Even though I'll begin by professing my profound respect for Inception- a visceral and dazzling puzzle-box of a movie - this post isn't going to win me any friends. Especially when its second sentence articulates that I admire the film largely because it confirms my hopes that The Dark Knight- linear by design - was a thematically confused and claustrophobically lensed aberration, and that Christopher Nolan hasn't lost his talent for creating uniquely filmic domains that treat time and space as colors on his easel rather than obstacles for him to circumvent. But despite Inception's many pleasures (did you guys see that hallway fight?) and the hours I've spent discussing them, I couldn't shake the thought that the boldest blockbuster of 2010 is still something of a retread for its esteemed director... an echo of a more complete and satisfying film Nolan made all the way back in 2006. His best film. The Prestige.
I have no reservations about calling Christopher Nolan an auteur. Over the course of his seven films he has developed a clear and inimitable network of aesthetic affinities and thematic preoccupations, and like any good auteur he doesn't repeat himself so much as he uses each subsequent film as an attempt to explore, stretch, and refine his pet motifs in more directions than a single movie could allow. So the similarities that I'll draw between Inception and the Prestige are not intended to be criticisms in and of themselves - Yasujiro Ozu made over 50 films around family dynamics and never once repeated himself, even when remaking his own work.
An excellent magician who understands that he could never be a wizard, Christopher Nolan made a movie about magic that is boldly structured like a magic trick. What Inception helped me to realize is that The Prestige is a lot more than that - it also functions as a cypher through which we can better understand the underpinnings of Nolan's other works. And by re-watching The Prestige, I became convinced that Inception is not so much a film about dreams that's structured like a dream (though I do believe the film is all a dream), so much as it's a film about dreams that's structured like a Christopher Nolan movie. I've long maintained that Nolan's films are told in movements rather than acts, but methinks this isn't entirely true. His films are told in acts, and they're called The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.
The Pledge: The magician shows you something ordinary.
Nolan's films don't move forward so much as they spiral inward - both Inception and The Prestige begin at the end and end in the center. Whether opening on a row of hats or an opaque conversation at a lavish Japanese villa, both films unravel their stories by beginning at the deepest layer and then slowly winding their way back to the surface so that we can join them for the eventual plunge - Inception accomplishes this by kicking up through Saito's dream until they're on the train, while The Prestige is a bit more mannered about it, slipping out through the trial, to Borden's journal, and then to a time when eventual nemeses Borden and Angier worked together civilly.
Inception's Pledge is very succinct, as the film enters extraordinary terrain the moment Arthur is no longer able to sustain his dream and Saito's palace begins to crumble. Inception practically begins with its inciting incident, rushing headlong into what might traditionally be considered its second act as soon as Cobb and Saito chat on the helicopter.
The Turn: The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
But Nolan doesn't abide by Robert Mckee terminology - he's already revealed the ordinary world to be anything but, and is eager to show us his longest Turn yet, which begins with Ariadne and arguably continues until Cobb reaches limbo.
The Prestige lives in its Turn as well, a territory that informed Inception's huge middle portion in ways both literal and abstract. Each film's Turn kicks into gear by re-introducing its protagonist as a man living his work, obsessing over his dead wife, and then subsequently fixating upon the party responsible for her death (a fixation that seriously interferes with their work). Both films next bring their signifiers into sharp contrast(Memento's Polaroids are The Prestige's water tanks are Inception's totems), and work to establish a conflict that remains compelling despite the lack of a true villain, instead pitting the hero against only his own psyche and enemies of his own design (an idea made literal by Inception's violent projections).
The most important responsibility of the Turn, however, is to convince the audience to willfully submit themselves to being fooled. Inception and The Prestige both advance Memento's infatuation with the power of self-deception, the joys of being fooled, and the idea that filmmaking is the heir apparent to magic if only to the extent that the very act of entering the cinema and agreeing to tacitly forget that you're watching a succession of still images is to willfully submit yourself to illusion. Both films bluntly inform the audience of their tricks, and then spend the duration of their running time convincing us to disbelieve them. The Prestige litters clues like hats on the ground, but in the Turn Nolan goes out of his way to suggest that Borden is using a double for The Transported Man, and then disposes of an unlucky chickadee to illustrate how this might work. After offering the key to the audience, he then dismisses it entirely simply because Angier doesn't believe the solution to be sufficiently complex. The truth isn't fantastic or convoluted enough to be appreciated.
