So often these days, when talking about blockbusters it seems that even the ones you like have to be excused as silly fun, empty calories. Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) is one of the few filmmakers working who is able to make spectacles of this scale that also contain ideas. With his new action film/head trip Inception, Nolan taps into a fear of the growing lack of control in our lives. In an age of such rampant identity theft, it wouldn’t be surprising if even our minds weren’t secure anymore.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who specializes in a very specific kind of industrial espionage. Through a technique known as shared dreaming, he invades other people’s minds and steals their secrets from their subconscious. A Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), whom Cobb had once tried to steal from, asks him to actually plant an idea in someone’s head instead of stealing it, a risky and experimental process known as inception. Cobb balks at the notion, saying it can’t be done, that our minds can tell the difference between a planted idea and true inspiration, but he agrees to try when Saito promises to end Cobb’s forced exile from his homeland and his children.
To pull it off, Cobb assembles a team of experts. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is his stable second-in-command. Eames (Tom Hardy) is a skilled “forger,” who can impersonate people in dreams. Yusuf (Drag Me to Hell’s Dileep Rao) is a master chemist, who makes sedatives tailored to the dream thieves’ needs. And Ariadne (Ellen Page) is an architecture student who is recruited to construct the environments of the dream, which must be both expansive and convincing in detail.
Ariadne serves as an audience surrogate, there in part so Cobb can explain the rules of dream sharing to her, and us, so she can create the labyrinthine dream worlds that the team requires. Her scenes also give Nolan an opportunity to show us some of the film’s more amazing special effects scenes, as Ariadne learns what she can do in the dream world, making bridges and buildings rise from nothing, and folding the city of Paris over on itself just because she wants to.
Ariadne also provides the orderly, rational complement to Cobb’s tortured psyche. Like any good tragic hero, Cobb has a secret. His subconscious is plagued by the memory of his former wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose presence threatens to disrupt Cobb’s efforts at any given time. This adds another level of danger to the job the team is trying to do.
The group was hired by Saito to plant in the mind of one of Saito’s business competitors, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the idea that he should break up the business empire created by his father. Since the heist takes place inside Fischer’s mind, it is a nice touch that, in order to perform the inception, the characters have to fix Fischer’s damaged relationship with his father. Instead of cracking a vault, they have to crack his emotions.
It was kind of amazing to me that Nolan was able to manage the ever-growing chaos in The Dark Knight, and here he proves capable of sustaining dreams within dreams, and juggles up to four levels of reality with a minimum of hand-holding, cutting back and forth between the various dream worlds in a manner that always allows the audience to follow what is going on.
Of course, that doesn’t keep Nolan from having a bit of fun with the audience. The film mentions how people never remember the start of their dreams, and Nolan tends to drop us into the middle of scenes with little narrative anchor. He and cinematographer Wally Pfister shoot the film like a waking dream, daring us to question what is real—in essence performing an inception on the audience, planting the idea that any given scene may be a dream.
Nolan has been fond of puzzle logic for his entire career, from the backward storytelling of Memento to the layered deceptions and misdirection in The Prestige. This has led to accusations of his being a chilly or overly schematic filmmaker, with more concern for mousetrap plots than characters, but Nolan places a strong enough emotional throughline here that the audience will stay invested in the characters regardless of the plot.
However, one might expect a movie about dreams to be more, well, dreamlike. Each successive level of the dream feels more like a tour through a different movie genre (heist movie, Bond film) than a trip through someone’s subconscious. To be fair, there are some truly dazzling sequences set in the dream world. Gordon-Levitt has a fight scene with some bad guys, in a hallway that is constantly rotating and shifting gravity, that is absolutely amazing. But the depths of people’s minds are, of course, messy and unpredictable places, and it would have been nice to have seen that reflected a bit more (outside of Cobb’s inability to control his own subconscious). But Nolan is very careful to state that the requirements of dream thievery necessitate that a dream be as realistic as possible. If the dream becomes too wild, the sleeper will realize he is dreaming and try to flush out the interlopers.
Far from making the film merely a mechanical puzzle to be solved, Nolan grounds the story in an absolutely harrowing emotional core, with the story of Cobb and Mal. The film’s depiction of a doomed marriage, and the way people often populate their minds with versions of people that don’t really approach the richness of the real individuals, is gut-wrenching stuff. Cotillard is the emotional heart of the film, and DiCaprio gives some more of the great brooding intensity that he’s specialized in for the last several years.
The entire supporting cast is pretty terrific. Some seemed to be cast for their mere presence—Rao projects gravity without having to do much of anything at all. Page makes the most of a somewhat difficult role. She handles most of the film’s expositional dialogue while also having to backstop DiCaprio’s pinwheeling emotions. And Hardy deserves special mention. He was last seen as the titular prison thug in Bronson, and will soon be featured as Mad Max in George Miller’s upcoming reboot, but he is ultra-suave and absolutely magnetic here as Eames. He is effortlessly charming as he almost steals the movie, and seems to be the only character in the film having any fun.
Nolan piles on the action, emotions and ideas with feverish intensity as Inception builds toward its climax. He uses action-movie and heist-film tropes to ground this lucid dream in terms the audience can relate to, creating some of the best action cinema in recent years in service of a story about a broken man trying to regain his dream of family and a masterful mind game that will only deepen with further viewings.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.