Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception: Inside a Borgesian dream

Chris Nolan’s Inception could well have been written by Argentinean short story writer and poet Borges, with inputs from Freud and Jung. Formatted as an edge of the seat thriller, this film is a surrealist meditation on the nature of time, of guilt and redemption, of a father-son relationship and of the origins of our motivations and desires. The story of a heist inside the brain of an individual has been told like a philosophical riddle with a sophistication which is the hallmark of Nolan’s work, as seen before in his earlier ventures Memento and The Dark Knight.

The film starts within a labyrinthine dream, in which the main characters keep plumbing up and down the many layers of dreamworld reality. The protagonist, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is a dream-catcher, a superb manipulator of dreams. He is the world’s best extractor of trade secrets from industrial czars. He invades their dreams and steals the secrets from their subconscious.

At the start of the film, we see Cobb washed up on a sea shore. For a moment, I thought, hey, are we back in Shutter Island? I pinched myself. No, we are in a Nolan film. After the opening sequence, the film goes into a flashback or travels to a different layer of reality, whichever way you want to see it, where the story is set up: Cobb is given a challenge by a tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to implant an idea in his business rival’s son’s mind—an act of “inception”. Due to his own past, a guilt-ravaged Cobb accepts the job to invade the subconscious of Robert Fischer junior (Cillian Murphy)—his only way of getting back to his real world, where his two children await his arrival. Hmm, shades of Audrey Neffengger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

From that point on, begins Cobb’s hero’s journey along with a set of dream manipulators, assembled from various parts of the world. The film’s third act is the final sequence, the actual act of ‘inception’, when Nolan goes completely blockbuster. The subconscious of Robert Fischer junior is a snow capped rugged landscape, that could well have been from a James Bond film, with gunfire to match.

The film’s strongest point, after the brilliant idea of ‘inception’ of course, is Cobb’s character. DiCaprio is so believable in his role, focused, determined and emotionally vulnerable. And so is Marion Cotillard who plays DiCaprio’s wife. If you could distill red wine into a female form, it would take the shape of Marion. Her sensuous vitality, her love, her idea of to-die for romance, is the emotional pivot of the movie, which defines the level of Cobb’s guilt. However, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who plays a brilliant architect of dream world landscapes, seems a bit jarring in the film—a teen among the adults. Perhaps the Juno girl was penciled in to appeal to the teen audience (you know how Hollywood hedges its bets).

The film appealingly deals with concepts of time and the nature of the subconscious, the way we dream, and so on. The film works on the premise that dream-world time and real-world time act in a different calculus. Ten hours in real life can be equivalent to a week in our dreams. There is a sequence in the final act of the movie in which a van falls off a bridge and between the van’s skidding and hitting the water, time in the dream world stretches on and a lot happens there in those few seconds.

Clever, isn’t it? But this is not entirely a novel idea. In Gabriel Garcia’s Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Colonel Aureliano Buendia faces the firing squad, the whole history of his family flashes before his eyes. I also could not resist remembering Prophet Mohammad’s night journey to the heavens, as described in the Quran: In the 7th century, Muhammad (PBUH) riding the mythological steed Buraq, was taken to the various heavens, to meet first the earlier prophets, including Moses and Jesus, and then God. The Buraq then transported Muhammad back to Mecca. This journey was completed at the speed of light, and between his flight to heavens and back, in our world, it took him only a few seconds—an example of real time and cosmic time calculus.

Though the film was riveting, near the end, I was looking at my watch. I had the feeling that I was playing a video game where there are characters with clear psychological profiles, there are rules of the game, and there are different levels of gaming. I won’t be surprised if the movie, after its success, is followed by video games.

Also, if I were Nolan, I would have got rid of the mysterious dream-inducing suitcase (which The Economist calls a psychic Rube Goldberg contraption) that wires the dreamers up. Did you not hear of nanotechnology and mind control Nolan? Instead of Dileep Rao (Yusuf) playing a potion maker, the alchemist, I would have made him a neuro-architect. But never mind the wires. The audiences already love this movie (even in India, Inception became the number one at the box office, beating three new Bollywood releases).

In the end, for all you know, this movie is a crime thriller. It’s all about corporate espionage, an Italian job, but at a brain level. This is a bit of a disappointment for me. Has Hollywood got bored with saving the humanity or the aliens (as we saw in Avatar)? After all that hype, Nolan, you disappointed me but I am glad you tried. This is way better than The Transformers for my ticket price.

I loved the last scene, though. When Cobb is back with his family in the real world, he spins his totem. When the spinning stops, the film is cut to the end credits. I thought that Nolan was having a joke at our expense: suckers, this was the real world and now you go back to your phony, dream world, waiting outside the theatre for you.

As I exited the multiplex, I was wondering if we and our physical world, the universe, are really parts of a maya jaal, the Hindu concept of a web of deception, a mere dream inside the head of God. What if we just don’t exist in real reality? What if we are just projections of God’s imagination? It’s an idea worth exploring, isn’t it?

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