Living Twice at Once

Most directors can do one thing just really, really well. David Lynch, say, he can follow a telephone cord up and up such that you get all caught up in the languorous spiral, and that becomes not just the whole room, but the whole story. Wes Craven, he can rig a chase through a tight hallway so that, before it’s over, you’re looking over your own shoulder. Christopher Nolan’s gift—and, though it’s there in all his work, I hadn’t realized it until Inception—it’s ticking clocks. It’s giving the characters in his stories these deadlines, jacking the tension up higher and higher, yet never quite escalating into, say, the action-driven theatrics of Speed. Instead, he keeps that rush, that tension, all within the character—everything hinges on decisions, not developments. The decisions force the developments.

It’s refreshing.

And, as for Inception, sure, the story’s complicated enough that that the characters do finally feel a little bit coddled through it all, just for economy’s sake (it is 148 minutes long) and, yeah, it’s following Shutter Island even closer than The Thirteenth Floor followed Dark City, but, too, we’ve seen the story before—shades of 1408, 12 Monkeys, and, yes, The Matrix, maybe even eXiztenz, Strange Days, (especially) Mirrors, and most of the holodeck episodes of Star Trek Next Generation, a solid third of the Outer Limits episodes, and just a whole host of King and Gaiman grafts, but this core story, of a husband holding onto his gone-wife, going to any lengths to maintain that fantasy, taking whatever bad-idea job’s necessary, it’s got that good kind of resonance, it hits the pity chords just lightly enough that we say, Yes, we too might do exactly this as well. If, say, we lived in a world where military tech could allow the kind of oneironautics that would make Freddy Krueger giggle behind his glove. And aside from all that, Inception confirms what’s been ingrained in our collective psyche since Gilgamesh: every adventure is finally a self-exploration.

Or, in Inception’s case, a wonderfully complicated self-exploration. Christopher Smith says that it took years of cribbed notes for him to finally get the right kind of handle on Triangle. Inception feels the same: like this other Christopher had this kernel of an idea, or jacked it from wherever (Oz, Alice, John Barth, etc), it doesn’t matter, but made it completely his own. Layered the story over that kernel, folding the metal time after time, until that edge, it cuts right to the center of us.

Impressive.

And it hardly feels like a two and a half hour experience, either. Or, it feels exactly like an experience you don’t want to be over. Which is why I’m not going into the specifics of the story at all, here. I’m not worried about spoiling it—any story that can be spoiled is a gimmick, right?—but, if you read this then hit the movie, all I want to have done here’s assured you that it’s going to be worth it. I mean, aside from a couple of painfully transparent name-choices, that don’t even quite function as in-jokes. But in a story this controlled, I have to think too that those poor name choices, they’re very intentional, are cueing me into broader things. Which is to say that a story about planting ideas in people’s heads, it can only work if it finally plants an idea in your head, right?

Job well done. Had I any stars to give, this would get them all.

stephen graham jones
boulder, co
16 July 2010