Summer blockbusters frequently have to choose between ambition and spectacle.
The latter typically draws on explosions and CGI to draw in the masses. The former pushes the boundaries of film but only to a small crowd of aficionados. Only rarely does a film strive to do both, especially in the doldrums of a hot summer. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is the newest member of this elite group of films that both dazzles and provokes a critical response.
The acclaimed director of Memento,
and The Dark Knight,
Nolan tends to wrap compelling stories with grand overarching themes. His movies have explored the function and power of memory. Inception is no different and provides a coherent commentary on Nolan’s work thus far. Moreover, the film is visually stunning.
In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio is a purveyor of “subconscious security.” For his powerful clientele, he can invade another person’s dreams and obtain their deepest secrets. A particularly difficult assignment-one with personal significance for DiCaprio’s character-anchors the film’s narrative, but it is the emotional burdens carried by the film’s protagonists that propel the story forward. Much can and will be written about Inception, but let me share three important themes.
In Inception, memory is both a curse and a gift. Memory binds us to paralyzing guilt but also maintains connections with those we have lost. Memory is a precious remnant of indescribable love, a treasure of reminiscence but also a pale shadow of a lustrous original, an inadequate likeness.
The film prompts a number of questions. How do memories shape our everyday lives? Do they eventually take a life of their own and perhaps grow beyond their original dimensions? What happens when memories are erased or when they linger long beyond their utility? At what point does a cherished memory and debilitating guilt collide?
Inception also echoes a prevalent theme in several recent films. At core, what is “real?” What happens when we discover that that which appears most tangible is an illusion? From Harry Potter’s discovery that he has magical powers to Neo’s unveiling of the Matrix and the shocking twist in The Sixth Sense, movies have recently toyed with the idea that a deeper reality can help explain the travails or even mere mundaneness that characterize our lives.
Nolan opts to lead his audience into a world of dreams wherein the target is unaware that his dreams are being manipulated. While it appears that DiCaprio and his crew are fully in control of these dream scenarios, we quickly realize they, too, may be losing themselves in circumstances progressively more detached from “reality.”
Ultimately, how can we tell the difference between reverie and reality? Moreover, why is our culture so entertained and concerned with such questions? Are we as a culture growing suspicious of the tangible and the “real?” Is our hope increasingly residing in an ultimate reality dwelling just at the edges of our imaginations?
Inception artistically treads the thin line between knowledge and faith, reality and dreams, love and guilt. Like a dream that appears to us both plausible and fantastic as we drift between sleep and wakefulness, the film unsettles us as viewers. Often, viewers of this movie are compelled to ask whether we are watching a fantastic dream or a real narrative. This is certainly an ironic question to ask of a piece of fiction! As the movie closes, an iconic image invites us to wonder whether the line between reality and dreams is more plastic than intractable. Are our dreams perhaps more rooted in reality than we would dare hope?
In the end, Inception probes the often subtle distinction between the fictions our brains create while we sleep and the realities which populate our waking hours, but in the end, it asks a daring question. What happens when these differences collapse? Are we lost in the mist of fantasy, or do we gain our hearts’ deepest desires?