Sci-fi ca­per ‘In­cep­tion’ not too brainy to be a block­buster, di­rec­tor Nolan says

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE - By Bob Strauss

LOS AN­GE­LES — Is it fair to bring so much ex­pec­ta­tion to “In­cep­tion”?

Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan’s fol­low-up to “The Dark Knight” — which, un­til “Avatar” came along, was the sec­ond high­est-gross­ing film in Amer­i­can his­tory — doesn’t just have to reach cer­tain fi­nan­cial thresh­olds in many peo­ple’s minds. Think­ing adult movie­go­ers have also now tasked the com­plex, dream­in­va­sion thriller with sav­ing a dumber-even-than-usual Hollywood sum­mer from ab­ject in­fan­til­ism.

Those are two huge, some­what con­tra­dic­tory goals in this era of cin­e­matic car­toon­ish­ness. Even though “In­cep­tion” rep­re­sents a la­bor of love Nolan started writ­ing 10 years ago, he doesn’t feel the fi­nal re­sult will be too ob­scure for a mass au­di­ence.

It is, af­ter all, a hy­brid of two pop­u­lar gen­res, sci­ence fic­tion and ca­per films. While “In­cep­tion’s” mind tricks and per­cep­tion bend­ing may not be quite as in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing as those in Nolan’s break­through art­house hit “Me­mento,” he’s cer­tainly proven artistry and in­tel­li­gence need not be sac­ri­ficed with his Bat­man movies.

“Hav­ing the fate of the en­tire movie in­dus­try rest­ing on it seems a lit­tle un­fair, ac­tu­ally,” Nolan over­states, for ef­fect, in the un­der­stated English man­ner. “The neg­a­tive of that is ev­ery­one keeps ask­ing me, ‘Do you think it’s too smart for sum­mer au­di­ences?’ The pos­i­tive is, they’re go­ing, ‘There’s noth­ing else like it out there.’ I can’t say what is go­ing to hap­pen box-of­fice-wise or all the rest.

“But I think ‘In­cep­tion’ has a lot for peo­ple to be su­per­enter­tained by. When I watch the film, it doesn’t feel brainy and small. It feels like a big, old-fash­ioned en­ter­tain­ment — but yeah, one founded on new and fresh ideas.”

The film is set in the near fu­ture where the hot new method of cor­po­rate es­pi­onage is to en­ter a com­peti­tor’s dreams via drugs and a rather low-techlook­ing de­vice. Once a team of hired pro­fes­sion­als does this, they ma­nip­u­late the sleeper’s un­con­scious sce­nario to get the in­for­ma­tion hid­den in his brain — or, as is the case with “In­cep­tion’s” main sto­ry­line, at­tempt the much riskier gam­bit of plant­ing a no­tion that will in­flu­ence the dreamer’s fu­ture wak­ing ac­tions.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, the leader of one of these covert out­fits, who’s hav­ing some trou­ble with his own sub­con­scious. His de­ceased wife, Mal (“La Vie en Rose” Os­car-win­ner Mar­ion Cotil­lard), keeps pop­ping up in the mid­dle of as­sign­ments, a femme fatale man­i­fes­ta­tion of Dom’s guilt bent on sab­o­tag­ing the mis­sions.

That alone would be heady enough stuff for your av­er­age Hollywood ac­tion spec­ta­cle. But it’s just one of many nar­ra­tive facets “In­cep­tion” view­ers bet­ter keep track of or else lose their way.

Those with work­ing at­ten­tion spans should, how­ever, ap­pre­ci­ate how care­fully Nolan has worked out his dream­world logic and kept the sur- ‘When I watch the film, it doesn’t feel brainy and small,’ says di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan. ‘It feels like a big, old-fash­ioned en­ter­tain­ment — but yeah, one founded on new and fresh ideas.’ re­al­ism within the realm of com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity.

“It’s a very ex­is­ten­tial, big Hollywood film, and that’s some­thing that I haven’t seen very of­ten,” DiCaprio notes. “In some­body else’s hands, this movie could’ve been a catas­tro­phe.

“When you’re deal­ing with dream­worlds and en­ter­ing peo­ple’s sub­con­scious and try­ing to in­fil­trate four dif­fer­ent lay­ers of un­re­al­ity, it opens the pos­si­bil­ity for any­thing to hap­pen. So you have to cre­ate and con­struct a nar­ra­tive that is com­pelling and sus­pense­ful, or you could end up float­ing around in a pink won­der­land that makes no sense.”

De­spite such sig­na­ture im­ages as a lo­co­mo­tive bar­rel­ing down the mid­dle of a rain-drenched Los An­ge­les street and Parisian city blocks fold­ing up on them­selves at 90 de­gree an­gles, Nolan tried to keep the dream­scapes fairly re­lat­able to all while mak­ing each one dis­tinct from the oth­ers.

