The Recurring Nightmares of Christopher Nolan

Inception (2010) is a hugely important movie, as most reviewers seem to agree.  A multi-million dollar blockbuster which actually contains one or two ideas and asks its viewers to think about them from time to time, while still keeping at least the two audiences I’ve watched it with audibly invested to the last frame.  Having not only piled box office success on box office success but gained considerable critical praise in the process, Christopher Nolan now stands as the undisputed master of Hollywood, endowed with as much creative and financial freedom as any director working.  Given his intellectual powers and devotion to nuts-and-bolts action work, you would have to be a special kind of cynical not to take this as a hugely positive development for the foreseeable future of cinema.


However, Inception‘s importance for film doesn’t excuse us from appraising it as a film, nor from trying to work out where it fits in with the rest of Nolan’s output so far.  There’s certainly a lot to feel good about on leaving the cinema.  Aside from its spectacular central set-pieces, which give a timely demonstration of just how inferior CGI-dependent action is always going to be, the film’s merging of Mission: Impossible with A Nightmare on Elm Street produces some interesting results.  Despite the central casting of Leonardo Di Caprio, the 36-year-old child actor who has once again been rummaging through his daddy’s wardrobe, a couple of sharp performances really bring the premise to life.

The movie has been criticised as taking too superficial a look at the complex subject of dreams, which seems about as fair as criticising the depiction of international politics in a Bond film.  Inception‘s depiction of dreaming isn’t so much superficial as it is Victorian – the simplistic idea that whatever happens to a sleeper’s body is directly reflected in the content of their dreams was very popular in the 19th century, until Freud refocused debate onto the deeper, dingier significance that content might have.  The dreams of Nolan’s fictional world, by contrast, are rigid, rule-bound and very tastefully lit – much like his films themselves, which should be the real focus of anyone looking for deeper significance in his latest.

He has now made enough of them that we can start to outline continuing themes the most obvious of which, especially after Inception‘s release, would be the struggle between emotion and reason.  His 2002 remake of Norwegian thriller Insomnia simplified some of the original’s moral ambiguity, focusing on the dilemma of Al Pacino’s homicide detective, who has allowed his work as an impartial enforcer of justice to become dangerously entangled with his personal needs. In The Prestige (2006) two rival magicians embody totally opposite approaches to their craft.  One is passionate, driven by the grief of his wife’s death, and commits the cardinal sin of actually believing in the illusory power of magic – his opponent triumphs both as a magician and a human being by ruthlessly managing and ultimately sacrificing his emotional life, rather than allowing it to rule him.  It’s clear that even in Nolan’s ongoing Batman franchise the over-arching theme lies in the Dark Knight repeatedly triumphing by transcending his emotional impulses, whether towards compassion or hatred.  Or, presumably, some third kind of emotion which will be made clear in 2012, along with a title which I’m having real trouble imagining…  Batman Concludes? The Dark Knight Goes Bananas?

"The Dark Knight Begins to...Continue to Go Bananas? ARRRRRRGH!!"

Inception makes this credo more explicit than ever, its allegorical depiction of film-making being built around the dangers of allowing unrestricted emotion to dominate the creative process.  As the conflicted yet authoritative (if eerily babyfaced) ‘director’ of his dream-weaving team, Cobb is undercut at every turn by the subconscious projections of his dead wife – his own repressed emotions literally working against him, seeking to trap him in a lifeless, endless psychic underworld.  The moral of Nolan’s cinematic fable – that true creation (or inception, if you like) is only possible when reason wins out – certainly explains one of the most persistent flaws in his work.


A withdrawn, mechanical intellectualism characterises almost all of the films listed above to some extent, as if their director is so afraid of emotion contaminating his work that he has made it his mission to eradicate every trace.  To see why this is a problem it’s necessary to revisit Memento (2000), which remains his greatest work to date precisely because of how brilliantly it exploits the audience’s emotions, rather than simply removing them from the equation.  We start out watching the story of a mentally impaired but heroic investigator, hunting down his wife’s killer against all odds.  By the end of the film, although we may not fully realise it, that story is revealed as the delusion of an escaped mental patient responsible for numerous murders, who survives by scavenging from his successive victims and constantly fabricating his own reality.  This secondary story is not really told to the viewer at all, but must be scraped out of the cracks in the surface plot – Nolan allows the unwary or unwilling viewer to preserve the delusion, turning our own emotional investment in it against us.  That doesn’t make the emotions any less real, and that paradox is what makes Memento such a beautiful and terrible film.  It would be a shame if the scales kept tipping in favour of unremitting reason – that might mean that Christopher Nolan will never make the kind of film Inception is supposed to have been.

Five Questions For Idiots Who Don’t Love Memento:

1:  On what grounds does Leonard deny Sammy Jankiss his health insurance payout?

2:  For how long is Leonard normally able to retain short-term memories?  Are there any points where this time-limit noticeably varies?

3:  How many of Leonard’s ‘helpful’ tattoos can you read?  What are they really telling him?

4:  Leonard describes tattoos as “permanent”.  Are they?

5:  Why Does Jimmy Have To Strip? Why might Leonard want to be “mistaken for a dead guy”?

By Tim Kelleher


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