Jesus Christ. That was a bit exciting.
Tony called it “the Matrix for grown-ups,” which I like. Because it’s important that this isn’t just smart, it’s cool. It’s exactly the film you’d want from a guy with the brains to make something as convoluted as Memento, and the flair to make an action film as spectacular and compelling as The Dark Knight.
I’ve never really seen anything that keeps my higher brain functions chewing on new ideas the whole way through, while still being a ferocious and stylish action film. This guy should be a director or something.
There’s a lot to spoil, so everything from here on out is hidden until you’ve seen the film and clicked here.
It’s a pretty disastrous premise.
Who cares what happens in a dream? Who cares about changing one guy’s mind on some arbitrary issue? Who cares which corporation gets the upper hand? And who wants to sit through a separate backstory plotline to explain why DiCaprio’s on the run?
Apparently, me. Suddenly I give a shit.
I care about the dreams themselves because the film is great at setting out hard, logical rules that dreams follow. It established not only what a dream inherits from the reality it’s nested in (gravity, equivalent physical sensations like rain when you’re wet, music), it even gives specific conversion factors for how fast the relative timelines flow.
I care about changing one guy’s mind on some arbitrary issue because it’s not really about changing it, it’s about making him think it was his idea. The greater and more convoluted lengths they go to cover their tracks make me all the more invested in how the bizarre mind-heist works out.
I care about which corporation wins solely because I care, unexpectedly, about DiCaprio seeing his kids. It’s not that I feel for the guy – he’s a hard actor to sympathise with – it’s just Nolan’s maddening trick of constantly flashing back to the children without ever showing their faces. SHOW ME DAMMIT. I don’t even care, I just, you know, care.
And I seem to want to sit through his backstory when it’s this bizarre, nasty and confusing. You get that she’s dead, and that his previous experience of inception probably led to it. But the exact circumstances are worse than you immediately realise, and her persistent delusion has elements of Lenny’s disturbing quest in Memento.
But it’s mostly about the climax. A quadruple-nested setpiece where some of the team stay behind in each dream layer to deal with its hazards, while the rest go deeper and discover more.
They’re entertaining individually, but the way they’re interspliced is clever in itself. Each dream unfolds faster than the reality it’s dreamt in, so as we follow DiCaprio down into nested layers of subconscious, the worlds he’s left behind run slower and slower. By the time the car-chase of the original dream runs off a bridge, the fall alone gives us seemingly hours in the level-four climax of DiCaprio and Cotillard relationship.
That slowing ought to ease the tension of the faster action scenes, but instead the frantic cuts and honking score let each layer spread its urgency and dread to the others. The threat in one could trap everyone in the layers below it, so the more action-packed higher layers also have the highest stakes. It’s a terrible film to relax to.
I kept thinking the stress, action and emotion levels had got so high that returning to the plane scene could only be comic. But that’s handled with a clever jolt, and you’re too disarmed by the question of “Why then?” too feel comfortable enough to laugh at the calm reality of a long haul flight.
The film never pretends the more dramatic events are anything more than the subconsciouses of a bunch of sleeping people on a plane, but it still feels ridiculous to return to that. Just because it’s been so good at making us care about things we wouldn’t normally care about.