But not at all in the way that I thought it was going to.
When I sat down to watch it last week, I was expecting something that left me in tortured confusion a la Nolan's earlier work, Memento. At the very least a head-scratcher like Blade Runner. And the first 15 minutes had me convinced that was what I was getting, and the amateur philosopher/puzzle lover in me was in paroxysms of glee.
But I got something even better - something that, after those first 15 minutes, I could follow perfectly - a perfect exercise in genre-bending, along with the most effective exploration of creativity, fear, and the human mind I've ever seen. It's cheesy, in the way that great heist stories always are. It's creatively stunning, in the way great science fiction stories are. It's utterly terrifying, in the way all great and memorable stories are, full stop.
Every visual metaphor seems to be entrapment. Entanglement. A maze. Nolan is both trapping us in the world he has created, and reminding us that we are all trapped by our own hangups and perceptions. There's shades of The Matrix here, and Solaris; Ridley Scott and The Italian Job. (Seriously.) He borrows from dozens more films, books, music, great sculptures, paintings, and every other medium you could possibly imagine, and makes them into something that both acknowledges and improves upon what's been done before. Instead of braving the blank canvas, he gives us a collage of tropes from every genre that, combined, are no longer tropes. And from that, every artist could stand to learn.
In Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, one of her more obscure novels but my personal favorite, one character argues that all we ever have are "animal dreams" - dreams of things we did when we were awake. There's another passage, and I wish I had the exact quote, where the same character says he's dreamed of flying, but only when he was awfully close to flying in life. The world of Inception reminded me of that remixing of reality. The elements are familiar but the result is something entirely new. Intruders are attacked by your subconscious memories. Ideas are traceable like viruses; only emotion is our own (and even then, easily manipulated). It also plays upon our greatest fears. Going crazy. Not knowing the difference between life, dream, and death. Suicide. Creative theft. Manipulation. Loneliness. Being trapped inside of our own heads.
This movie is intoxicating in its simplicity of idea and complexity of execution. How I'd love to get inside Christopher Nolan's head for five minutes. He's made the conventional revolutionary. This isn't experimental film; it isn't indie. It's made over $825 million dollars worldwide. It is an almost flawless exercise in the timeless mainstream, transcending pop culture to go straight to classic. We all dream, we all have dreamed, we all will continue to dream for the foreseeable future. (That unforeseeable future is a terrifying dystopia idea in and of itself.) We all try to translate that rehashed dreaming back into the real world somehow, but few succeed. Inception is a tantalizing glimpse at what happens when we do.
As a reviewer, my question as the credits rolled was not the obvious was-it-all-a-dream, though that was certainly playing at the back of my mind (as I'm sure it was designed to do). It was, Why aren't there more stories like this? And seriously, why aren't there? Why do we obey the genre so blindly? (When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy you had to watch all the way through to know how it would end?) As a writer, my question was, How can I tell a story like this? And the bad news, or perhaps the good, is that I can't. The best I or any other aspiring artist can hope for is to create their own collage, dream, and limbo that captivates as many as this one has.