imagine Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Inception (2010), is already being turned into a pop philosophy book. Perhaps it will be part of the same series as The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) and Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts (2004). Inception ’s plot involves a team of corporate espionage operatives, led by Leonardo DiCaprio, who use dream-sharing technology in order to travel through the subconscious mind of the heir to a powerful business empire, played by Cillian Murphy. Their mission is to plant in his imagination the idea that he must break up his dead father’s monopoly. Set across multiple levels of the dream world, it is material ripe for introductory psychoanalysis seminars, themed group exhibitions and good old-fashioned late-night stoned conversation.
Perhaps the most clear message Inception offers is one about the market value of ideas. It is set in a world in which anything from the smooth running of the global economy to whether DiCaprio will be allowed to go back home again hangs upon a thought inside someone’s head, a world in which everything comes down to business. The anonymous steel-and-glass architectural backdrops against which much of the film takes place – the Modernism of banks and finance headquarters – are readily identifiable symbols of corporate power. (At one point in the film, DiCaprio’s character even expresses a preference for such buildings over the sweet clapboard house of his wife’s childhood home.) By the same token, the ridiculous amount of jet-setting the characters do – Tokyo, Paris, Mombasa, Sydney, Los Angeles – has, in contemporary cinema, come to represent the reach and power of extra-legal organizations. (‘Need to visit Beijing, Cairo and Washington in just 24 hours without the hassle of visas? Want to collect air miles fast? Join the CIA!’) In terms of the reach of DiCaprio’s fictional organization, Nolan’s film makes no moral apologies for business interests dictating the necessary means. DiCaprio’s team are mercenaries in suits, and although they are illegally jail-breaking Murphy’s mind ostensibly in order to prevent him from having a monopoly on energy supplies, it is also so that the wheels of capital can be kept greased for DiCaprio’s client (Ken Watanabe). Money dictates legal exception. And If all the metaphysics and neo-liberal amorality are not enough to chew on, there’s the film’s dubious attitude towards women. Inceptionfeatures only two female characters, both flatly sketched: the young and brainy Ariadne (Ellen Page), who builds dream labyrinths for men to lose themselves in (Ariadne… mazes…geddit?), and the passionate but irrational and unpredictable ghost of DiCaprio’s wife, who is called Mal – a pun I’m sure isn’t lost on French speakers. The world, Inception seems to suggest, is for rational men.
In literary science fiction terms, Inception is at the JG Ballard/William S. Burroughs/Philip K. Dick end of the spectrum. It is the sci-fi of everyday reality tweaked and warped – of psychological breakdown and pharmaco-bio-technology – rather than the Isaac Asimov/Arthur C. Clarke/Frank Herbert school of space travel, epic galactic wars and alien civilizations. Plot-wise,Inception borrows tricks from action thrillers such as the ‘Bourne’ films (2002–7) – preposterous inter-continental itineraries, hints at shadowy governmental and corporate interests – and grafts these onto pop-metaphysical ideas in key with reality-bending films such as ‘The Matrix’ trilogy (1999–2003), Minority Report(2002), Paycheck (2003) and Nolan’s 2002 film Memento. (For the first ten minutes of Inception, you could, at a stretch, also argue that Nolan nods to the history of avant-garde film, as the opening narrative is boldly fractured and non-linear for a big production aimed at the summer box offices.) However, for a movie set across three levels of dream reality – where, theoretically, anything is possible – it’s notable how familiar its visual palette is.
Don’t get me wrong: despite a few howlers straight out of Freud-for-Beginners – such as DiCaprio’s dream-world elevator which no one must take down to the basement – Nolan engineers some impressive set pieces, many of which are all the more remarkable for using analogue special effects and live action stunts instead ofCGI. I don’t mean to suggest, either, that seeing cities fold in on themselves or freight trains ramming their way through city streets at high speed are everyday sights for me (though granted, they may be for some of you). Rather, it is Nolan’s terms of expression that are banal and familiar, his syntax instantly recognizable from film and advertising.
One of the ways in which Inception shows its audience that they are watching a dream is by the use of different action speeds. This is achieved by extensive use of ultra high-speed photography: DiCaprio falling backwards into a bath so slowly we can see exactly how his body displaces individual drops of water; windows and grocery carts exploding in a Paris street, each piece of debris arcing slowly across the screen whilst DiCaprio and co-star Paige sit perfectly still outside a café. These often flow into what are known as ‘speed-ramped’ shots, where the action suddenly and quickly accelerates for a few seconds before returning back to normal or slow motion. All this time-stretching is supposed to look strange and dreamlike, suggesting jarring temporal shifts, yet it’s just an all too familiar styling from cinema, music videos and advertising of the past ten years.
Inception also uses clearly signposted shifts in scale in order to underline a sense of the spectacular. A common sequence is one in which a close-up on a character gradually moves outwards to an extreme wide shot that reveals a building or location of epic size. This device, of scaling up from human proportions to the monumental, is used in Inception most notably towards the end, where Nolan reveals to the audience the horrifyingly uniform but vast metropolis DiCaprio dreamt up with his dead wife: a city that just looks like one depressingly big financial district. Musical crescendos are key to signaling these shifts in scale: in the case ofInception its Hans Zimmer’s reduction of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ (1960) to a hectoring and relentlessly climactic Wagnerian sludge that underscores them.
Although Inception tends to shy away from colour-grading the film using particular hues – the washed-out blueish-green tones that give a classy feel to adverts for high-performance cars or premium Belgian lagers – it still makes use of heightened colouring: soft, warm, underlit beige to denote expensive, luxeinteriors, or an over-exposed, sunny brightness to signal happy memories of home and family. According to the film’s director of photography, Wally Pfister, in an interview he and Nolan gave for the American Society of Cinematographers magazine: ‘We wanted to have the colour palette change quite a bit when we go from one location to another […] You immediately know where you are, even if we cut to a tighter shot or to something that is slightly out of context’. For a film about dreams, even dream environments artificially synthesized by precocious architecture students called Ariadne, that’s the problem: you immediately know where you are.
In the same interview, Nolan explains that ‘The underlying idea is that dreams feel real while we’re in them, which is actually a line from the film […] That was important to the photography and to every aspect of the film. We didn’t want to have dream sequences with any superfluous surrealism. We didn’t want them to have any less validity than what is specified as being the real world. So we took the approach of trying to make them feel real.’ It’s certainly to Nolan’s credit that he didn’t pack Inception with flying pink elephants or melting watches. In fact, I’d agree with him that his imagery cleaves close to a reality, but the problem is that it’s the reality of familiar high-end cinematic styles, of established visual conventions made with commonly used industry tools.
Inception succeeds at the box office partly because it’s a straightforward action flick that speaks to us in a visual language that we are accustomed to. Of course, not every film that deals with dreamlike narratives has to be some kind of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) but Inception ’s intricate plot occludes its visual banality: it’s like someone talking to you in English but trying to convince you they are speaking ancient Latin. Although Inceptionshares none of the fuzzy warmth of whimsical magic-realist-liteadvertising, the film nevertheless speaks in a similarly mediated language: a language that describes our world as one that is able to spin on a coin of creative fantasy at any moment – the big-budget fantasies of an advertising executive or Hollywood movie director. There is none of the weirdness, creepiness, intimacy, fun, eroticism, bewilderment or plain neurosis that really fuel dreams. Ironically, the film’s visual style looks just like one which might be used to sell fast cars or luxury hotels to the sort of big business types the film depicts. Inception is science fiction, business class.