Among the many interesting things about Christopher Nolan’s superb new movie “Inception” is the fact that it borrows so clearly from so many genres and yet seems to belong to none of them in particular. Its premise of dream-surfing pyrotechnics is heavily sci-fi and yet the movie is conspicuously absent of any specific technology (as cannily observed by Jeremy Keith). In many ways it’s a modernized espionage thriller of the sort perfected in recent years by Tony Gilroy, including of course the “Bourne” trilogy he wrote as well as the corporate cloak and dagger of “Duplicity,” the underrated romantic spy comedy he directed. It clearly owes a debt to heist films as well, but feels less like a romping caper like “The Italian Job” (in either of its two incarnations) than the comparatively quiet and primitive choreography of “Le cercle rouge.”
Parts Is Parts
In fact, what it reminds me of, more than any one of these obvious influences, is the kind of virtuosic fusion of cinematic patterns that Quentin Tarantino is known for, in which the director resoundingly echoes not just genres of movies but also very specific movies. Much as every Tarantino movie quotes with abandon from films that have come before, Nolan pays prominent homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Wachowski Brothers’ “The Matrix,” “Planet of the Apes,” any number of James Bond installments, and, allegedly, Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” among several other works.
The cliché is to say that rather than just stealing, Nolan creates something new out of these pieces, but it might be more accurate to say that he concocts something potent and irresistible from the familiarity of what he has assembled. The trailers and teasers for “Inception” showed us bits and pieces of many of these influences while offering almost no details about its characters, plot or ideas. Yet the hinting familiarity of what we did see was compelling enough in its promise of some novel configuration that it produced a notably feverish anticipation among nearly everyone I know. In one respect we didn’t know what it was about, and yet in another respect we already did know what it was about — which made us want to see it all the more.
In many ways, “Inception” might suggest that the only viable way forward for a particular kind of blockbuster movie is this further maturation of the Tarantino approach. Meta films such as these — films that are about films as much as they are about ideas — may be the only films that can hold their own financially against the onslaught of sequels, remakes, comic book properties and franchises of every sort that dominate the multiplexes in this day and age. In a summer film season filled with more direct derivatives of other films, “Inception” is likely to stand alone among top grossers as being the product of an ‘original’ idea. Its fighting chance and apparently healthy early returns owe a lot to the fact that we’ve seen lots of it before. What’s more, it’s probably no coincidence that the “inception” concept of the title posits that it takes a paramilitary-style assault on the subconscious to plant an original idea.