Where Is Freud When You Need Him?
James, Caryn, Newsweek
Byline: Caryn James
Pop culture's latest fix: the stuff that dreams are made of.
Leonardo DiCaprio and friends are ninjas of the subconscious, dashing through the landscape of other people's dreams, in Christopher Nolan's Inception. This endlessly fascinating swirl of a film could have come only from Nolan, who blends the cerebral twistiness of Memento (his thriller that moves backward in time) with the spectacular action of his Batman megahit, The Dark Knight. DiCaprio, as a thief-for-hire named Cobb, doesn't merely skulk around sleeping minds, pilfering strangers' secret thoughts. He and his team, complete with architect, actually construct the dream worlds they'll enter, with streets that can rise up and become walls--the city as Murphy bed--or, if things go wrong, a train roaring through city traffic. You may get a headache keeping up with the plot as Cobb tries to plant a new idea in a man's brain; stealing thoughts is simple, but adding one is a risky operation involving a dream within a dream within a dream. Even as you tick off the film's overload of references, though--a Matrix here, a James Bond there--the amazing effects and Cobb's quest carry you along.
But Nolan is the brainiest of Hollywood directors, and Inception is more than the ultimate "it was all a dream" movie. It is the most sophisticated in a year of splashy screen events about parallel worlds, in which characters enter alternate realities and return with some solution to personal and often global problems. Cobb's dangerous assignment is meant to save the world from an energy conglomerate. Avatar's hero goes to Pandora, falls for its nature-loving people, and learns to value the environment. The characters on Lost travel sideways to other times and places in what seems an attempt to escape the island, but turns out to be a way to save their own souls. Even Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland transforms Lewis Carroll's story into a journey of self-discovery fit for the 21st century. The movie's Alice is a 19-year-old who returns from Wonderland realizing she doesn't have to marry the smug gentleman her family selected; she can head out to sea and open a trade route to China instead.
These films, not radical-minded indies but among the most expensive and popular onscreen, suggest that reality is so fraught and problematic that we need to go elsewhere--out of this world or deep into our minds--to see things clearly. They evoke a Wizard of Oz parallel dimension ("You're not in Kansas anymore, you're on Pandora," the villainous colonel in Avatar warns), but their lessons are more political than "There's no place like home." Cobb is hired by a businessman (Ken Watanabe) to plant a thought in the brain of a rival (Cillian Murphy). The new idea: the rival must break up the conglomerate he is about to inherit, which is poised to control half the world's energy and become, as one character puts it, "a new superpower. …