Spoilers for Christopher Nolan's Inception Follow
In what will hopefully be the last words I have to write about Inception (which is false considering my upcoming study on Christopher Nolan’s philosophy as embedded in the final choices and perceived realities of his protagonists), there has been one particular criticism of the film that has slightly baffled me. While I am not the film’s most championed supporter, I find this particular “fault” in the film slightly strange. The argument is best summarized by A.O. Scott in his New York Times review:
“But though there is a lot to see in “Inception,” there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness — the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity — that this subject requires. The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.”
“It's all so neatly organized! In other words, not dreamlike at all. Just disappointingly flat, sterile, cold, rational. If a filmmaker is going to dream, the challenge is to dream big, to show us things in ways we haven't seen before, not to simply regurgitate indifferently executed clichés from action pictures and heist movies: car chases, kidnappings, gunfights, interrogations, elevators, ski chases…”
Both these critics, who are among many, point to the fact that Christopher Nolan gives us a dream world, and the decided to not explore it, something that David Lynch would never do. The dreams, whether inspired or not, are purportedly grounded in something that could exist in the real world. The car chase through LA is cold and dreary, the hotel, at least before the world starts shifting, is plain, and the snow fortress may have an interesting design, but its nothing out of the ordinary. The worst of it is the area called “Limbo,” where apparently all of the universe’s unkempt dream space is stored. When Cobb and Adrianne arrived there, it is quite massive—skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper…and that’s about it. No cosmic designs in the sky, nothing floating around, simply a big mound of cement.
However, I think we need go back to Inception’s own inception, and the starting idea. If we can consider what was the idea that inspired Nolan to make this film, which can be difficult considering how muddled the film is thematically, one idea keeps coming back: how do establish the difference between dreams and reality? I think if we consider that idea, along with what Nolan does with the mise-en-scene of his film, there are some quite radical revelations. Instead of giving us something out of this world, Nolan takes his cues from Michael Mann's often ultra-realistic films, and attempts to show us a dream world that we can believe in. In Inception, the goal of Cobb’s team is to trick the dreamer, and thus the viewer, that they are not dreaming. Which is why the dreams look real.
Nolan seems to be taking cues from the philosophy of quantum physics: even the most random things are bound by specific rules. Everything in the universe that we know follows logic. So why are dreams so different? Is our subconscious unhinged or do we simply think it is not bound by this universe? Nolan takes these notions by creating what can only be described as “dream logic,” attempting to understand how our dreams could function. He lays on blunt ideas, uses his made-up scientific jargon repeatedly, giving us rule after rule in his dreaming.
Thus the look of Inception—the cold, dreary, almost dead-less look, is one of order. If Nolan deserves praise on a thematic level, it is because he goes against the typical rule of how dreams should be. He bounds them to their realistic existence. What I hope Nolan is going for is not the already crackpot notion that our reality may just be a dream, but the opposite, that dreams are simply another for of reality, and thus of existence.
However, this thematic and philosophical idea, the problem that Scott and Emerson find an issue with, is problematic for its own reasons. The layers of exposition take us away from exploring these notions, and when things should start getting crazy, as dreams “collapse” and the subconscious of different characters collide, Nolan sticks to his rules. He’s not willing to take it to the extreme and sticks to what he knows. This is why Limbo is so disappointing—we know that this world could be anything, where Cobb and Mal had full control of anything they could create, and instead they make a plain metropolis that is as cold and meticulous as anything else in the film.
Nolan, for all his spectacle, is too rational of a filmmaker. He constrains himself to genre tactics, and his ideas are thus buried and have to be extracted. Cobb explains early in the film to his father,” "It's the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed -- things that couldn't exist in the real world," but Nolan has no interest in what can’t exist, only what can. Nolan thus is so bogged down in his rules that thematically, Inception is either point blank or not really saying much. While I have defended the decision of Nolan to explore the dreamscape as a form of reality, I think that is where the imagination stops and reality begins.
I repeat what I said in my original review—the more complicated Nolan's films have becomed, the less thematic relevance has been built in. There is a lot to discuss in Inception ("I swear I saw the totem fall!" or "You didn't see the shot of Cobb and Mal's hands when they were old?"), but none it leads to the same discussions that one would have about films that Nolan is reaching for: say 2001 or Blade Runner. Which is why reality for Nolan is a gift and a curse. He creates something truly original, but then again, we've seen it all before.