Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Inception of Moral Manipulation

Since Memento, I’ve been a fan of Chris Nolan because he makes movies that don’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. He respects his audience, and like a person who smiles frequently and always seems cheerful, it’s hard not to be somewhat taken by that. With Inception, my impression of his skill and talent is only elevated.

Just one problem, though. It’s been a whole day since I watched it, and I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that, in the end, we’re cheering for the bad guys. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t yet seen the film: it’s a caper involving half a dozen protagonists. The “crime” would qualify as, at the very least, a severe invasion of privacy.

What they do, although there’s no law against it (for the very concept is science fiction), would undoubtedly be regarded as inherently wrong by any person of rational mind. Leo DiCaprio, the lead, begins as a high-tech thief and then wanders into a gray area where thievery gives way to manipulation. He hires several other specialists to assist him in this endeavor. By the end of the film, the clock is ticking, and the viewer finds himself hoping they’ll make it out just in the nick of time.

We do this because Mr. Nolan is a master storyteller who populates his work with interesting characters we end up caring about. We don’t see them as “bad” people. A bit shady, perhaps, but not unlikeable, and Nolan places them in precarious situations from which we want to see them extricate themselves safely.

This, Mr. Nolan does skilfully. There’s nothing good about what these characters are doing, but we’re so busy being fascinated with how they get where they’re going that we don’t even think much about why they’re doing it.

Inception is confident, mature storytelling, but it suffers from the same moral ambiguity The Matrix inspired 12 years ago: we’re supporting the wrong people. This proves Mr. Nolan’s brilliance as a filmmaker, especially when one accounts for the fact that his manipulation is not purely emotional, but intellectual.

It should be noted, however, that both dishonesty and torture are prominent features in all of his films, and these recurrent themes are always “end vs. means” justified. As long as you can see that, settle in for some amazing entertainment from one of the best English suspense directors since Hitchcock.

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