Inception: Levels of Complexity

With Christopher Nolan’s Inception set for release on DVD (it’s out, it’s definitely out) providing the viewer with the means to pause or rewind the action, does the film lose it’s magic?


Inception follows ‘extraction’ expert Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) as he attempts to plant an idea into a subject’s subconscious – by entering his dreams. Fronted as one of the most confusing blockbusters of all time it is hard to say whether a one line synopsis does it justice. But with all the dogmatic hype pushed aside: how confusing is Inception really?

Leonardo DomCobbrio is centred irrefutably as protagonist amongst a crew of fellow man-boy Joseph Gordon Levitt; architect Ellen Page, forger Tom Hardy, chemist Dileep Rao and businessman Ken Watanabe. However, with a concept so radical for a Hollywood production, there is no time dedicated to developing these characters. They serve simply as a medium to highlight the intricacies of the plot; their dialogue often reduced to spoon-fed exposition.

Additional characters pushed into the periphery, the audience are left to connect with Cobb and his posthumous relationship with late wife Moll. Occasionally suppressing anguish for his unreachable* kids, Cobb is a difficult character to empathise with. With the exception of fleeting flash-backs, the remaining on-screen encounters between Dom and Moll appear as projections of a dream. Whether the characters are worthy of empathy or not, the time dedicated to this catalyst is somewhat minimal. The prime focus of Inception is undeniably the storytelling construct. Christopher Nolan had exercised an impressive and original anti-structure in Memento: a narrative told in reverse chronology. The distinction between these two films seems to lie in the focus of the sole protagonist in Memento, which allows for an insightful character study, undeterred by it’s unconventional delivery.

The subject of multiple dream levels and their consequent invasion is not untapped movie material: explored in films such as Paprika, Dreamscape or even Wes Craven’s franchise A Nightmare On Elm Street. Despite being a known topic, filmmakers remain apprehensive of alienating the audience with it’s complexity. An anecdote perfectly depicting this anxiety is featured in Waking Life (Linklater, 2001):

“Allegedly, the story goes like this: Billy Wilder runs into Louis Malle – this is in the late ’50s or early ’60s – and Louis Malle’s just made his most expensive film, which cost $2.5 million. And, Billy Wilder asks him what the film is about, and Louis Malle says, ‘Well, it’s sort of a dream within a dream,’ and Billy Wilder says, ‘You just lost $2.5 million!'”.

Hollywood is, after all, a business. And with Malle’s $2.5 million raised to an alleged $160 million for Inception, there is a rightful case for concern. This results in dilution of complexity; exceeding the shallow characters, into the visual arrangement of the film.Each level of dream delved into by the crew is assigned a visual style and almost a complete sub-genre of its own. With an eventual four layers of action, the contrasting aesthetics seem to offer a helping hand to the viewer by allowing differentiation.

The first level takes the form of a hectic city road-scape under continuous downpour. Once the progressive complications of the story have been noted verbally, the ‘constant’ style is established as a car chase headed by Dileep Rao. The weather creates a murky grey setting that drowns out most of the detail on the crowded streets.

The second level sees the conflict continue into a warmly lit hotel. The suited appearance of the crew becomes an easy to follow uniform in comparison to the military enemy. By staging everything within a building, the levels already become easily separated. The action takes the form of hand-to-hand combat but is similarly paced to the car chase. This is balanced out nicely with a conceptual quirk that explains a distortion of time between levels – meaning that the high speed pursuit can be decelerated on screen through slow-motion shots.

The third level seems to be the most reductionist:- a snow fortress creates an entirely bleak canvas for conflict, almost as though any more detail would overthrow the audience. The action and visual components are highly reminiscent of Die Another Day with Englishman Tom Hardy filling the role of Bond. After some ski shooting and jet-ski exploding, the subject undergoing ‘inception’ (Cillian Murphy) remarks, “Couldn’t someone have dreamt up a goddamn beach!?” – an unlikely suggestion considering the likeness to the fourth and final layer.

The fourth level begins with Cobb awaking on the shore of a city going on to explore yet another labyrinth of roads and buildings. The clear colour difference and alterations in pace allow the viewer to keep up with which dream is being projected without constant establishing shots.

The distinguished features of each dream, and the incessant explanations provided in dialogue, show that the complexity of the story was treated almost as a hindrance in entertaining a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, with so much time dedicated to patting the audience on the back, it becomes clear that there are no rounded characters or points of interest beside the confusing nature of the film. Nolan is returning to character driven films with his next being the third instalment of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and followed by another comic adaptation of Superman.

Inception is definitely an ambitious step in the right direction for Hollywood; but a second viewing only highlights the compromised elements of Nolan’s conceptual vision.

*Maybe not completely unreachable

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