There are few directors in the world who can sell a movie simply by putting their name to it. Only a select few manage to achieve that level of recognition that their name can sell any picture just as well as any actor attached to it.
Quentin Tarantino is one, as is Stephen Spielberg (although, to a lesser extent these days) and the director of the focus of today’s review is fast becoming another. That director is Christopher Nolan.
Most famous perhaps for his work on the Dark Knight Trilogy to most, he is still a director who manages the rare feat of being cherished by both a causal movie-going audience, and the more hardcore art-house crowd, he is, perhaps, the best example of a ‘mainstream auteur’ in Hollywood, and with his new film Tenet due to finally be released after several COVID-related delays, there is no better time to look back at one of his past triumphs, one that has luckily been re-released in cinemas.
Inception is a hard film to really pigeon-hole in that most Nolan-esque kind of way (there are three things certain about Christopher Nolan films: it will have a complex yet accessible plot, it will look amazing, and it will star Michael Caine and Tom Hardy in at least a cameo). His films are always hard to pin-down as easily as others; even when he made superhero films, you couldn’t say they were ‘just’ superhero films, they had several layers to them, but it’s when the shackles are really taken off of his storytelling that his narratives really begin to expand.
Before the feature started today, there were a few featurettes shown, one was a quick look at Tenet, and one was an introduction of sorts from Nolan himself, explaining where he was at when he made the film, and what his intentions were, in a film-making as well as a narrative sense. He mentions that this was a long-gestating idea that he knew was complex, but was wrapped in several further genre ideas to make the film more palatable.
Now, you can take this in one of two ways; either Nolan didn’t trust an audience to be as smart as he was so he dumbed it down for the masses (if you can call Inception ‘dumbed down’ or he knew when to put his ego aside to know how to give the audience the best chance of enjoying this world he has created, and I definitely side with the latter.
Having sat through Babyteeth last week, I know when a director has chosen to prioritise their artistic ego rather than the enjoyment of the audience. I spoke in that review about the fine line between artistic and pretentious, and I stand by that; if you are in the business of making films, your aim should be on making things that appeal to you, yes, but they should also appeal to an audience, making a film that appeals to you, and only you, is selfish and pretentious, and I would say that you’ve lost sight of what makes cinema great.
Christopher Nolan has not lost sight of this. Not in the slightest.
He makes a unique brand of film that each seem to be high-concept and complex, yet are accessible to any audience, and this film is a perfect example of just that.
It’s a mind-bending narrative that, with any lack of self-control (or a particularly arrogant director) could have disappeared up its own backside quite easily, but in the hands of Nolan, it is crafted into a film that is suitably epic in scale, but without asking too much of the audience, it’s a film that has set itself many rules to follow, but does a great job of establishing these boundaries and playing within them, pushing them, but never breaking them.
Of course, the trouble with building a world as complex as the one in Inception, you run the risk of making your dialogue exposition-heavy to try and explain it all, however, there is an art to this, and although there are no sure-fire ways of making it work, this film seems to strike the right balance. It spreads out the explanations surrounding the dream world, and distributes it into the mouths of several characters, meaning that we don’t get any significant exposition dumps at any one time; it makes the film as easy to digest as possible, without insulting the intelligence of the audience.
Shockingly, prior to today, I’d never seen Inception. I knew it by reputation, and roughly the themes that it used, but had never gotten round to actually watching it, so when this opportunity to experience it for the first time on the big screen, as was originally intended, I thought the timing was perfect.
Some directors make films that are made especially for the cinema, they can be enjoyed at home or on the move well enough, but for the true experience, you need to see them on the big screen, and Chris Nolan is one of those directors. He knows how to use every aspect of the cinema to his advantage in telling the story he wants to tell, he’s like a master chef, pulling together all the best ingredients in order to make the best dish possible.
For the best example of how he makes films for the cinema, I had previously thought of Dunkirk and how that was enhanced so much by the utter intensity that the intimate setting of a cinema could afford it, something that is lost when you’re watching at home without the massive screen and speakers; and now I can also point to Inception as another example.
The film is masterful in how it uses cinemas every advantage it has to augment the experience, pushing the medium harder and faster than most of its counterparts in order to achieve the best results.
You won’t find a better example than in its visuals, so jaw-dropping and seemingly ageless in how cutting edge they seem even ten years down the line, they are made more impressive by Nolan’s drive to achieve as much as possible ‘in-camera’ (ie: practically, with little to no CGI) to this end, action sequences have that extra layer of danger, because of the practicality, and seeing how they were achieved only adds to your admiration for the film and its creator.
There are other examples of how Nolan uses the cinema to complement his story, but I feel like singing the virtues of such an acclaimed filmmaker as Nolan would be gilding the lily somewhat; you don’t get a reputation like he has without serious talent.
Besides, there are other individuals worthy of praise here too, the visuals wouldn’t look as good without a master cinematographer, one such as Wally Pfister, who was operating the camera for every major Nolan release up until The Dark Knight Rises, and whose work is as astounding as ever here; as is fellow recurring Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who may well be one of the most well-regarded composers in the world.
Nolan films usually attract the most high-calibre casts in the world, and Inception is no different. With great performances from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page and (of course) Tom Hardy, this is like a showcase of all the best acting talent the world has to offer, with each performance bringing something different to the film.
DiCaprio is the stand-out performance here, unsurprising really given his reputation, but he also serves as the narratives emotional heart, giving the story that little bit extra it needed to make us invest in the characters, he has struggled in both the dream-world, and in reality, and he does a great job of selling these struggles.
In conclusion, nobody really needs to be told how good Chris Nolan is at making films, at this point, it’d be more surprising if he made anything less than great, so I knew I was going to be in for a good time, but I didn’t know how truly absorbing the film would be. It’s a perfect example of what makes cinema unique, a work of art that can only be achieved by the medium of film, it’s not only an example of what film can achieve but an example of what it should aspire to be.