In Search of Lost Time

Christopher Nolan’s Inception

David Liu | 19 July 2010

Leonard: I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. So how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?

These lines are from Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but they might equally well have been spoken by the tortured Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Nolan’s Inception. Every cinematic image, concept and characterization the director had previously breathed life into now find themselves a part of his latest behemoth, an impressively constructed 148-minute descent into the nature of perception, creation, dreams and reality. 

A work of brooding complexity, Inception marks a personal turning point for the director who, in the span of a decade, gave us the millennium’s inaugural mindfuck in Memento and then proceeded to strike a nerve in commercial studio filmmaking on a level matched by few of his contemporaries. At its best, Inception demonstrates an unprecedented level of confidence on Nolan’s part, combining the grandiose flourishes of The Dark Knight with the deceptive intricacies of The Prestige for his most incredulous leap of faith yet.

Nolan’s resolve is compounded by the quality of his cast, a collection of thespians (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard, amongst others) who find ways to complement each other admirably. Their chemistry paves the way for DiCaprio to emerge as the film’s driving force, in a role he has essentially mastered over the years. He plays the protagonist Cobb as a complex man, possibly an extension of Nolan himself: frenetic, intelligent, uncommonly driven for reasons difficult to clarify. “What’s the most resilient parasite?” We hear him ask rhetorically. “An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.” 

In a sense, Cobb represents the culmination of Nolan’s attempts to embed conflicted, introspective leading men within the context of a grander scheme: What he lacks in composure, he makes up for in foresight. At once determined to draw others to his vision and crippled by his inability to come to terms with himself, Cobb parallels Leonard in Memento in striking ways. So convinced is he in his ability to create and manipulate that he remains tragically immune to his own vulnerability.

To reveal more would be unnecessary. The truth is that Inception attains such labyrinthine depths that its integrity will not be damaged even by word-of-mouth revelations about its plot. Like The Dark Knight, Inception builds itself through relentless escalation. Rapid editing, thunderous musical inflections and parallel montages advance the plot at a furious pace, traits that both magnify and detract from the overall experience in equal doses.

Regardless of its flaws, Inception will be remembered - and perhaps one day, anointed. I do not feel the impulse to do so yet, since great science fiction is difficult to measure in the wake of immediacy. Four decades after Stanley Kubrick unleashed 2001: A Space Odyssey on the cinema world - and along with it, timeless questions about humanity’s eternal wrestle with its past and future - it feels appropriate that Inception, albeit a much lesser achievement, probes the depths of the human psyche and engages us in rediscovering ourselves.

And finally, it is the shared obsession between architect and creation that courses through the film - as Nolan’s determination to realize his grandest undertaking merges with Cobb’s quest to simultaneously free himself of his past and cling to it in desperation - that elevates Inception above the sum of its parts.

Or perhaps it is the kind of obsession, immortalized by Leonard in the closing scenes of Memento, that feeds on itself:

Leonard: I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning…I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still here. Do I believe the world’s still here? Is it still out there?

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    The homie, David Liu. I still need to watch this movie!
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