Death's at the bottom of everything...leave death to the professionals.
Leslie Howard's unforgettable summation of the nihilism and displacement plaguing not just post-war Vienna, but mankind on the whole, in Carol Reed's The Third Man begs to be a jumping off point for assessing Christopher Nolan's Inception, since many naysayers of the film have completely misread not only its effectiveness aesthetically, but that somehow it signifies an irreversible transition towards an emphasis on pure grandiosity, deviating from filmmaking with a human touch. Such cataclysmic prophetics hold truth when evaluating hollow and viscerally barren escapism like Avatar, but it would not be appropriate, nor fair, to lump Nolan's latest in the same lot, given its adeptness at overpowering your senses to the point of exhaustion. Like Reed’s film, it appropriates cynicism, architectural destruction as metaphor, and constant nihilism, punctuated with hard bits of bittersweet romantic loss and sentimental reverie of a disappeared past. Unlike Reed’s masterpiece, which used a constant and genuine humanism to balance the chaos, Inception doesn't question its own universe and accepts these violent tenants as absolute, necessary and inescapable – also the source of real thrill and enjoyment. Perverse, dour, undeniably enthralling, but hardly intellectual, Inception can give you all of the self-effacing anarchy desired, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Lest we waste time beating around the bush: Inception is pure artifice. Artifice, though, has been the forte of many great filmmakers, namely Douglas Sirk, Stanley Kubrick, and Wong Kar-Wai, to be brief. Their works do not pretend to represent reality; carefully composed and slickly shot mise-en-scene’s disallow it. Though a reductive comparison, one could then say Nolan borrows Sirk’s inclination for sentiment and Kubrick’s non-human characterizations. Moreover, noir tropes establish Inception’s foundation (fear of the future, return of the repressed, femme fatale, a Freudian attachment to water), yet it exports those tropes from any recognizable reality. Unfortunately, Nolan is little concerned with expressionism, a tactic that would seem appropriate given the subjective-is-objective conceit. Muck like Kubrick's iconic opening shot from A Clockwork Orange, the world of the film is only understood through semblances of similarity to reality. Though heavy on exposition in the first third in order to explicate the proceeding sequences, Inception does very little to solidify anything outside the world of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his various associates. It’s all so self-contained that one’s never sure what realm the material is meant to take place in, whether this is an extension of the near-future, or an alternative world altogether, recognizable only through human specters. Such perceptions aren’t necessarily criticisms, however, because Nolan’s creating a meta-work, less about theme or reality than how far one can take spectacle, utilizing Hanz Zimmer’s hyper-epic score to supplement several ravishing action set-pieces, where the violence works somewhere between the balletic shootouts of John Woo and the gritty realism of Michael Mann; in other words, Nolan prefers all catharsis, all the time, juxtaposing slickly staged and shot sequences of ultra-masculine badassery with a heavy dose of sentimentality, meanwhile alluding to films as diverse as Last Year at Marienbad, Citizen Kane, Heat, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the epitome of what James Naremore describes in his book More Than Night as “ male melodrama,” only transported to a sci-fi vista with heavy duty automatic weapons, unexplained technology that allows dream sharing and the occasional loss of gravity. If this all sounds a bit jumbled, it’s not surprising, since Nolan wears his influences on his sleeve, seemingly unconcerned with his thefts, but produces a virtuoso visceral punch – one that builds to an overwhelming emotional effect – and makes it difficult to approach the material critically without forgoing what the film does in how it makes the viewer respond: purely on an irrational level.
Nolan approaches narrative much like Hitchcock; it’s there, it’s important, but it’s not the exclusive element of the film. Not quite up to the level of some of Hitch’s best “mcguffins” but still wholly effective, Inception appears to be about creating dream worlds and letting the viewer roam around in them. Nolan favors his sentimentality more, however, ultimately giving Cobb’s obsession with his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) preference over any CGI circle-jerk, unlike Cameron’s Avatar, which was purely about displaying his narcissism. The approach, though, offers a conundrum: how does one respond emotionally to world that is totally without genuine empathy, where the pain and raw emotion suffered by Cobb translates to almost no relatable avenue for the viewer to engage? It’s easy to see why some critics and viewers say the film has no “heart” or is without “real characters,” but it again misunderstands Nolan’s aesthetic. Like the world he creates – uncanny because of its recognizable artifice – so must his characters and their plights reflect that paradox, a term the film uses to rather muddles effect. It’s artificial but not, because the emotion feels real. Cobb and his gang’s mark, Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), provides an additional emotional link, and his timidity and vulnerability with his “daddy issues” would play disingenuous were it not for Nolan’s insistence on having that character’s “catharsis” negate ours, signaling the moral heart of the film. That heart would bolster the proceedings even more were it not so ironically disingenuous, just as Cobb’s momentary questioning of his own ethics is all too quickly pacified by Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) pseudo-political explanation. So is the film’s resolution nothing but a dopey ploy, and concludes hopefully rather than bittersweet. In other words, the downside of the whole affair is that in order to engage our guilty desires for pure anarchy and constant catharsis as a constructed piece of art, we must also forgo the moral implications as well. If Inception slowed down to probe dream logic or even truly consider itself within the zeitgeist of video game culture and constant technological stimulation, it would cease to be a whirlwind pastiche – even a product of its own times – a conceit that doesn’t make it anything new, but certainly marks Nolan and Zimmer as new age maestros of fulfilling one’s cinematic thirst for pure and utter annihilation.