An unarmed man is trying to sneak into the innermost room of a heavily secured compound. We see him, in medium close-up; a reverse shot, from his point of view, establishing the presence of armed guards around all entrances; another medium close-up as the man ponders the situation; a long shot of the compound; and our hero, sitting calmly on a couch in the compound's inner sanctum. Q: "How the fuck did you get in here?" A: "I used my imagination."
This—from, of course, The Limits of Control—is not quite accurate, but it is close: what actually happened was a simple cut, which we, seasoned viewers of linear narrative films, read as an elision of the time it took to get from point A to point B—even if the space between the two seems physically impossible to traverse.
Basic cinematic grammar is a language for transcending space and time: this is something filmmakers have been pointing out more or less explicitly from, at least, Maya Deren's Study in Choreography for the Camera up to, now that we've all had a chance to see it, the multiple moments in Inception when Leonardo DiCaprio asks other characters a variation of The Limits of Control question: "How did you get here?" They can't remember—though the correct answer is that they walked there from their dressing rooms and waited for Christopher Nolan to call action.
A character in a virtual reality, his memory doomed to erasure with the final fade to black, is not so far off from the sparrow flying through the banqueting hall—a plight previously explored across multiple tiers of existence in 1999's The Thirteenth Floor (or, if you prefer, World on a Wire, Fassbinder's previous adaptation of the same novel, re-released here earlier this year), as well as in another late-90s post-Cartesian classic, Dark City—which, with its backlot noir pastiche, suggested that when we dream, our dreams look like movies. A similar suggestion comes courtesy Inception's imagineered car chases, wirework hand-to-hand, Bond-ish alpine warfare and, especially, CGI landscaping (Inception reminds us that, beyond continuing editing, movielands also expand by creative fiat, like Hardy's Casterbridge or Groening's Springfield, to encompass the new needs of the story).
Others, beginning with the less than enthralled Nick Pinkerton in the Voice, have already pointed out that Inception, with its jargony talk of fantasy and catharsis, is, like, so totally meta. But if Nolan only grazes the ontological panic that made Thirteenth Floor and Dark City so affecting, then, well, a stylish pseudointellectual hook has always been one of the chief pleasures of his filmography, along with similarly brain-teasing structural puzzles—he's the rare filmmaker who can make a blockbuster audience work hard and like it—jazzed up with genre setpieces and beautiful movie stars in fitted clothes. (An idle thought: It is merely a coincidence, isn't it, that Marion Cotillard and Cillian Murphy kinda sorta really look alike? Whoa. Whoa.)