need to assemble a team. They need a slick-talking English con man/forger/thief, so they get Tom Hardy, who was in Layer Cake and Rocknrolla and a bunch of other stuff (who broke my fucking Geiger counter he's so radioactively fucking cool in this). Lukas Haas flaked on them (Ken Watanabe, when Leo asks what's going to happen to him, says ominously “Nothing”) so they need a new “architect,” someone to physically construct the world of the dream. Leo drops in on his dad (Michael Caine, bow yer 'eads in rev'rence) who's a professor of some non-specified but relevant subject and asks him if he has any promising students. Michael Caine busts Leo's balls a bit and then introduces him to Ellen Page, which by the way, it's really good to see Ellen Page in something watchable again, that two-thirds of Juno that didn't suck was a long time ago now. She gets very excited at the possibilities when Leo tells her about building dreamscapes, and wary when Leo warns her about not changing too much (all the extras in the dream turn and glare at you in this really creepy way when you do; another really fuckin cool visual idea for our Chris . . . again, they grow up so fast). Ellen Page immediately realizes that there's something not all right about Leo, that his fixation on Marion Cotillard and their kids—and the inherent instability of his mind being haunted by guilt—is going to fuck everything up.
But, because what they're trying to do is making Joseph Gordon-Levitt's blood pressure go up and might make him shvitz up one of the fucking jaw-dropping suits he wears in this (and we can not have that) Tom Hardy brings in a chemist he knows, Yusef (Dileep Rao, from Drag Me To Hell and Avatar) who has this tailored sedative that they can use on their mark. So he comes aboard and they start to prep.
Part of the prep involves a bit of exposition involving the dream-reality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains to Ellen Page that if you keep one small item that only you ever touch on you (so you're the only one who knows its weight and feel) you can figure out whether you're in your own dream or someone else's. Suddenly that spinning top Leo's been nervously fucking with for the whole movie makes (a little) sense . . .
Now, the mark. Ken Watanabe tells them that the mind they're all going to be breaking into belongs to evil white guy manque Cillian Murphy, son of dying evil white guy Pete Postlethwaite, who with the help of hench-evil white guy Tom Berenger (who's all of a sudden really fucking old . . . man, next time I watch Major League when I'm drunk I'm going to cry) is essentially going to have a monopoly on energy. Not just oil. Energy. The stakes are that high. Ken Watanabe wants them to make Cillian Murphy wake up one morning and decide to sell off Pete Postlethwaite's empire piece by piece, thus obviating the sinister hegemony that would otherwise follow.
Leo determines that the way they need to make sure the idea sticks when they plant it in Cillian Murphy's mind is for it to have a positive association, so having Cillian Murphy decide to do this to fuck over his old man who he hates won't work. They need to have him come to peace with the old fucker, “realize” that pops told him he's a disappointment (which he did; what a dick) because he doesn't want lil' Cillian to follow in his evil white guy footsteps, that he wants him to take that fuckin' suit off and be good.
For reasons I don't quite understand but make the movie infinitely cooler, it is decided that the way to pull The Inception Job is to create a dream within a dream within a dream. So Ken Watanabe flexes his nuts and buys the airline that Cillian Murphy is flying from Sydney to LA for his dad's funeral (the same route as Oceanic Flight 815, except in Inception all this hideously complicated shit actually makes sense) so they can have the first-class cabin to themselves. With the team all comfortably in place, the stewardess they paid off to help puts them all into a nice dream coma for the trip to LA, and we're off to the mindfuck races!
Action movie gourmands like moi will tell you, there are many ways you can go for your climactic action sequence. Car chases in the rain are always a good one (see King of New York—several times, please, God it's good—or the pleasant surprise that was the rain car chase in We Own The Night, otherwise not an action movie at all), or there's also the hotel shootout, good because there's elevators and stairs to fuck around on (most notable variant, John Woo going off his meds and doing it in a hospital in Hard-Boiled), and then there's the snowy mountain fortress angle (YarnGuy mentioned On Her Majesty's Secret Service and was polite when I meatheadedly brought up True Lies and xXx). In short, there are many options. Most directors pick one. Chris says “Fuck it, let's do ALL THREE!” At ONCE.
