Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight. That’s all about you need to know when it comes to how Inception has been marketed, a film whose title could easily be mistaken as “From The Director of The Dark Knight” as its actual title.
Inception and The Dark Knight are two movies that are so radically different, yet so fundamentally the same. Both films strive to do something radically different with their genres, turning the typical tropes on their heads and challenging audiences to keep up.
Now we put what many consider to already be Nolan’s masterpiece up against his newest film. Another masterpiece or just another movie?
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Inception is a film ten years in the making, hatched from an idea dating back before Nolan even crafted his first film. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a skilled subconscious extractor who invades a mark’s subconscious via dreams in order to extract their secrets. After failing a critical heist, he and his team must do the impossible and not steal — but implant — an idea in someone’s mind.
Now already, Inception has garnered divisive reactions from critics and its clear to see why. The film is an multi-layered, labyrinthine ouroboros through the time-relativistic subconscious, churning on the perpetual motion of Cobb’s nightmarish inability to let go of his late wife. While Nolan pitched this as a existential heist film, Inception works best as a new type of sci-spiritual noir, with the typical conventions of the genre turned on their heads six times over. Nolan’s writing is as tight as ever, the action is simply mind-blowing if infrequent, and the execution of his filmmaking once more serves as allegory for his themes. But be warned: this film is not for everyone.
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The Defending Champion
The Dark Knight barreled across the world, riding a wave of hype and actor tragedy to garner billions. So far considered Nolan’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight watches as Batman, James Gordon, and Harvey Dent face The Joker, a sociopath hired by the battered mob in a desperate effort to fight back against the Batman, the man who has no limit. What follows is a film that redefined the superhero genre, a total deconstruction of the goals and ethics behind Batman’s mission as a hero — and a pretty damning one at that. The love interest is brutally murdered. Harvey Dent is destroyed. Gordon is abandoned. And Batman is forced to become a vigilante, trapped by his inability to let go of the Batman persona long enough to save the lives that could’ve prevented his downfall. With a ruthless script and stunning action sequences, The Dark Knight set the bar high for Nolan in terms of his next project.
As usual, Nolan sticks to his theme of obsession — funny since Nolan recently denied this as being one of his focuses at the recent Hero Complex discussion. And both stick to Nolan’s philosophy on filmmaking, which was cleverly articulated in The Prestige. It’s a magic trick, in three acts — the ordinary in the first act, made extraordinary during the second, and the prestige at the third act that makes it all worth it and completely contextualizes the trick.
However, which is the more successful film? To be fair, this review is incomplete as I feel Inception demands a second viewing. But I can honestly say I have never had a moviegoing experience quite like this one, leaving with so many emotions and ruminations about the themes, characters, and then technical skill behind the film (the heist itself is jaw-dropping). In this way, this makes these two films almost incomparable. But then it occurred to me…
The Dark Knight didn’t make me cry. It didn’t keep me up when I got home. And it didn’t make me scared. Inception did all of these. Why?
Dom Cobb. The central character to Nolan’s Inception is a destroyed man, and also the anchor to keeping Nolan’s brain-busting jaunt through the dreamscape from spiraling into the pretentious headspace of “look what I can do.” Cobb’s journey in attempting to reconcile with his wife’s death, a death that he is essentially complicit in via his use of inception, is terrifying. The love story here is brilliant, as two lovers find themselves developing their love in a false world that functions relativistic to our own, getting years out of hours and decades out of days. It’s a great metaphor for what love is about, how it has the ability to stop time itself — and how too often we wish we had more time for it.
In this, I have to applaud Nolan’s ability in ensuring that the dream-invasion technology was used in more ways than just one. For the most part, the tech is given to us by default. We get no real reason outside of a somewhat placard “military development” explanation as to why it exists, and simply accept it as a given technology that people may or may not know about in this world. In fact, the entire world has a slight comic book feel to it — as the fantastical exists right alongside the mundane with surprising ease. It would have been easy to keep the focus of the tech on the heist, but Nolan integrates it seamlessly into Cobb’s emotional journey as well: dream-invasion destroyed his life, and now it’s the only thing that can save it.
From a pure genre level, Nolan’s creation of a femme fatale that is literally the embodiment of the guilt/insecurity/flaw that traditional femme fatales typical exploit in the hero is just one example of the genre tropes turned on their head by Nolan, but still servicing the genre. Mal (‘bad” in French), his dead wife who now haunts his subconscious, is also a wonderful antagonist. She is an evil god in the dreamworld, sending trains barreling through the best laid plans, able to be anywhere at once, and do anything she wants. And what’s worse? Cobb’s entire salvation, if it is to be had at all, rests in the dreamworld she rules. And the thing is: she is a construct of Cobb; she is Cobb, and in the film’s final moments, when Cobb finally confronts her/himself, the language and word play resulting is quite something.
Now, you’ll notice, I’ve said little of The Dark Knight. The reason: it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Inception. The film, rightfully so, is more a cerebral deconstruction of Batman, and an amazingly fun and yet terrifying run through the maze of Gotham City’s corruption that leaves you breathless and shocked at where it all ends up. Yet, whereas The Dark Knight bungled in many ways Batman’s emotional reaction to Rachel’s death, Inception nails this sort of trauma. Cobb’s desire to go home — and what he thinks will take him there versus what actually will — works on many levels to service both the film’s concept, themes, and emotions.
In the leg up department, The Dark Knight does have more fully realized characters. Both of these films are essentially ensemble works, with The Dark Knight coming out ahead. The problem with Inception is that outside of Leo, the other characters are rather simplistic. Their reasons for doing their jobs are confusing and muddled at times, and what gets them into the trap of the heist (at which point I understand their motivations to get out) is unclear throughout the film. Most of the film’s attention is poured into Cobb, with Paige functioning as a pseudo-therapist (at one point I was wondering if Paige’s character — also French — was a construction of Mal attempting to penetrate Cobb’s world rescue him).
The Dark Knight also freed itself of the exposition that Inception must — at times — necessarily wade through in order to ensure that everyone is on board it’s rather complicated premise. The rules are many and nuanced. I’m not at a place where I can two the often-towed line and said that “this is bad filmmaking because exposition is always bad exposition.” Honestly, I was always engaged during these sequences and felt the mystery of Cobb’s history with his wife kept me going. However, clearly, The Dark Knight starts with a bang and keeps going — but it also benefits from being a sequel.
There is so much more to discuss when it comes to Inception — more than I can discuss here. I haven’t even gotten into what I think actually happened, thematic overlaps, narrative blah blah blah blah. All I can say matters is now a full 12 hours after having seen it, Inception is still sitting with me and making me feel things for the plight of its main character. The ending will leave you reeling. I sat in a theater and watched as a filmmaker took one of the most mundane objects and synchronized an entire audience’s hopes and fears on its fate…
The film will leave you with little answers as well. Multiple interpretations will abound. Was it all a dream? Was it all a heist to break Saito out of limbo? Was it all an inception on Saito himself, implanting an idea in his mind to get Cobb home? Was it Mal trying to save Cobb, who’s stuck in dreams? Who knows? And that’s the point of Inception. In the end, reality is overrated — what matters is the emotions and experience. And Inception plants all those and more.
Both these films are great in their own right; both are brilliant. Yet, I fall in the camp that says that film ultimately is about making you “feel” something — and about giving you something universal. While The Dark Knight is a wonderful deconstruction of a well-known pop culture icon, Inception is a deconstruction of our very minds, our inabilities to move on, and the power of our subconscious to invade and poison our daily lives. Inception dreams bigger and with more emotionality than The Dark Knight.