There was a moment while watching Inception that I thought, “This is the most amazing movie I have ever seen,” and my next thought was, “Did I just think that?”
If you haven’t yet seen this film, I encourage you to stop reading my review, and go see it. Right now. Finish this paragraph if you must, but please don’t read the rest. I won’t be giving any spoilers, but I honestly believe that the best way to enter into the world of Inception is with as little preparation as possible. Briefly, the movie is excellent. It is a tautly wound, enthralling film, well acted on every part. It is akin to other psychological thrillers, and yet more ambitious and daring in its plot structure. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, and deservedly so, but it does not deserve a more adult rating at all. Thematically, the film questions reality, how we perceive it, and how to live accordingly. Once again, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Stop reading this review, and go see it now. Then come back and read the rest of what I’ve written.
Ok. Now that you’ve seen the film, we can continue on together.
At it’s most basic level, Inception is a heist movie, like Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, or The Great Escape. I adore heist films, because I love when people with different gifts assemble to do something none of them could have done alone. In every heist movie, I see a picture of the Church. When Paul writes about apostles and prophets and teachers and miracle workers and healers and helpers and administrators and tongue speakers, I read “masterminds” and “forgers” and “scroungers” and “tunnelers” and “manufacturers.” What is the Church if not a group of people with different gifts and skills who have come together to do something none of them could do alone, namely, to bring the love and grace of Christ to the world?
But that’s beside the point really, because Inception isn’t about that at all. It is a heist movie though. The story concerns a group of people who break into people’s dreams and steal what they know. “Inception” refers to the act of placing an idea into someone’s mind, a much trickier task it turns out, and this task provides the action for the story. Group leader Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) past complicates things a bit though, and the film uses that conflict to explore matters of existence and epistemology (a seminary word for “how we know what we know”).
And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot. Like I said before, I don’t know when I was so thoroughly engrossed in a movie as I was while watching Inception, and the little knowledge I thought I had about the film kept pulling me out of the story as I tried to make fit what I thought I knew. I don’t want that for you, in case you didn’t heed my warnings and continued to read this review without seeing the film first.
When I was 17 years-old, I saw The Matrix for the first time. It was a few years after it was in the theaters, and my pastor invited me to come to our church one evening. We watched the movie on the big projection screen in the sanctuary with the church sound system turned on. It was a wonderful experience, one I’ll never forget. That night, I felt like I was seeing something unlike anything I had ever seen before. The stunts and special effects were revolutionary, and the Wachowski brothers’ work inspired a wave of innovation in science fiction filmmaking.
As I watched Inception, I found myself hoping that this film will inspire a similar wave of innovation, not in special effects, but in storytelling. Christopher Nolan has crafted a story of unbelievable detail and complexity. Inception’s world obeys very particular rules. It must for the story to hold together, but the story is such that it could oh so easily have slipped out of Nolan’s hands, fallen to the earth, and crashed into a million confusing pieces. He somehow maintains the narrative, though it is a breathless endeavor. The story concerns (and questions) multiple realities, and yet somehow it is accessible and understandable. Like a delicate chandelier, Inception is magnificent.
Christopher Nolan is one of a few filmmakers whom I feel represent the post-modern inclination in current, mainstream cinema. Quentin Tarantino, Tom Tykwer, the Coen brothers, and Charlie Kaufman also come to mind for various reasons – Tarantino because of his use of intertextuality (drawing meaning from the juxtapositioning of otherwise unrelated sources), Tykwer because of his meditations on life, death, and love, the Coen’s for their affinity for absurdity and irony in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of life, and Kaufman for his determination for purpose amongst the inevitability of heartache.
Nolan’s post-modern leanings fall into the realm of, as I mentioned before, epistemology, or how we know what we know. He often accomplishes this through the manipulation of time. Memento tells its story backwards, Insomnia occurs in a place where the sun never sets and it therefore without time, The Prestige happens all out of order, and Inception, well, if you’ve seen it, you know.
Post-modern thought is all but defined by it’s questioning of what we profess to know. It is for this reason, I think, that so many in the evangelical world are threatened by post-modern thinking. After all, the evangelical flavor of Christianity is characterized by a profession of what we believe to be true. Post-modernism questions whether or not we can truly know anything to be absolutely true. Post-modernism doesn’t question the existence of absolute truth; it questions whether we are capable of grasping that absolute truth.
Nolan has wrestled with this question again and again, and in my opinion, it is not outside the scope (or responsibility) of Christianity to deal with these same questions. Yes, we are beholden to the Ultimate Absolute Truth, but we would do well to be a bit more humble in our affirmations of what we know about God and how we know God. If the popularity of certain movies is any indication of the thoughts and inclinations of our society at large, this conversation about how we know what we know is one we’ll be having more and more in the coming years.
And even if you aren’t interested in such philosophical matters, I still think you’ll enjoy this film. Inception is breathtaking. But if you’ve made it this far in the review, I trust you’ve already seen it, and you’ve already found that out for yourself.