Watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception (opening July 16), I thought of my college Japanese instructor during my second year of studying the language, the hardest I’ve ever learned. The teacher had just transferred from Yale and spoke to us in Japanese as if we were natives, refusing to stop and explain things even if most of us just gaped at him, hopelessly lost. Finally, a frustrated classmate whined, “C’mon, give us a break. We’re not Yale.” (For the record, we were at the University of Virginia, a perfectly good school, thanks very much.) Our teacher stopped and said, in perfect English, “I will not come down to your level. I want you to come up to mine.”
With his latest movie, Nolan seems to be saying the same thing to audiences. Inception is a complex maze, one that will require lots of brain power and concentration to understand. Even though I didn’t get all of it (I’ll need to re-watch it on DVD with subtitles), I enjoyed trying to grasp the movie’s concepts and was grateful Nolan didn’t make it easy for us.
I’ll do only a vague plot summary since the less you know about it, the better. But there will be mild spoilers in the Q & A section below where I recap some behind-the-scenes tidbits Nolan and his creative team shared when they showed up after the screening to discuss their process. You might want to come back and read that after you see the movie to learn how they pulled off some of the eye teasers.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor, someone who enters people’s dreams to steal their most valuable secrets. He has a team of assistants consisting of characters played by Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dileep Rao and the charismatic Tom Hardy, each of whom has a special skill. Cobb also has the talent of inception, the power to plant an idea in someone’s mind and make the dreamer think it’s his own. It’s this ability he must use to finish one last job for a powerful client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who can help Cobb return to a life from which he has been exiled.
Because Inception takes place mostly in dreams, it contains some eye-popping imagery. One sequence is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a fight scene involving Gordon-Levitt calls to mind not Batman, but Spider-Man. And lest you think it’s mostly CGI, it isn’t (see Q & A).
DiCaprio, doing solid work in his second movie this year featuring altered reality, heads an impressive cast, though most of the actors are underused. Page doesn’t get to whip out any of her sass as Ariadne, our exposition facilitator; Michael Caine’s part could’ve have been done by any number of actors; and Cillian Murphy, with his unsettling blue eyes, plays it straight when he’s more interesting as characters who are creepy and freaky.
The two standouts are Marion Cotillard as Mal and Hardy as Eames. Cotillard is a divine presence, gorgeous and menacing and vulnerable all at once. The British Hardy, whom I’d never seen before (his credits include RocknRolla and the next Mad Max movie, in which he’ll take over the titular role) has the kind of magnetism that signals future stardom on these shores.
And then there’s Nolan. I’m just going to call him the next Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner right now because I doubt any other script this year will beat Inception in originality. Watching the movie was a little like dreaming for me—experiencing it in the dark, submerged in fantastical imagery, having uneasy sensations but not wanting things to end right away because I wanted to see what happens. When it was over, I wasn’t sure I could explain everything. There are curious plot holes but as with a lot of sci-fi, I can’t argue much about real-world logic. Perhaps to balance out the movie’s more bizarre aspects, Nolan gets quite literal with the names (Mal’s is a big clue and in Greek mythology, Ariadne helps Theseus escape from a labyrinth) and a couple of chess references (because it’s a mind game?). The emotional impact is lightweight but still, I hope Nolan uses his power of inception to plant in the minds of Hollywood studio executives the idea that we need more smart, creative entertainment like this.
Nerd verdict: Open your mind to Inception
Q & A
After the screening, Pete Hammond moderated a session with Nolan, his producer/wife Emma Thomas, cinematographer Wally Pfister, composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and casting director John Papsidera. Except for Dyas, everyone had previously worked with Nolan before this movie, most going all the way back to Memento.
I couldn’t transcribe everything but here are some highlights:
- Nolan had wanted to do something about dreams since he was a kid but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he zeroed in on the idea of doing a heist film that takes place within dreams. Despite his clout after the success of the Batman reboot, he finished the entire script before pitching it to Warner Bros. because he wanted them to see his whole concept.
- Heist films are usually methodical but Nolan decided to make this an emotional love story because that’s what keeps him passionate about what he does.
- The biggest challenge for producer Thomas was shooting in six countries, including Morocco, France and England. When she read the first 80 pages of Nolan’s script many years ago, she had no idea how it could be brought to the screen. By the time the script was completed, she had the Batman movies under her belt and was more equipped to take on a big project like this.
- Pfister said Nolan made clear there would be no strange color palettes to indicate when someone’s in a dream. He wanted all scenes to look real so audiences would never be sure where they are. Pfister and Nolan do very little pre-planning when it comes to lighting, keeping it natural and allowing the locations to dictate how they should light them. There was never any scheme to use lighting to delineate between the dream levels.
- Dyas spoke about creating duplicates of the same sets—a horizontal version, a vertical one, etc. During the pivotal gravity-free scene with Gordon-Levitt, the hotel corridor was set inside a gimbal then rotated with Gordon-Levitt inside and a camera mounted to one wall. Because the actor was on wires, Nolan had to direct him like a puppeteer.
- Papsidera was so adamant about Cotillard playing Mal, he pushed Nolan to travel to the Moroccan desert to meet with her (she was filming another movie). Somehow they missed each other there and ended up meeting in Paris. Coincidentally, an Edith Piaf song plays an important part in the movie but Nolan had written that in the script 10 years ago. He considered changing it after Cotillard came on board but then decided he liked having that connection.
- During the sequence when the team is skiing, Pfister had to hire Chris Patterson, an experienced skier, to shoot footage while going downhill. Nolan really wanted the handheld effect to put viewers inside the action but it was something Pfister couldn’t do. Patterson had to capture every shot while skiing and they’re not sure how he did it without slamming into trees.
- Nolan looked at different formats to shoot the movie. It was mostly shot in 35mm, some 65mm, up to 360 frames per second. Nolan tested 3D conversion in post-production and got good results but didn’t have enough time to do it in the scientific way he wanted.
- When asked if any images from his subconscious are in the movie, Nolan said he had no idea.
Photos: Warner Bros.