I’ve just watched Inception and have concluded that Christopher Nolan is some kind of genius (possibly an evil genius).
I’m about to discuss the movie and Christopher Nolan’s body of work in as much detail as I can recall. So there will be lots of spoilers ahead. Please stop reading if you don’t want the details of his movies revealed (but please do return once you have seen all his movies).
Still with me?
Inception was a brilliant movie and Christopher Nolan is a director at the top of his game.
For the most part, there are two kinds of narratives. There are those that let the characters and the viewer breath and draw their own conclusions, and there are those that firmly hold your hand and guide you to intricately orchestrated conclusions. Christopher Nolan is a champion of this second camp. He is a master of artifice. His movies move along briskly. He always extracts amazingly convincing performances from his actors. He employs exciting cinematography with rousing scores and engrossing sound effects that result in glorious tunnel vision where he deftly delineates how we should be feeling at every moment.
The most common theme of Nolan’s movies is the idea that a lie can be better than the truth. Lies are often easier to live with. All of Nolan’s protagonists are caught up in their own lies. His characters routinely engage in hypocritical behavior, but he moves the narratives along with such skill that these breaches of integrity pass without notice.
Memento was the story of a tortured, deranged and broken man out for revenge. It has a very novel narrative structure where the scenes flow backwards. The main character’s wife was brutally murdered in front of him. He was injured in the altercation and has lost his short term memory. He finds inventive ways around this handicap (the tattoos made for great imagery) and vows to hunt down his wife’s killer. This leads to constant twists and turns that require no character consistency. People that seemed sympathetic are suddenly revealed to be devious with no warning. The movie flows at such a brisk pace that we don’t have time to notice or care. We have no time to question its logic (for instance, if he has no short term memory, how does he remember that he has no short term memory?). Memento works because it keeps the viewer at the edge of their seat by withholding information and doling it out in a satisfying manner.
The movie ends with a twist. The main character has already exacted revenge on his wife’s murderer, but continues to frame other men. We sympathize with him throughout the film because we believe his actions have meaning, only to find we have been fed lie after lie. Why does he continue to kill? Because he needs purpose in life. He deceives himself. And his condition makes those lies become personal truths.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are the stories of Bruce Wayne, a man struggling to overcome his tortured past through strict adherence to lofty principles. They are also stories of astounding contradiction. As the main character, we naturally empathize with Bruce Wayne. We admire his willpower and his unyielding devotion to his principles. He does not kill, and yet in Batman begins he willingly places a man into a deathtrap on a train. He refuses to execute a murderer but doesn’t bat an eye at burning down a building full of his comrades. He refuses to use guns, he takes the high road and uses his fists, his wits and ingenious inventions. Yet his bike has a gatling gun and his car has rocket launchers, which he routinely employs to blow up civilian vehicles. At the end of The Dark Knight, he gives Harvey Dent a rousing speech about why it’s wrong to kill, and then he knocks him off a ledge and kills him. Why do we admire this man? Why do we ignore his flagrant contradictions? Because of the rousing score. The quick editing. The preordained knowledge deep in our hearts that Batman is a tragic hero. This movie also ends with a lie. Batman helps the police cover up Harvey’s murders. We are encouraged to comply because it’s in the public’s best interest to believe that Harvey died a hero. And Batman is a hero for taking the weight of this lie on his shoulders.
Which leads me to Inception. This movie is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. It is the sum of all his themes and film making experiences.
Inception is the story of Cobb, a tortured man trying to piece his life back together by leading a rag tag team of charming dream weavers in the (reverse) heist of the century. Inception is also the story of a group of conmen hired to implant a disingenuous and destructive thought into the mind of an innocent, unususpecting man. Cobb and crew are hired by a business rival of the Fisher family to go into Robert Fisher Jr’s mind and instill the idea that he should dissolve his father’s empire. The trick is to make him believe it is his own original thought. The process is called Inception. As the audience, we root for the heroes to carry out this deceit.
This is the central theme of the movie, and of all Nolan movies. Inception. An invisible hand pushing the narrative along, telling us exactly what to see, think and feel while convincing us that these are our own free thoughts. Nolan creates beautiful lies. He is a master propagandist and his movies are advertisements for themselves. Half of the movie consists of Cobb and company trying to figure out how to take advantage of Fisher Jr’s emotions, the other half is them executing their flawless game plan. In a movie about dreams within dreams, this is the final layer of reality, the director pulling the strings, orchestrating the audience’s reactions before they even reach the theater.
This is the genius of Inception. It’s more than a film, it is an idea. It is marketing. It is the predetermined knowledge that this is an important movie by an important director. It’s the knowledge that this is the followup to Nolan’s profoundly popular Dark Knight. It’s the critical hype across the board, the christening of Nolan as the new Kubrick. It is the experience of logging into Facebook and seeing every one of your friends raving about Inception as the best film going experience of their lives. This is a process that every movie, every product aspires to, but none have done it so daringly and deeply as Inception.
Inception is all lies and twists. Cobb lies to his comrades about his deteriorating mental state. He does not divulge that death is a real threat in their final mission until they’re already inextricably entangled. Because things end up for the best, we are ok with these lies. Cobb pulls off the job and saves the day. The Inception is a success. Although it is a lie, it may end helping the deceived target. By absolving Fisher of his inheritance, he also absolves him of the suffocating memory of his father. This parallels Cobb’s own struggle to overcome the specter of his wife. She is dead, but he keeps her memory alive in his dreams. She is a beautiful self produced lie. The emotional climax of the movie occurs when he comes to terms with her death and moves on. This action helps to eject everyone back through multiple layers of dreams, back into reality. The final scene of Inception depicts Cobb returning home. He finally gets to see the shining faces of his children (perhaps this was his real Totem?). As he steps towards them he gives his wife’s top a perfunctory spin. The Camera lingers on the totem and cuts away before we can determine if it will fall over.
The audience is left to wonder… is he still in a dream? We were lead to believe that Cobb had overcome his lies and entered back into reality. For once it seemed like he might present us with a hero headed towards a greater truth, but Nolan puts fourth the notion that it could just be another layer of fiction. If we believe that the top was about to fall over, then it was merely a last minute tease. If we believe it will continue spinning, then the entire movie was a tease because Cobb is still willingly ensnared in his own dream world. And that’s the crux of Nolan’s films. It’s not the destination we value, it’s the journey, the tease. Nolan’s films are intentionally full of contradictions and plot holes, but we ignore them because we are lost in the emotional sweep of his storytelling.
Nolan has cemented his place as a great film maker of our times. He is a master magician who crafts beguiling dreams that entrench us in the moment and not the whole. If films are fantasy, then he is the world’s best liar. But his lies reflect a greater truth about us. Nolan understands that people are not driven by logic, but by emotion. People lie to themselves every day. We live with contradictions. We subscribe to books that outline what is right and wrong, but we pick and chose which rules we actually follow. We bite our tongues to keep peace. We love out of pride. We hate out of love. We smile when we are hurt. We put on faces. Sometimes these lies dig us into a hole. Sometimes these lies help lift us up.
Inception. Reality is made up of fiction.