It struck me the other day that my favourite film ever is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I’m not sure where the idea came from. It just kind of - appeared.
There are only a few films which I can watch over and over. The Bournes, for instance. They don’t just drive you on; the wave you ride with them just keeps building. Its more than that, though, with Cobb and co. Every time, I get lost in Inception and its endless corridors. I think that getting us properly lost is what the best art does.
First the music - Zimmer’s masterpiece - is awesome (click below). Next, the story. Foremost, there is our hero Cobb’s journey home. He has lost his wife, Mal, to the worst kind of madness. Her suicide, which she mocked up to appear that he murdered her, has banished him overseas. His kids are waiting for him at home - and she haunts his dreams. She seems like a real mad bitch in them.
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We meet Cobb on a Shinkansen, playing his dream-scam on a Japanese tycoon. Cobb and team build dreamworlds, intricate copies of reality, drug victims into slipping into those worlds, and then steal secrets from their unconscious, as Cobb & Co. inhabit the dream with their victim. The trick with such ‘extraction’ is that your mark needs to believe he is in the real-world, not a dream. Cobb gets busted this time - his mark has been trained, realises he is in fact dreaming thanks to some cheap carpeting, and the dreamworld collapses in on everyone.
Impressed by Cobb’s skills, though, Saito, our Japanese tycoon, offers Cobb a way home: ‘inceive’ an idea into a business rival’s mind. If Cobb can make that rival want to break up his own empire, Cobb gets an arrest-warrant free ticket home.
With this aim, then, our hero and team build and dive into intricate dreamworlds built within dreamworlds. There is Manhattan, complete with a freight train bulldozing through. A snow-mountain fortress to be stormed. A hotel which turns upside down when the van carrying our dreamers rolls. All this has one ultimate end: inception. To sow that idea, so that it germinates naturally as their victim’s own thought, his own desire.
How can Cobb and co. tell dreamworld and reality apart? This is trickier than at first sounds. Want to ensure you’re not in someone else’s dream - well, carry your totem, a spinning pin or a wedding ring, that only you know the weight and feel of. If you’re trapped in someone else’s dream, it won’t feel right (Saito got lucky with the cheap carpet which he realised was not his). But, if you’re in your own dream, that totem will not help you (I suspect). (Cue much discussion about whether the whole movie, all 2hours 28mins of it, is Cobb’s beautiful dream…here’s the ending, Cobb finally reaching home, perhaps.)
So far, so mind-bendingly complex. And immense - Nolan waited till he had the budget (and a story driven by Cobb’s struggle) before he embarked; given he was dealing with our imagination, he needed infinite space within to work. And the movie is huge. But Inception, the movie, makes this all feel ridiculously light. You barely notice its huge depths. Its a smart heist movie - Cobb’s band are stealing a corporation. Its a love story - Cobb and Mal living in their own world for decades - for such a long time, that is all they needed. Its a tragedy; that life together was broken by her madness, a madness we find that Cobb unwittingly spawned. Its the Odyssey; all Cobb wants is to get back home. Its a thriller - chases through Mombasa, shoot outs on skies, et al. It looks nothing like ‘art’.
That is not to say Inception is not achingingly beautiful at times. Watch those high sand-cliffs of a dreamed city slipping into an ocean. We have the sight of Paris folding in on itself, Haussman’s architectural grid-plan upgraded to the tech-age. But the artistry, its the way that Nolan melded thriller with romance, Odyssey and heist, all the while hinting that nothing is quite real.
Half-way through Inception, we rock-up in Mombasa, in a dreamworld opium den, where men come to plug themselves in and dream for months on end, not to escape reality, but to let those dreams become their everything. Why not? We now have the drugs and the technology. Or Cobb’s wife, Mal, who lost that oh-so-delicate ability to tell dream from reality. She jumped because she thought that would wake her; instead it killed her. Why can you tell the difference, when she could not? And then there is the never-quite reachable itch that we are not watching reality, but co-dreaming with Cobb.
Inception is great modern art because it gets us - the early 21st century us. It knows that our sleeping dreams are not another world, but a corner of the room in which we always hang. And it knows that between the “out-there-reality” and us is our mind, whatever that is, and that our mind will never get out of the way. So we are always in our minds, awake or asleep. Its always the same screen. Turn mad, like Mal, and you have not ‘lost your mind’, you have not been possessed, you don’t have some kind of infection. You’ve lost yourself somewhere in your mind. There is something really very 21st century about that.
And that is not all. Inception also sees ahead to what the geniuses of our race are busy building. “Virtual” reality, cameras stuck onto our faces, hot-wired onto our mind’s eye, are coming to an Apple store near you soon. The best technology melds onto us. The best tech - like the dream machine that Cobb & Co. use - doesn’t give us something new, it expands us, our own minds. Again, very 21st.
And finally, the regret. Why do we dream? Because we want something different, of course, not just a thing, but a whole world of new. And we often want that because what we have here is too painful, and it knifes us because we did the things that got us here. Its too painful to live in our minds. The best cinema, the best art, delivers that escape - without the cheap carpet drawing attention to its forgery. Édith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” pervades Inception - its the trigger to get ready to wake. It pierces through the dream. It is a beautiful irony, of course, as Inception is all about regret, and regret is sometimes everything. Until you find your way home.