Leonardo di Caprio plays Cobb, an ‘extractor’ who gets into people’s dreams. We see him first on a beach, he is taken to Japanese businessman he worked for. In Paris he recruits Ariadne who makes mazes, Cobb takes her round a dreamscape Paris folding skywards. They risk being stranded in a dream. The Japanese businessman has a rival running a corporate empire, he wants him out of the way. Peter Postlethwaite plays this character, he has a grandson (Cillian Murphy) who Cobb and co want to use to infiltrate dreams. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the dreams’ architect but dreamers fill in their own details. They go into the heir’s subconscious through three dream levels to get to the ultimate situation. There are shoot-outs, an escape from a hotel, things float sideways through corridors, a van is in free-fall from a bridge, then they get into Alpine scenery and reach Postlethwaite in a surreal sickroom. Cobb has to resist being lured into a permanent dream by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he gets away from her apartment which crumbles into a stormy sea. They all wake up on a plane, Cobb meets his kids, spins a token as a sort of reality memento. Is it all still in a dream?
I didn’t really worry about the film being an unending dream because I think it lacks good story telling skills. We get characters saying things like “This is in your head, what do you do next?”, “This is my dream and I am enjoying my subconscious”, and so on. If a story has to comment on its own actions it’s not a proper story, it’s a self conscious ritual of schematisation. A slow numbing seeps through me as it gets quite up itself, it’s like watching The Matrix, nerdy complications become ends in themselves as they send ‘plot’, ‘character’, ‘human quirkiness’, and ‘coherence’ into an artistic casualty ward.
Dead of Night showed film makers how to make a film about a dream, things charge to a horrifying climax and still there’s the possibility at the end that the dreamer will go through it all again, but it is tantalisingly hinted at rather than spelt out in CGI circus tricks. Dead of Night is rooted in everyday life and everyday anxieties, the stories are separated from the possible reality of story telling in the setting of a cottage.
It has been said that film is the technology of dreaming, so are we supposed to think that this film theorises about film? Well, it lacks even cod philosophising, neither do we get to the level even cod psychology, so take your pick. When Cillan Murphy finds a wind toy by Postlethwaite’s bed, are we meant to think that this a symbol of lost happiness like ‘Rosebud’ the sledge in Citizen Kane? Does this want to be a as momentous a film as Orson Welles’?
This film’s depiction of dream images, like nearly all of Hollywood’s in the past century, is tame and unoriginal. One is impressed by CGI trickery and the reference to Escher’s stairway is nice but mainstream cinema is embarrassed by the weirdness and disconcerting quirkiness of actual dreams, it prefers to keep them stereotyped, settling for neat tableaux of decipherable archetypes. In mainstream cinema you know you are in a dream when the following occur:
- a) a white bird flapping slowly down a corridor,
- b) echoing voices,
- c) a character dramatically changes appearance,
- d) running down a street in slow motion soundlessly shouting,
- e) a safe or a doll’s house contains a small object,
- f) silence interrupted by sudden noise,
- g) a loudly ticking clock,
- h) a sky speeded up,
- i) silent banging on a door. .
In Inception, the extractors carry a personal token into the dream so it seems a sort of shamanistic vision quest except that the dream has been designed by a psycho-technician and the dreamer’s quirky details are never allowed in, so what’s supposed to be a dream is simply visual stylisation, a sort of shifting cinematic wallpaper. The schematic set allows a certain symbolic freedom if it is not disturbing, that is dreaming from coffee table magazine illustrations and the dream must serve an overriding waking state narrative cohesion, the symbolism merely illustrates the narratives requirements, the dream can never be taken on it’s own terms and left enigmatic. Hitchcock dreamed courtesy of Dali, others have chosen Tenniel psychedelia and Jungian religious archetypes from Roger Cormen but they have all been safe. It’s as if mainstream cinema has set itself the Freudian task of puritanically reducing the moods of dreamscapes into the simplicity of decipherable symbols. Like Freud, mainstream cinema wants dream symbols to serve a morally didactic purpose, dreams must lead to moral resolution and those beguiled by dreams are supping with the devil. Here Cobb’s wife has died, imprisoned within dreams which reflect Cobb’s own guilt. He must atone for the loss of his wife by transcending the beguilements of the dream.
It might be harsh criticising too much the dream images of Inception when there are technological tricks, but some more imaginative interpolations would have been welcome. We get the streets of Paris, a bridge in the rain, a hotel, then a mountain landscape straight out of Where Eagles Dare, all driven by shoot-outs and fistfights, so there’s no chance of any deeper stuff. This was made by Christopher Nolan of the Batman films, so you would have expected something gloomier instead of the slo-mo Mission Impossible we get.