For all the high concept ideas that Christopher Nolan is good at creating, he tends not to be able to execute them in a way that makes full use of them. He’s limited in his vision and executes them in a rather pedestrian and stereotypical action movie way. It makes sense on a logistical level; for his movies to be successful
Inception is the main example of this problem: for a movie that almost entirely takes place in a dream world, the elements encountered there are extremely conventional. There is some dream logic to it: the character Ariadne showcases how she can manipulate the world through folding space, time dilation is an interesting extrapolation, as are the totems to track if you’re dreaming or awake, and the zero gravity fight scene is nicely trippy. But these are all surface level elements.
The antibodies the subconscious generates are entirely conventional; hostile people. The movie has dream visuals with its folding landscapes, but not actual dream logic to it. The antibodies aren’t bizarre singularities for example that warp the world, aren’t emotional clusters, don’t operate in non physical attacks and methods to scrub the invading bodies away. They could operate by metaphors, for an even more ambitious approach. It’s hard to conceptualize and imagine, but that’s the whole point. What Nolan gives us is the most direct interpretation. It would’ve been more interesting if the antibodies had started as people, and then grown increasingly abstract as the team descended levels of consciousness.
Worse, Inception doesn’t use its dream conceit to do anything ambitious with its themes or plot. What’s interesting, is that Nolan used to be able to do this kind of thing, integrating the sci-fi or high concept conceit of a film to be specific. Both Memento and The Prestige are good examples of this. The more the budget of his movies has ballooned the less he’s smart his movies have become in a lot of ways, more conventional and less ambitious.
In The Prestige, where two magicians escalate a feud into violence and obsession, the scifi conceit is that of a machine that can create a clone. Angiers, the antagonist of the film, uses it to craft the ultimate appearing and disappearing magic trick, despite the fact that each time he uses it a version of himself dies. It’s an effective demonstration for just how far Angier is willing to go in his quest for a truly uncrackable magic act: he is willing to kill himself over and over again.
“It takes nothing to steal another man’s work.”
“It takes everything. It took courage to climb into that machine every night, not knowing if I’d be the man in the box or in the prestige… You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. Miserable. So solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you could make them wonder. And then you got to see something very special. You really don’t know. It was the look on their faces.”
The twist of Angiers killing himself is brutal entirely because of the emotional aspect of it. Angiers craved that adulation of the crowd; it’s why he was ultimately dissatisfied with his earlier trick of using a body double where he was stuck in the basement unable to see the faces of the crowd and be their object of wonder.
Inception has no such moment where the main conceit and the emotional arcs and themes converge to become more than their component parts. It also doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with its dream logic to apply it to its structure. Unlike…
Memento is a move that happens in reverse in five minute increments, each scene jumping to the one earlier in the chronology. It begins with the main character murdering a man, and the story is an exercise in finding out where the main character killed the right person, if he is righteous or not.
The short term amnesia conceit of Memento affects both the structure of the film and the themes of it. What is life if there’s no continuity of consciousness? To fight back against the nihilism, solipsism, and cloying entropy he constructs his own reality, his own purpose by lying to himself. It’s fascinating and emotional and riveting.
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe my actions still have meaning even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed the world’s still there. Do I believe the world is still there? Is it still out there? Yeah. We all need Mary’s to remind ourselves of who we are. I’m no different?”
Both The Prestige and Memento are significantly better at Inception at fully exploring their main conceits. It’s a shame, because Nolan is an undeniably talented director with big ideas, but has become less and less ambitious in their execution.
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