Christopher Nolan's hyper-complex psychological thriller doesn't just make architecture a central theme; the whole story hinges on the ability of architects to design buildings, neighborhoods and whole cities inside other people's dreams. Early on, Leonardo DiCaprio's brooding hero, Cobb, gives us reason to look forward to those invented worlds when he warns the young architect he's hired, Ariadne ( Ellen Page), that she should "never create places from memory" and "always imagine new places." (Sounds promising, right? Sounds like a manifesto! Sounds like the Bauhaus circa 1920!) In the same scene, Ariadne's skittish subconscious causes a whole section of Paris to fold deliriously in on itself, as if Baron Haussmann's grand boulevards had suddenly turned to rubber.
From then on, though, the architectural set pieces grow increasingly trite and familiar. The bulk of the dream sequences take place in the following spaces: on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, including a wide intersection in front of a Famima store; the inside of a van; a hotel room; hotel hallways; an elevator; an elevator shaft; and a quasi-Brutalist mountainside complex where, in the deep snow, you can make out the boot-prints of both James Bond and Jason Bourne.
We've seen all this before, haven't we? The infrastructural guts of the modern city as a setting for explosions, gunfights and increasingly manic race-the-clock scenarios? How many movie heroes have climbed atop an elevator, as the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt does? How many more have plotted an ingenious route through a building's air ducts? These places aren't new. They're architectural clichés, dredged up from Hollywood's collective memory bank.
It's also telling that when these dream-cities begin to collapse — typically because the dreamer is about to wake up — they don't splinter, melt or drain away. They explode and disintegrate and tumble percussively in on themselves. It's a combination of loud Hollywood spectacle and the scenes we all watched of the World Trade Center's destruction: Michael Bay meets 9/11 somewhere deep in Nolan's subconscious.
When Cobb and Ariadne make the tremulous and altogether familiar-sounding decision ("No!" "But I've got to!" "But it's too dangerous!" "But it's our only hope!" "OK, but I'm coming with you!") to move down into a fourth dream world, I hoped we might finally be headed for a riot of architectural invention. Instead, we get an odd, desultory cross between downtown Los Angeles circa 1965 and the urban-planning fantasies of the French Modernist architect Le Corbusier. Downtown's 1965 Department of Water and Power building, designed by AC Martin and Partners, has been stretched in Seussian fashion to become a very tall skyscraper; on the horizon, meanwhile, appear dozens if not hundreds of Corbusian, tenement-like towers.
If an architecture student at UCLA or Sci-Arc stepped before a thesis review panel at the end of the school year, announced that his primary goal was to invent "new places" and then unveiled that Bunker Hill fantasia, he'd be roundly called out for wallowing in a peculiar, druggy kind of midcentury nostalgia and sent back to the drawing board. Sorry, to the computer.
So how to explain this? Why is a movie that puts mind-bending architecture so squarely at the center of its story so architecturally underwhelming? Why does its attempt to make metaphorical links between buildings and storyline fall so far below the standard set by classics from the 1970s — the documentary "Grey Gardens," say, or the paranoid thriller "The Parallax View" — or more recently by "Up in the Air," "(500) Days of Summer" and the TV shows "Mad Men" and "Rubicon"?
Partly it's a byproduct of Nolan's filmmaking personality. He's a student of Hollywood history who spikes his story with references to older movies, as well as to characters from Dante and Greek myth. A collagist rather than an inventor, he's more comfortable rearranging found material than creating jaw-dropping new visions from scratch.
A more direct explanation has to do with the basic requirements of movie storytelling. If there's one way in which Nolan is obsessed with breaking new ground, it's with the film's dizzying narrative structure. In the second half of the movie, Nolan works feverishly to keep aloft an unbelievably complex story, which ultimately folds four different scenes into a single breathless sequence.
Pulling that off requires keeping the audience aware of where they've landed when the camera cuts from one world to the next. Otherwise mild and enjoyable confusion on the audience's part would quickly turn to frustration. As a result, most of those worlds — the first three levels, at least — need to be instantly recognizable. You see the hotel hallway, the van or the snow-topped bunker, and you know right away which level you've slipped back to. Architecture, in the end, is for Nolan a way to grease the storytelling machinery and keep it madly humming.
Don't get me wrong: "Inception" as a whole is wildly entertaining, if also hopelessly melodramatic. (Was there really a sequence where a woman lies with her head on the railroad tracks as a train rumbles toward her? Or did I dream that?) The movie is rightly being celebrated as a departure from Hollywood's recent reliance on sequels, movies inspired by comic books and sequels to movies inspired by comic books. I just wish its architectural imagination were half as compelling as its cinematic one.