Christopher Nolan doesn't wear a black cape (though he is partial to a finely tailored dark suit) and, to the best of my knowledge, harbors no secret identities (unless you count his dual British and American passport). But like a certain brooding Gotham City avenger, the Dark Knight director carries the hopes of an entire embattled metropolis — in this case, Hollywood — on his lone shoulders. Midway through a summer movie season that might be dubbed “Revenge of the Audience,” as high-ticket star vehicle upon surefire franchise picture has gone belly-up at the box office, Nolan's Inception — the most heavily hyped and closely guarded studio release since Avatar — arrives anointed as the movie that will either save Hollywood's balance sheets or plunge them farther into the abyss.
That's a heavy burden for any movie to bear, let alone an audacious $200 million head trip, not based on a comic book, TV series or video game, most of which takes place inside people's dreams, and sometimes inside dreams within dreams within dreams within … well, you get the idea. “In dreams begins responsibility,” wrote the poet William Butler Yeats, to which Inception adds the notion that dreams are where our most valuable original thoughts take root, and where — with a little somnambulant sleight of hand — they can be stolen. In Nolan's movie, technology known as “dream sharing” has enabled a whole new kind of corporate espionage, allowing a master thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of associates to plunder their victims' neural pathways with the balletic grace of John Dillinger knocking over a bank.
“I made a slightly smart-ass crack at somebody the other day, because they asked me, 'What's your interest in the mind?' ” says Nolan with a sardonic chuckle, surveying the June gloom that has enveloped Los Angeles from the windows of a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “And I said, 'Well, I've lived in one my whole life.' ” It's an answer that could serve as a general riposte to the peanut gallery of Hollywood bloggers and “industry analysts” who have spent the past few months hemming and hawing over whether Inception will prove to be “too smart” for the great unwashed mass of American moviegoers. But while Nolan's work is undeniably smart, it's also incredibly exciting to behold. His are those rare movies, Hollywood or otherwise, as stimulating to the gray matter as they are to the adrenal glands.
If the phrase “dream movie” calls to mind the amorphous surrealism of David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, or perhaps a journey into the magical kingdom of Oz, think again. The inception of Inception — the first of Nolan's films since his 1998 debut feature, Following, on which he is the sole credited screenwriter — was a desire, the director says, “to tap into this notion, as Leo's character says, that dreams feel real while we're in them; it's only when you wake up that you realize something was actually strange. I hadn't seen a film before that said, 'Okay, we're going to give the dream exactly as much validity as the real world within the film,' and, in that way, hopefully get closer to the experience we all have, really, of being fooled by a dream.”
And while Inception may be Nolan's first film set explicitly in the realm of nocturnal transmissions, it's merely his latest to unfold against the rugged landscape of the human psyche. As far back as the ingenious, no-budget Following (another psychological heist movie of sorts), Nolan seemed to relish taking people apart in order to see what made them tick, with a particular affinity for the tricks of perception and memory that allow us to deceive ourselves even when we are fully awake. Those interests had grown into full-blown obsessions by the time of Nolan's Oscar-nominated indie breakout, Memento, in which the more the movie's narrative jigsaw puzzle snapped into place, the less certain we became of amnesiac widower Leonard Shelby's reliability as a narrator — or even as a sympathetic character. So it was little wonder that Nolan went on to give us an existentially conflicted Batman who, by the end of The Dark Knight, has ample reason to wonder whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story.
“I am fascinated by our subjective perception of reality, that we are all stuck in a very singular point of view, a singular perspective on what we all agree to be an objective reality,” Nolan tells me. “Movies are one of the ways in which we try to see things from the same point of view.” Movies, of course, may be the greatest “shared dream” of all, which is why Inception feels, at times, like an illustrated tour of Nolan's — and our own — cinematic subconscious, as we pass by familiar sights and signposts from Nolan's own earlier films and those that inspired him. “The film is shameless in its regard for cinema, and its plundering of cinematic history,” he says. “What's fun is that a lot of people I talk to come up with very different movies that they see in the film, and most of them are spot-on. There are all kinds of references in there. This wasn't really a conscious thing on my part; I didn't set out to make a movie about movies. But what I wanted was for the dream imagery to be resonant not just to me, but on some kind of shared level. And I think naturally, as a filmmaker, I just gravitate toward cinema as the collective memory we have of imagery and symbolism.”
Nolan's own earliest movie memory is of seeing Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and of blanching in fright when the evil queen disguises herself as the apple-toting old hag. “And then the first Star Wars, in 1977 — that sort of changed everything for me,” he says. Soon, the 7-year-old Nolan, who was born in London and grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, was shooting Super 8 sci-fi movies with a borrowed camera, and he's never looked back. “For people of my age, that was it — that was kind of the birth of cinema in a way,” he says of George Lucas' seminal space opera. “The screen just opened up a world that you had never seen before and that you could lose yourself in, and that suggested infinite possibilities. I think that's why it's lasted, and my kids love it just as much as I did when I was a kid watching it. And I think every film I make, particularly when you go big with a film, when you make a blockbuster — and Inception is a blockbuster — the highest aspiration is to create an alternate reality for the audience, a world they can imagine living in beyond the actual text of the film.”
Everything is relative in Nolan's world. Like the unsuspecting captains of industry who find their brains burgled by Inception's dream invaders, fail to pay close attention and you, too, may discover that the narrative rug has been pulled from underneath your feet. Or that what you thought was a rug wasn't really a rug at all. Watching Inception, I tell Nolan, I made a note that the movie — really, his entire filmography thus far — is for people who regard “2 + 2 = 4” not as an inviolable absolute, but rather as a man-made construct subject to multiple variations and interpretations.
“The world is founded on paradoxes,” he answers, grinning. “2 + 2 = 4 … we can see why that's true, we can observe that, but when I talk to my kids about numbers, they have already completely taken aboard the idea that you can't ever have two identical objects, meaning, on some level, that numbers don't exist. Everything in life is inherently paradoxical. You can't prove anything. But we accept that and we live with that and we just sort of deal with it, and what you try to do with a film like Inception is to pull at a few of those threads.
“One of my favorite brainteasers, or things to occupy my mind with when I have spare time, is that if you look in a mirror, left and right are reversed, but up and down are not. How is that possible? I've been trying to wrap my head around that for decades and I make no progress. If any of your readers have the solution, I'll be interested.”
Today, as he approaches his 40th birthday, Nolan is imagining yet more ways of building a smarter, better blockbuster in an industry that too often regards the human brain as a derelict appendage rather than a muscle in need of stimulation and exercise. And at the moment, he finds himself in that privileged position, enjoyed historically by relatively few directors, of having the full resources of Hollywood at his disposal to make the movies he wants to make — the ones that take him farther down the rabbit hole of his obsessions — the way he wants to make them. With that freedom, Nolan acknowledges, comes “a massive responsibility to do something that you genuinely feel to be meaningful and that you love” — a self-imposed mandate he hopes audiences will feel Inception fulfills.
“Films are subjective — what you like, what you don't like,” he says. “But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there — I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies.”