“It took a lot of pro­duc­tion work to dis­tin­guish be­tween lay­ers of dreams,” the di­rec­tor says. “We de­cided early on that we didn’t want to do any sort of for­mal­ist dif­fer­ences, tint­ing of the im­age or this, that and the other.

“So what we de­cided to do was con­struct vis­ual dif­fer­ences in each ac­tual world, so it’s rain­ing or it’s a night in­te­rior or a snows­cape. The whole movie rests on a mas­sive amount of cross-cut­ting in the last act, so you want to be able to iden­tify, from a close-up that you just jump into, ex­actly where you are.”

That said, per­cep­tual dis­ori­en­ta­tion is key to both dreams and to “In­cep­tion’s” most im­pres­sive ef­fects. Per­haps even more mem­o­rable than the train and fold­ing Paris bits — which, by na­ture, re­quired the kinds of com­puter graph­ics Nolan gen­er­ally re­sists us­ing in his nat­u­ral­is­tic film fan­tasies — is an all-prac­ti­cal fight in a ro­tat­ing ho­tel cor­ri­dor.

Built in the con­verted Bri­tish air­ship han­gar that Nolan has of­ten used for a sound­stage, the 100-foot-long hall­way was sus­pended by eight huge, con­cen­tric rings that could turn a full 360 de­grees. Joseph Gor­don-Levitt, who plays Dom’s metic­u­lously dressed and pre­pared Lt. Arthur, fought stunt­men rep­re­sent­ing a de­fen­sive sub­con­scious on wires while the shift­ing walls en­hanced the hal­lu­ci­na­tory weight­less­ness of the sit­u­a­tion.

Gor­don-Levitt, who trained to pull off the scene’s phys­i­cal de­mands, says the real key was re­mem­ber­ing that Arthur was en­gaged in psy­cho­log­i­cal com­bat.

“I wanted to do the se­quences as the char­ac­ter,” the grownup “3rd Rock from the Sun” kid says. “He’s very par­tic­u­lar, fas­tid­i­ous, thought-through; he re­mains a step ahead of ev­ery­thing. And in these ac­tion se­quences, he’s dream­ing, it’s a mental thing. It’s not like he can take on all of these phys­i­cally big­ger guards. But he knows he’s dream­ing and is, in ef­fect, keep­ing his own sub­con­scious in con­trol. So it was about re­main­ing calm, kind of cold stone ef­fi­cient.”

Such ap­proaches mit­i­gate the movie’s fun­da­men­tal mind­bog­gling ef­fect. Ra­tio­nal as it strives to be, Nolan re­al­ized that “In­cep­tion” had to have a strong emo­tional core in or­der to keep au­di­ences en­gaged. That’s where Cotil­lard’s Mal came in.

“It’s a very com­plex char­ac­ter,” the French ac­tress says. “But she touched me right away and I felt that I could un­der­stand her. She has so many peo­ple in­side of her, and she’s lost in dif­fer­ent worlds just be­cause she’s to­tally lost in­side of her­self. She’s a woman in love, she’s a woman who’s strug­gling and she’s a strug­gle her­self be­tween a lot of op­po­site things.”

When it came down to it, an un­der­stand­ing of the emo­tional is­sues at stake proved much more im­por­tant than fa­mil­iar­ity with the clin­i­cal his­tory of dream in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“At first, I tried to take a tra­di­tional ap­proach to the dream­world and the char­ac­ter, but then I re­al­ized that this wasn’t that type of movie,” DiCaprio ad­mits. “I read Jung and Freud, stud­ied analy­ses of dreams. The most that I could ex­tract from it was that, at night, when our mind’s at rest, things that we’ve sup­pressed — emo­tions, thoughts, ideas — come to fruition. But to put that in sci­en­tific terms or try to give it a set of rules doesn’t work.

“So I had to go to Chris and say, ‘You de­velop your very spe­cific dream worlds and de­velop your rules for them, and make my char­ac­ter’s jour­ney fit within them.’”

This might be a great filmmaker’s per­sonal project, but Nolan would like it to be a hit. (The film took the top spot at the box of­fice last week­end, earn­ing $62.8 mil­lion.)

“What I’m find­ing as we’ve screened ‘In­cep­tion’ is that most peo­ple have no trou­ble fol­low­ing it what­so­ever, but some­times they worry that they have,” Nolan says. “Or, they worry that other peo­ple won’t.

“What I want to try and tell peo­ple is to just re­lax and en­joy the movie. If you do that, you’ll get ev­ery­thing you need to get.

“‘Me­mento’ was ex­actly the same. Peo­ple who just let it wash over them com­pletely got it. They got that there were times when you were meant to be con­fused, but if you didn’t worry about it, you caught up. This is very much the same, but on a big­ger scale as an ac­tion movie.”

Melissa Mose­ley

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