So yeah, layer one of the dream is Cillian Murphy tied up in the back of a van with Tom Berenger while our heroes are all asleep except for Yusef, who's driving the van while a locomotive (????) and several SUVs and motorcycles full of machine gun-toting henchmen types pursue. Level two, where all the sleepyheads are, is a super-modernist earth-tone hallway hotel, where after Leo tells Cillian Murphy he's dreaming (if ever a movie needed more meta, it's this one, God . . .) everybody goes to sleep in a hotel room while Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes his coat off so he can strut around in his vest. Level three is a snowy fortress where Cillian Murphy has to bust into a vault to find out his Big Secret.
A wrinkle that's introduced by Leo after everyone signs on (to the point where they're already in level one of the dream) is that if any of them get killed, they don't just wake up like they usually do. They go to Limbo, where you risk being trapped for years, even decades, even forever. When Ken Watanabe (who turns out to be a cool guy; remember, evil white guys in suits) gets shot in level one and they can't get him to a hospital, they realize they're up against the clock to keep him from getting trapped in Limbo forever. Leo is especially motivated to get him to wake up safely, since if Ken Watanabe doesn't wake up, Leo gets arrested and sent straight to prison the second they touch down at LAX.
Action ensues. When Ken Watanabe dies and Leo takes Ellen Page to level four of the dream—Limbo—there's a big-ass confrontation where it finally comes out that the reason Leo was so convinced inception worked was that he pulled it on Marion Cotillard to get her to want to leave Limbo. Leo tells Ellen Page the whole story about Marion Cotillard, how she died, and why her death meant Leo had to leave sweet home Estados Unidos. Leo fesses up that he and Marion Cotillard had been experimenting, and that they actually spent about 50 years subjective time in Limbo, where Marion Cotillard had invented a top that never stopped spinning if they were in a dream (just like the one Leo carries IRL, which tips over if he's IRL but keeps spinning if he's dreaming, giving Leo, who's a little addled, a much needed leg up on the universe) flipped out and lost touch with “reality,” so Leo pulled a murder/suicide to bring them back to the “real” world, where Marion Cotillard was still convinced that if she iced herself one more time, she'd be back in real reality. Only problem is, she died. And left a whole bunch of false evidence that he'd been threatening to kill her, meaning if he stayed around instead of killing himself to be with her, he'd end up in prison. So that's why Leo had to leave the country and become a globe-trotting dream thief who made enough money to keep his right-hand man outfitted in Savile Row's finest (sorry, I know we're not even talking about him but goddamn Joseph Gordon-Levitt dresses well in this movie).
All the action comes to a head and eventually Leo manages to triumph over the vagaries of dream-reality to find Ken Watanabe and wake him up, just in time to make the phone call to keep Leo from getting tossed in the shithouse. So instead of cops, Leo is greeted by Michael Caine, who takes him home to meet his kids. Leo sets his top spinning to figure out whether he's dreaming or not. And his kids turn to greet him, Leo gets to see their faces for the first time. Then we pan to his spinning top. And god fucking dammit, Chris Nolan cuts to black before we see if it tips over or not! BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!
Oh the glorious troll that is the ending of Inception. Dude, the BAM Rose almost fucking rioted; seeing the kind of people who go to BAM get that pissed was almost as entertaining as the movie. Now me, I'm a little different. I'm with Chris, who was probably tittering like a shithead in the editing room imagining how pissed people were going to get and deciding to do it anyway. But I was also raised on Total Recall, which has the same ending, which I always loved. And seriously, a little ambiguity once in a while never killed anyone. I'm damn proud of Chris walking into the office at Warner Bros with his dick in one hand and the Dark Knight box office receipts in the other and announcing to them “I'm going to spend $160 million of your money on a picture where the audience has to decide whether any of it actually happened or not.” Because what are you going to say to a guy who—as one critic pointed out—made a three-hour allegory about terrorism with a straight-up, unvarnished anarchist for a villain and grossed almost a billion dollars? No? Child please.
