The rich really are different. Even their dreams are better: lavish, intricate spectacles, worlds within world within worlds, exciting and cathartic. Christopher Nolan’s film Inception proposes a near-future world in which dreams can be designed and then implanted in the dreamer using a device like a briefcase-size dialysis machine. An extraordinary technology, but sadly we only get to see two applications for it: as opiate, a living death that the hopeless can escape into, and as confidence trick. Criminals can use manufactured dreams to break into the minds of corporate titans and steal their secrets.
This dream-thievery is called extraction – but while the safecrackers are in Slumberland, is there anything else they can do? Is it possible to plant an idea there, to change someone’s mind – a process called “inception”? Leonardo di Caprio has to lead a team into the head of the heir to a giant energy conglomerate to subtly convince him to break up his father’s empire, a sting that necessitates the construction of a detailed, multilayered illusion. To build this dream, the team needs an architect (played by Ellen Page).
Inception’s centrepiece – really, its reason to exist as a film – is the scene where di Caprio introduces Page to the possibilities of designing in a dreamworld. He shows her that she’s dreaming when she thinks she’s awake, and as the illusion fractures so does the Paris cityscape around her, shattering into fragments, a computer effect of breathtaking beauty. He then lets her loose to alter the landscape around her, and she folds Haussmann’s city like a napkin and multiplies it with mirrors. There – your cinema ticket has now paid for itself.
Having opened this magnificent realm of possibility, Nolan promptly surrounds it with heavy-duty restrictions. The architect can’t monkey about with their design too much while in-dream, because Very Bad Things happen. The dream can’t be too outlandish, or the target will get suspicious. The dream can’t be based on memory, because its inhabitant might forget it’s a dream. Although it is inventive throughout, these rules mean Inception is never quite as magical as it is at the end of its first act.
That upset Building Design magazine’s reviewer, called on to give an architect’s verdict, who complained that the bland streetscapes and neutral hotel interiors that are the setting for the bulk of the film were unrealistically realistic. Not only are Page’s buildings boring, she designs them suspiciously quickly. More painstaking spontaneity was needed. It’s an understandable grievance: Nolan dangles what could happen if blockbuster money was spent on architect wish-fulfilment, and snatches it away.
However the film’s least satisfactory dream is a tedious ski-chase around a brutalist mountainside hospital. The amazing setting can’t make up for this longueur – although one wonders if Nolan is referring to the kind of dream where you run and run and get nowhere. It returns to wish-fulfilment for the climax, in the rotting remains of the dreamworld di Caprio built with his wife. This vast, empty ville radieuse is something of a cinematic breakthough: the modernist cityscape salvaged from its usual cinematic use as a dystopia.
Warner Brothers/Stephen Vaughan