There are plenty of moments in its 150 minutes when Inception is flying in mid-air, uncertain whether there is a safety net or a parachute of coherent plot to explain its entire exhilarating enterprise. Don’t ask to have its theory of dreaming spelled out in foolproof detail, just know that the age-old love affair between dreaming and the movies has been reasserted. Above all, treasure the film’s serene lack of exhausting violence or ingenious cruelty. Yes, there is action aplenty, with car-chases and gun-battles, all edited with insolent speed, as if to admit that we all know a chase and a shoot-out are just familiar riffs, shaggy dog stories, the tunes of nostalgia, like Edith Piaf. And shiver a little that Piaf has been used in a movie where Marion Cotillard is the raw-eyed emblem of hurt feelings.
This absence of “R”-heavy violence isn’t just a way of letting the teenage audience into the theatres without subterfuge. It’s part of the airy sense of play that oxygenizes the picture. Indeed, the thing I like best about Christopher Nolan’s film is that with all the attendant prospects of a Big-Time Metaphor (film equals dreaming), and the chance of major World-Ending Political Intrigue, the mission impossible here is as silly and evanescent as why people play golf, chess, or postman’s knock. It’s just that the game is pretty and passes time in an elegant, harmless way.
So, projected enemies are shot down, like the phantom figures in a videogame, but all the characters survive—because we are asked to like them, and to admire the spirit with which they play the game. It’s true that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Mr. Cobb has a wound and a loss, plus a destiny we want to see fulfilled, but they are borne lightly, as if to say, well, an actor needs a character and a situation, so let it be this—it’s like choosing the top hat, the dog, or the boot in Monopoly. You get attached enough to the plucky stance of the dog for a couple of hours, but you could as easily have admired the splendor of the pocket battleship. Of course, this detachability in feelings and needs is very fair to the relaxed and rootless air of dreaming—that aspect of experience (so like the movies) where we learn that the show is everything, so long as it doesn’t matter so much that you start taking it seriously and believing it’s Life. The deepest link between film and dream is that we are safe in our dark, no matter that the bright hurtling locomotive (the screen) comes so close.
If you want a measure of the film’s wit, of its tongue- in-cheek delicacy, just notice how the intrigue is all achieved in the first-class cabin of a long-distance air flight. No matter the dream’s turmoil, these people are cushioned and placed in the most artful bed-seat, gently mulling over the flight’s choices—the game hen in cilantro aspic, or the chilled lobster DeMille. There may not be such a dish, except in dream, but I name it to hark back to the impassioned vulgarity, the urge to see new things, that inspired that pioneer filmmaker.
So don’t be put off by the way millions are flocking to Inception—just study the ease with which these audiences are floating over the bits of plot they can’t follow, carried along by the witty good nature of the film. And that’s the crucial novelty.
Christopher Nolan has tended to be a little gloomy in the past and that sometimes left him looking solemn. What really works in Inception—and means so much to the future of movies—is its grace, its ease, its happiness in being an entertainment and a game.
As I go back to it, and we all will, I think this truth will emerge, that amid its stunning visions of Paris folding up like a clever box and cliffs crumbling like abandoned tenements, it has the panache of a comedy. Leonardo and his gang do a great job with their inane task, but it could have been Laurel and Hardy getting a piano up those steps.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.