Every third episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was about dreams. It fit right in with the egocentric, touchy-feely, “End of History” haze that was the 90s. Bad TV (like Star Trek) fed on a lack of world-changing events, so that even a show set in outer-space turned inward, with whole episodes where people slept. In an episode called “The Inner Light”, one character lives out an entire lifetime in a dream; marrying, raising children, growing old…only to wake. This plotline is dreamt-up again in Leonardo Dicaprio’s new movie, Inception. In both cases, dreams offer me-time. It’s just that – in Inception – Leo’s job is breaking into heads.
Corporate espionage in the near-future means hacking into the subconscious of your business rival. Inevitably, there are guys whom a C.E.O. hires to perform this service. The idea is bit like getting someone drunk enough to loosen their tongue, only, instead of a Bacardi Breezer, you give them sedatives on an intravenous drip, and, instead of chatting to them, you upload them into your subconscious. Cobb, the best “extractor” in the business, has just failed to get-at a steel magnate’s secrets, when the same steel magnate hires him to do the impossible: inception – to create an idea in someone’s mind. This break-in is meant to inspire.
Christopher Nolan (the man who directed Inception) is, undoubtedly, a Sudoku-freak. He likes logic puzzles; the more intricate, the better. For Nolan, the ideal plot resembles a Chinese finger trap. So, in Inception, there is not just one dream with one reality, but four dreams, each with a separate reality, each simultaneous. That is: a dream, within a dream, within a dream, within a dream. Why? Well, that would take some explaining. And Inception does gorge on exposition. But the real reason is because Christopher Nolan is very clever, and he wants to show you how clever he is by telling four stories at once. Also, he wants to pretend he isn’t drunk on slo-mo, like lesser directors; he’s only using the longest slow-motion car crash in history as a plot point, to show how dream-time works.
For Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie’s “Am I a butterfly dreaming I’m Chuang Tzu?” conundrum is, of course, part of everyday life. If you woke up next to a supermodel every morning, you’d probably doubt your sense of reality too. The role of “master dream thief” seems tailored to a movie star; it requires someone who can easily inhabit people’s dreams. Since Leonardo DiCaprio is playing Cobb (rather than George Clooney) he’s also tortured and neurotic (as well as suave). But it’s hard to feel much sympathy when he’s haunted by Lady Dior ©, Marion Cotillard, a woman most people (male or female) would happily choose for a wraith.
Inception doesn’t really have memorable characters. Like a dream, it’s more about appearances, and weirding-you-out. So Paris folds back on itself, and Joseph Gordon Levitt floats around a hotel; a train chugs down a street, and Leonardo DiCaprio imagines a mouldering city. Philosophical musings are there if you want to muse on them, and there is something too about how a single idea (a neurosis) can unravel a human being. But mostly, it’s a big director’s jerk-off, with Christopher Nolan taking his favourite themes (memory, guilt) and packaging them like a dress shirt. The result is laudable, but it takes effort to enjoy it.
I’m not sure dreams lend themselves to a crime narrative. There’s tension throughout Inception between straight thrills and the voluptuous excess of dreams. Nolan keeps wanting dreams to be strangely logical (like an M.C. Escher drawing), when really, dreams are fantastical, uninhibited. In laying down rules for how dreams work, Nolan seems to forget that rules belong in waking life. Desire. That’s what dreams are made of. Even Star Trek knew the importance of yearning as it relates to dreams. Inception has Leo yearning for his wife…but it’s all so complicated. Plot keeps taking space where Marion Cotillard needs to be.