Thriller for the Thinker

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“Inception” is one of the most complex and intelligent films to come along in quite a while. On one level it is an intense and fascinating thriller, full of entertaining chase scenes and story twists. But on a much deeper level it examines our perception of reality and how beliefs are formed. How can we know anything for sure? “You keep telling yourself what you know,” one character says, “but what do you believe? What do you feel?” Ultimately it requires a leap of faith, as several characters urge the protagonist to take throughout this film.

The conflict between knowing and believing forms the philosophical foundation of the film. The word “inception” refers to the planting of an idea in another person’s mind in such a way that the person believes it to be true. “Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it is almost impossible to eradicate,” the protagonist, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains to a student intern (Ellen Page). “An idea is like a virus, resilient and contagious.” This concept can have chilling implications when one thinks of the power that parents, teachers, priests, politicians, scientists, and celebrities have over the minds of those who look up to them. But it can also provide direction and hope for libertarians, for example, who want their ideas about liberty to become resilient and contagious in the minds of friends, family, and coworkers.

Libertarians can also learn from Cobb’s declaration that “positive emotion is more powerful than negative emotion. The brain yearns for reconciliation.” If we want to infect others with ideas of liberty, we must offer them more than a straw man to vote against. Al Gore could not win with his “Anyone but Bush” campaign, nor can conservatives and libertarians win with “Anyone but Obama” or “Anyone but Reid.” Such oppositional tactics just breed resentment. We must seek reconciliation by offering ideas that resonate with truth.

Philosophy aside, “Inception” is an engaging, fast-paced visit to a futuristic world where neuropsychologists have learned how to enter people’s subconscious minds through their dreams. Multiple people can enter the same dream, and “architects” are able to construct dream scenarios. To protect themselves and their secrets from mind control infiltration, people can be trained to create “security guards” inside their dreams to fight off the intruders. The resulting film resembles a high-tech video game that takes place inside the mind.

Like all good science fiction writers, writer-director Christopher Nolan provides rules that control the imaginary world he has created. For example, everyone knows that you can’t die in a dream; you simply wake up. In Nolan’s world, however, if a dreamer dies while sedated, he enters a state of limbo that appears to last for decades, “turning his brain into scrambled eggs.” The danger of this happening allows the audience to worry about the safety of the protagonists, even when they are maneuvering through an imaginary dreamland. Another rule, Cobb explains, is that “in a dream you can cheat architecture to create impossible rooms, infinite loops and paradoxes.” Nolan’s rules also allow the viewer to accept sudden, exciting occurrences, such as a runaway freight train appearing in the middle of the street, or a city folding over on top of itself.

The plot of the film is both deliciously complicated and surprisingly unimportant. Cobb is a rogue dream architect hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, to plant an idea that will be profitable to Saito’s company in the subconscious mind of another businessman, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). And since Fischer is about to inherit a conglomerate that will control all the energy in the world, we are manipulated to view Saito as a sympathetic hero even though he is invading an innocent man’s mind.

To plant the idea, Cobb creates a dream with several layers of dreams within dreams — a dream that requires heavy sedation and thus, according to the “rules,” is inherently unstable and dangerous to the dream infiltrators. Cobb employs a team of inception experts, played by some of the finest actors in the business doing their finest work — Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, the cool and resourceful sleep facilitator; Tom Hardy as Eams, the wry, wisecracking forger; Cillian Murphy as Fischer, the “mark” in whose mind they must plant the idea; Tom Berenger as the mark’s “projection”; Ellen Page as the young, naive dream architect; and Marion Cotillard as Mal, Cobb’s demon wife, who projects herself into his dreams and does her best to sabotage his jobs.

The real stars of the film, however, are the director, Christopher Nolan, and his wife, producer Emma Thomas, who spent ten years writing the script and figuring out a way to put it on film. Unlike James Cameron (“Avatar”) and George Lucas (Industrial Light and Magic), who seem to think, “Here’s a cool computer technique, I wonder how I can use it in a film?”, Nolan seems to have thought, “Here’s an idea I want to convey — I wonder how I can portray it onscreen?” Nolan uses many amazing new film tricks, but he uses them to tell his story, instead of using the story to show off his cool movie-making techniques.

The result is a mind-boggling experience — from the Escher-like paradoxes demonstrated by the dream architect, to the collapsing dreamscapes that occur when the dreamer’s conscious mind begins to intrude as the dreamer wakes up, to the hyper-emotional moments portrayed in the exchanges between Cobb and Mal. Particularly exciting is the storyline that takes place in the middle layer of the dreams-within-dreams when the characters experience weightlessness during a fast-paced fight scene. Part of this action was filmed in a rotating room, using a technique similar to that used by Fred Astaire when he danced on the ceiling in “Royal Wedding” (1951). Another part of it seems to have been filmed in the “vomit comet” used by astronauts to simulate weightlessness. (Ron Howard used such a device in “Apollo 13” [1995].)

The weightless scenes are simply thrilling. Grappling for a gun without gravity to ground them, the characters are thrown from ceiling to floor, and floor to wall . . . it’s irresistibly involving. Gordon-Levitt’s willingness to bang into walls and furniture and drop from rotating ceilings and floors to make a scene happen reminds me of the golden age of stunt acting, when Steve McQueen and other good actors eschewed the safety of a stunt double or a green screen and literally threw themselves into their roles.

Even after the film is over and the conversations begin, we never know quite what to think of Cobb. Is he a hero, determined to return to his family no matter what the cost? Or is he a self-absorbed man so addicted to his work and his mind games that he cannot tell what is real and what is imaginary? At one point he leans out a window to see his wife sitting on the ledge of a building across from him. Behind her is the room he is standing in — a logical impossibility, yet there it is. He urges her to come back inside the room behind him. Is he dreaming? Is he crazy? We never know for sure.

More importantly, Nolan challenges us to examine the root of our own beliefs, even as he entertains us with an action-packed thriller. Are we, like many of the characters in this film, so certain of what we believe that we cannot see what is true? Nolan uses both inception and deception to plant his multitude of clues, but he leaves it to the audience to decide what we know, what we believe, and what we feel is real about the film, and about ourselves.

Hans Zimmer’s brilliant musical score drives the emotional effect of the film, especially as the four layers of dream stories come together in the climax, much as four layers of history stories came together in the climax of D.W. Griffith’s seminal “Intolerance.” Zimmer isn’t as well known as Danny Elfman and John Williams, but his body of work spans nearly three decades and is just as important. He has been nominated for eight Oscars, honoring scores for movies as diverse as “Gladiator” (2001), “The Thin Red Line” (1999), “The Preacher’s Wife” (1997), and “Rain Man” (1989). He won an Oscar for his scoring of “The Lion King” (1994). “Inception” could easily provide his next Oscar.

Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself as a director of films about altered states of reality. His films are taut, exciting, and intellectually satisfying. “Memento” (2000), about a man with short-term memory loss (Guy Pearce), has one of the most memorable chase scenes I’ve ever seen, as the protagonist realizes he’s running but can’t remember whether he is the pursuer or the pursued. “Insomnia” (2002) is a murder mystery in which the detective (Al Pacino) begins to question his perception of reality when Arctic summer leads to sleep deprivation. “The Prestige” (2006) is one of the coolest magic tricks ever set to film. “Inception” is Nolan’s best movie so far —butIhopeitisnotthebestmoviehe will ever make. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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