Indisputably the movie of the present moment, though perhaps not entirely of its moment, Christopher Nolan's Inception is even more, and more importantly, the film of its writer-director's career, distilling Nolan's thematic concerns, style and signature narrative constructions within its single, "A"-picture shape. For good or ill, and it is indeed both, Inception contains all of Nolan's cinema - often not simply through allusion, but in visual citation as well - construed in a form that intermittently engages with the digital-age cinematic medium. Ultimately, it is on this last level that Inception proves of greatest interest to this piece's writers, at once extending the late 1990s, early 2000s engagement with the ontology of the analog-digital hybrid, while staking the director's place on the personal-impersonal artistic continuum.
In this latter respect, Inception joins David Fincher's own recent career-peak Zodiac (2007) in favoring its maker's effacement, albeit in a form subsumed by subjectivity, rather than by Fincher's comparatively fact-based approach. In Inception, Nolan introduces the question of the artist's place in the incursion of artist-surrogate Leonardo DiCaprio's memories into CillianMurphy's dream world - where the aforesaid seeks, along with his colleagues, to implant an idea at the behest of Ken Watanabe, Murphy's Far East corporate rival. (Following in the pattern of Memento , Inception introduces the concept of the idea as "virus," as an all-consuming contagion that remakes the individual.) As DiCaprio's dead wife, Marion Cotillard, comes to disrupt her husband and his co-conspirator's work of inception, and with the couple's children more benignly present on repeated occasions, Nolan constructs a narrative where the personal not only challenges but in fact threatens to destroy the work of creation at hand. In order to successfully implant the idea, to create Murphy's recollection ex nihilo, DiCaprio is forced to resist his own traumatic past - his subjectivity, in other words.
In more straightforwardly psychoanalytic terms, trauma proves formative for Nolan's latest, where the director's leads mine progressively deeper into human interiorty, seeking those secrets that are quite literally, in the film's science-fiction world, locked away within vaults. In its exploration of a repressed past, Inception particularly recalls the filmmaker's retrospectively cardinal psychoanalytic prequel, Batman Begins (2005), as it does DiCaprio's previous pairing with Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island (2010); DiCaprio himself seems in the incipient stages of establishing his own authorial voice. Batman Begins also generates one of the more obvious citations in Inception, with the former's Tibet set-piece returning as a cite of Freudian extraction. On the other hand, the director's behemoth box office follow-up to said reboot, The Dark Knight (2008), proves most formative for the low-key visual design of Nolan's current feature: The Dark Knight's warm golden light once again radiates through Inception's mahogony-paneled interiors. Present likewise is the 2008 film's reliance on a Griffithian form of cross-cutting, which in Inception, as in Peter Jackson's capstone to his 'Lord of the Rings trilogy,' The Return of the King (2003), sets a new standard in its activation of multiple, simultaneous narrative stages. This trio of contemporary blockbusters accordingly signals a return of Hollywood's repressed feature-film origin, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Inception, however, adds a new dimension to the technique, thanks to its multiple dream-within-a-dream scenarios, each of which possess their own temporal schemas. Thus, an extended battle sequence in one dream-scape occupies the same relative story duration as a van's drop from a lift bridge. In this regard, Nolan again returns to the American cinema's original master, whose cross-cutting once pitted a cross-town traversal in The Drive for Life (1909) with the time it would take to raise a single piece of poisoned candy to its heroine's lips - in both Nolan's and Griffith's work, a Hollywood ending ensues. Of course, Inception explains its adoption of proto-classicism's temporal distensions through its science-fiction conceit; Nolan naturalizes Griffith's improbable last-minute rescues. Inception's narrative structure, like The Prestige's (2006) subject matter, returns to cinema's relative nascence.
The Prestige similarly proves a precursor for Inception's fable of the ontological loss of innocence, where the original sin of the copy begins the work of robbing the individual of his or her sense of reality. In the director's current work, the infinite regress dovetailing from waking life invites a skepticism that at least in one instance proves fatal. In this sense, Inception offers an allegory for the cinema not simply within the present digital age, but also inclusive of its proto-chemical mode. Still, Inception does belong meaningfully to the digital and new media moment, presenting a world that is wholly created, however uniformly photo-real, while also adopting video gaming's logic of immersed multiple lives. Consequently, Inspection repeats the narrative pattern instantiated previously by David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and the Wachowski Bros.'s The Matrix (both 1999), albeit from within rather than on the threshold of the digital revolution.