Ending aside, let's get down to brass tacks. Yes, Inception has enormous balls. Yes, it pulls off the alchemy of being cerebral and intelligible, but does it win the treble by also being entertaining? And, apart from being entertaining, is it actually good?
“...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”Motherfucker, if I have to quote James Joyce to tell you how good a movie is, it's fucking good. It was like they did market research to find out what kind of movie I personally wanted to see, edited out the lesbian sex so they could have a PG-13, and released it. I'll have none of this silly debate about whether people only like Inception because we grade Chris Nolan on a curve, or some wiseass looking at the part of that quote where Molly's like “as well him as another” and start lit-critting at me that I'm still being ambiguous about whether Chris is a good director or not. At this point, the only thing wrong with the guy is that the tops of people's heads are still getting chopped off unnecessarily. That's the last frontier he has to cross on his next picture. Everything I broke his balls about back in February has been replaced by sheer joy.
The glimpses we got in The Dark Knight that Chris finally learned how to direct action bloomed (all right, I'll stop with the Joyce) into all-time classic sequences (and one beautiful bit where, when Leo's machine-gunning guys, Ellen Page goes, “Are you really killing them?” and Leo says “No, they're just projections.” Best. Meta-cinematic joke. Ever.) One of the rules to the three-layered dream sequence at the climax is that whatever happens one layer up from you has an effect on your layer (i.e., IRL affects layer one, layer one affects layer two, layer two affects layer three), so when Yusef is trying to keep the van from getting shot to shittereens by all the machine guns and subsequently drives it off a bridge and creates a freefall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets thrown around all over the place in the fancy hotel. While fighting with bad guys.
The first fight was motherfucking ridiculous. The van was swerving around and going up on two wheels and shit. So Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while fighting this large black stuntman, was fucking running up walls and throwing him against walls that turned into floors that turned into ceilings and holy fucking shit. WHEN THE FUCK DID JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT BECOME THE GOD OF ALL THAT IS MALE? Did I miss a Facebook bulletin? Seriously. In a movie with Ken Watanabe and Michael Caine, JGL is the alpha badass? I mean, sure, the English guy is cool, and he cracks a couple jokes about JGL being a tightass. But . . . JGL is the one who gets to kiss Ellen Page. Score one in Joe's column.
The zero-gravity fight, when Joe was floating around trying to figure out how to drop people in zero-gravity (did I mention how much I love cinema, Chris Nolan, and Joseph Gordon-fucking-Levitt?) and the one henchman comes out of nowhere and they fight IN ZERO FUCKING GRAVITY and JGL wins without even breaking a sweat? Yeah, that one was kind of all right. In the sense that cold beer, orgasms, and Low are kind of all right.
But we find ourselves falling into a trap set by critics like Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline, who wrote, “If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be 'awesome,' which isn't nearly the same thing.” Her review was negative, mine is kind of orgasmically positive, and yet we come to the same conclusion. I don't think Inception is great, but I do think it is awesome. However, I would argue that Inception succeeds fantastically well in being what it, on one level, is: a summer movie you can nosh popcorn to and whose fight scenes (the first JGL hallway fight, por ejemplo) make the audience (read: me) audibly gasp “Get the FUCK outta here!” I would further argue that, with Inception, Chris Nolan failing to be Jesus Christ and transubstantiate the summer movie into Serious Cinema is not the death knell of Serious Cinema. As long as there are expatriate Iranians and Romanian feminists and hipsters in Williamsburg there will be Serious Cinema. Chris Nolan is a hybrid—he's as smart as all these people making all their serious little art pictures, but his aesthetic influences as a filmmaker are pop directors like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, and the Wachowskis (comparisons borrowed from the New York Times) instead of Tarkovsky, Godard, or Maya Deren (and I'm not talking shit about them, especially Maya Deren). It's like pop music. You'd be a dipshit if you walked around comparing Paul McCartney to Beethoven (or, to keep the metaphor closer, Penderecki), but that doesn't mean “Things We Said Today” isn't a staggering fucking pop song.
So yeah. I had a great goddamn time at the movies today, man. I leave you with a sign of how mysterious and strange the world we call home truly is; ladies and gentlemen, our new sartorial overlord:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Wonders never cease.