Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is a film brimming with brilliance, humming with energy and so packed with ideas that it’s probably impossible to compose a judgment on it after only one viewing.
Nolan, best known as the director of “The Dark Knight,” gained notoriety in Hollywood circles 10 years ago with “Memento,” the twisty noir about a man with short-term memory loss trying to solve his wife’s murder. The film still stands as one of its decade’s best, a brilliantly woven crime drama told through a narrative structure that shifts backwards, forwards and sideways as it heads to its devastating conclusion.
“Inception” makes “Memento” seem as straightforward and predictable as an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
Once again, Nolan returns to the world of the mind, in a science fiction thriller about dream thieves, led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Along with his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb recruits Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architect who designs elaborate worlds for the dreamer to get lost in, a “forger” named Eames (Tom Hardy) who impersonates people in the mark’s subconscious and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), adept at mixing sedatives powerful enough to knock people into sleeps so deep that if they die within a dream, instead of waking up they’ll be lost in a limbo-like coma.
Cobb is hunted by agencies around the world for his illegal activities, which involve breaking into people’s dreams and stealing their ideas. When one theft goes awry, however, the subject (Ken Watanabe) chooses not to get revenge but instead proposes one last job: Cobb is to break into a young business executive’s mind and, instead of stealing an idea, plant one. The team balks, saying that inception cannot be accomplished, as the mind violently rejects any foreign ideas. Cobb, spurred by the promise of seeing his children again, takes the job. He may, however, not be in the right frame of mind (literally) for this project, as he’s hounded by guilty memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and their two children.
With that, I will lay low on plot details, except to say that “labyrinthine” is too weak a word for Nolan’s story. In “Inception,” cities fold in on themselves, dreams layer upon and crash in on each other and time shifts with each level of reality. In the same space of time the characters may be in different levels of reality, on different continents, involved in car chases, kung fu fights and James Bond-style fortress assaults all at once. We’re never quit sure of what’s real, what’s a dream or when and where we are—Nolan doesn’t stagger the chronology as with “Memento” but he trusts his audience enough to understand and keep up with the story he’s telling, even as its characters shift through layers of consciousness and reality.
After dropping the audience into the dream world in the opening sequence, though, Nolan does apply the brakes to give a primer on the film’s rules. He’s light on the details of how dream sharing technology works and instead uses Ariadne’s initiation to give us a lesson on how dreams are created, how they function and how the subconscious defends itself against intruders. By the time Ariadne’s subconscious causes Paris to explode in slow motion glory, we’re prepped enough to follow the film.
The film bursts with ideas but is never weighed down by its own brilliance. The plot is complex and puzzling and may take two or three viewings to understand every detail and thread, but Nolan attaches the story to the heist film formula so that audiences can follow the story’s main points even if they can’t wrap their minds around the plot’s intricacies. “Inception” dresses deep ideas up in genre clothing so that even if audiences have a hard time grasping what level of reality the film is currently in, they still understand the dangers immediately facing Cobb and his team in the form of subconscious assassins as they try to reach their goal of planting the idea in the subject’s mind.
The film pulsates with energy and visual brilliance. One of the complaints some critics had over Nolan’s work on his Batman films was that he couldn’t film a coherent action sequence. While I disagree, I think even the naysayers will be impressed with the drive and adrenaline he puts into each set piece, particularly in the last 45 minutes as realities threaten to collapse, threats pile up and the film hurtles towards its conclusion in a blaze of gravity-defying fistfights, bone-crunching car chases and an assault on a fortress clearly inspired by James Bond. And that’s not including the crumbling cities, flooding hotels and exploding elevators that punctuate the finale. If all the bullets and bombs were simply Hollywood filler, it would ring hollow but Nolan ties everything together so logically into the plot and makes it so easy to follow that every set piece pins viewers to their seats in anticipation. Like “The Matrix,” to which this film will inevitably be compared, “Inception” mixes big ideas and big events so perfectly that the film l feels like nothing that has come before it.
Unlike “The Matrix,” however, Nolan packs “Inception” with an emotional thread to keep audiences from being overburdened with tech talk and science fiction. DiCaprio plays a man not unlike his character in this year’s “Shutter Island,” haunted by a woman and ravaged by guilt. Cobb blames himself for his wife’s death and has turned in on himself so harshly that she literally stalks him in his dreams, threatening to undo his hard work and keep him with her. There’s a portion of Cobb that may be willing to stay in his dreams, where he can hold his wife again and avoid the pain of the real world. DiCaprio again shows that he one of the most versatile actors working today. He doesn’t play the same notes as in Scorsese’s thriller, but finds new depths of angst and guilt, creating a character well aware that he’s chasing an illusion, but also knows he might prefer that illusion to reality.
The rest of the cast is engaging as well, with Hardy and Levitt in particular supplying necessary energy and humor throughout the proceedings. Cillian Murphy provides just the right amounts of intrigue and earnestness as the team’s mark and Nolan regular Michael Caine shows up in a brief role as Cobb’s father-in-law to lend some class to the proceedings. Only Page feels slightly out of her element, not as in tune with the rest of the cast but that ultimately works in her favor because, as an outsider, Ariadne serves as the audience surrogate. Through her, we are introduced to this world.
I’ve come to the end of this review and I feel I’m just scratching the surface of a film that begs multiple looks. And that’s okay—with its narrative twists, reality-bending concepts and incredible set pieces, “Inception’s” surface is pretty darn great, alive in a way most films aren’t. But what’s even better is the feeling it gives that, like any good dream, there’s more to discover.
I have a feeling this is a film that will be argued over and studied by science fiction lovers and movie geeks for ages—there are surely hidden themes and symbols to uncover, character motives to question and even the film’s premise to debate over. And knowing that a movie can be that entertaining and that intriguing is what makes “Inception” one of this year’s best films.