Inception moves and flows like a dream from the very beginning, its disregard for spatial continuity a gentle reminder that Nolan gamely omits information that might prove we've kicked up to reality rather then to just another dream. The Turn begins with the audience being explicitly told that Saito - a powerful man with experience in defending himself from extractors - can't even tell when he's in a dream, and then everyone just assumes they can suss it out themselves, anyway. It's not because we're suckers - depending on who you ask, Cobb himself is bamboozled into believing the dream is real despite knowing better. And it's not because we're narcissists - we want to be fooled. When we meet Fisher, the supposed mark of the mission, his cluelessness naturally empowers us to feel condescendingly informed. Nolan bombards us with the myriad details of dream-sharing and we join Cobb in eagerly gulping them down rather then considering the greater truth from which they're distracting us.
The problem with Inception is that the more dazzling its tricks become (and the dream dive is some seriously dazzling stuff), the less it feels as if they're revealing anything of value. The Turn is spinning endlessly into the void. Cutter - Michael Caine's sagely character in The Prestige - suggests that a trick must be slow enough for the audience to comprehend what they're seeing, and Nolan heeds that advice to hypnotically literal effect in Inception with the time differences between dream levels. But no matter how much the audience is allowed to delight in Nolan's tricks, Inception leaves us behind at precisely the moment it attempts to bring everything around.
The Prestige: Making something disappear isn't enough: you have to bring it back.
Both The Prestige and Inception involve men who need to unlock something - who need to crack a code. Neither Borden nor Angier can decipher the mysteries of each other's journal or crack a water tank when called upon (Tesla's towering contraption looms in the background like Pandora's Box left ajar), while Cobb's livelihood depends on extracting information from imagined safes. These ideas are the cornerstones of each film's respective Pledge, and integral to establishing the forces that drive these refreshingly complicated characters. Each film transitions into its Prestige only when these objects are resolved - reintroduced to the narrative and tinged with a newfound significance earned over the previous 2+ hours. The Prestige transitions into its final act when Angier (as Lord Caldlow) obtains a piece of notebook paper on which Borden has written the unencrypted secret of his Transported Man illusion, which Angier then promptly tears to shreds. The rest of the film - loyal to its title - basks in its reveals, re-appropriating almost every one of the plot's major objects. The water tank becomes a tomb, and Borden is the bird that survived.
Inception's Prestige is even shorter than its Pledge. Cobb has finally remembered the contents of his wife's safe, and his mind has become the ultimate safe from which an idea has to be planted or plucked, depending on your view. We see him back at Saito's place, and we're afforded a much broader understanding of the meeting than we were the first time around. Cobb "wakes up" on the plane, goes home, and - in a moment that echoes the final shot of The Prestige in both camera movement and musical collapse - returns to his kids as he leaves the top spinning. But something about the moment doesn't quite connect, at least not for me.
Sure, I never cared much for Cobb's facsimile of his wife, and I found their climactic conversation incapable of equaling the force of Hans Zimmer's booming score (and while I appreciate the intent of the old people hands, it still seems silly), but there's more to it. And again, it wasn't until I revisited why I find The Prestige's final moments to be so moving that I understood how Inception upset me. Inception ends with Cobb returning to a place in his life I never believed in - its Prestige brings back something I was never familiar with in the first place. As a result, the film's ultimate moments lack the deep satisfaction and joyful relief with which Nolan hopes to imbue them. Instead, it feels like The Pledge of a new trick.
And while I'm all for deviously open-ended films that leave you with endless post-viewing fodder to discuss, Inception sure feels a lot like a magic trick that only makes things vanish, a notion stimulated by the extent to which this trick's unbelievable methods overshadow its effects. It's a hell of a ride, and one I plan on taking again several times over on Blu-ray, but at the end of the day it's hard to care about the man in the box, the man who disappears.