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Christopher Nolan doesn't wear a black cape (though he is partial to a finely tailored dark suit) and, to the best of my knowledge, harbors no secret identities (unless you count his dual British and American passports). But like a certain brooding Gotham City avenger, the Dark Knight director carries the hopes of an entire embattled metropolis—in this case, Hollywood—on his lone shoulders. Midway through a summer movie season that might be dubbed "Revenge of the Audience," as high-ticket star vehicle upon surefire franchise picture have gone belly-up at the box-office, Nolan's Inception—which is the most heavily hyped and closely guarded studio release since Avatar—arrives anointed as the movie that will either save Hollywood's balance sheets or plunge them further into the abyss.
That's a heavy burden for any movie to bear, let alone an audacious $200 million head trip, not based on a comic book, TV series, or video game, most of which takes place inside people's dreams, and sometimes inside dreams within dreams within dreams within . . . well, you get the idea. "In dreams begins responsibility," wrote the poet William Butler Yeats, to which Inception adds the notion that dreams are where our most valuable original thoughts take root, and where—with a little somnambulant sleight-of-hand—they can be stolen. In Nolan's movie, technology known as "dream sharing" has enabled a whole new kind of corporate espionage, allowing a master thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of associates to plunder their victims' neural pathways with the balletic grace of John Dillinger knocking over a bank.
"I made a slightly smart-ass crack at somebody the other day, because they asked me, 'What's your interest in the mind?' " says Nolan with a sardonic chuckle, surveying the June gloom that has enveloped Los Angeles from the windows of a Beverly Hills hotel suite. "And I said, 'Well, I've lived in one my whole life.' " It's an answer that could serve as a general riposte to the peanut gallery of Hollywood bloggers and "industry analysts" who have spent the past few months hemming and hawing over whether Inception will prove to be "too smart" for the great unwashed mass of American moviegoers. But while Nolan's work is undeniably smart, it's also incredibly exciting to behold. His are those rare movies, Hollywood or otherwise, as stimulating to the gray matter as they are to the adrenal glands.
If the phrase "dream movie" calls to mind the amorphous surrealism of David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, or perhaps a journey into the magical kingdom of Oz, think again. The inception of Inception—the first of Nolan's films since his 1998 debut feature, Following, on which he is the sole credited screenwriter—was a desire, the director says, "to tap into this notion, as Leo's character says, that dreams feel real while we're in them; it's only when you wake up that you realize something was actually strange. I hadn't seen a film before that said, 'OK, we're going to give the dream exactly as much validity as the real world within the film,' and, in that way, hopefully get closer to the experience we all have, really, of being fooled by a dream."
And while Inception may be Nolan's first film set explicitly in the realm of nocturnal transmissions, it's merely his latest to unfold against the rugged landscape of the human psyche. (See Nick Pinkerton's review of Christopher Nolan's latest brain teaser.) As far back as the ingenious, no-budget Following (another psychological heist movie of sorts), Nolan seemed to relish taking people apart in order to see what made them tick, with a particular affinity for the tricks of perception and memory that allow us to deceive ourselves even when we are fully awake. Those interests had grown into full-blown obsessions by the time of Nolan's Oscar-nominated indie breakout, Memento, in which the more the movie's narrative jigsaw puzzle snapped into place, the less certain we became of amnesiac widower Leonard Shelby's reliability as a narrator—or even as a sympathetic character. So it was little wonder that Nolan went on to give us an existentially conflicted Batman who, by the end of The Dark Knight, has ample reason to wonder whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story.
"I am fascinated by our subjective perception of reality, that we are all stuck in a very singular point of view, a singular perspective on what we all agree to be an objective reality," Nolan tells me. "Movies are one of the ways in which we try to see things from the same point of view." Movies, of course, may be the greatest "shared dream" of all, which is why Inception feels, at times, like an illustrated tour of Nolan's—and our own—cinematic subconscious, as we pass by familiar sights and signposts from Nolan's own earlier films and those that inspired him. "The film is shameless in its regard for cinema, and its plundering of cinematic history," he says. "What's fun is that a lot of people I talk to come up with very different movies that they see in the film, and most of them are spot-on. There are all kinds of references in there. This wasn't really a conscious thing on my part; I didn't set out to make a movie about movies. But what I wanted was for the dream imagery to be resonant not just to me, but on some kind of shared level. And I think naturally, as a filmmaker, I just gravitate toward cinema as the collective memory we have of imagery and symbolism."
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