Movies that focus on dreams, especially those that attempt to show what occurs inside
a character's dream, offer themselves an easy out, and often take it. When you're in a world that can subscribe to any rules that seem appropriate, it's tempting to use that as a crutch, to set up incredible situations and then invent equally fantastic ways out of them. Inception
borrows half of this formula: the incredible build-ups are there, but the path back up the rabbit hole is tied to a steadfast logic that the movie lays out very plainly. That might seem a small thing – a movie playing fairly, by its own rules – but for all the mind-fucking that Inception
pulls on you, what's remarkable is that it tells you exactly how it's going to do so beforehand, and yet still manages to surprise.
Christopher Nolan has reportedly been working on this script for almost a decade, and it shows: this is a film that knows exactly what its ground rules are, and states them all clearly. It tells the story of Cobb ( Leonardo DiCaprio
) and Arthur ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt
, who's superb as always), specialists in "extraction", the art of entering the dreams of sleeping individuals with the goal of extracting information from their subconscious minds, generally while the target, as well as the extractors, are sedated (meaning that everyone in this film spends a good amount of time hooked up to what are essentially subconscious dialysis machines). Heists that take place entirely inside heads, in other words. It's an idea that is instantly reminiscent of The Matrix
, with its notions of "jacking in" and the blending of reality and fantasy, but Inception
manages to stay a goodly distance from such comparisons by making the world of the dreamers grounded very much in reality.
There are a bevy of rules and regulations relating to insertion into dreams, which the first hour of the film is dedicated to fleshing out, very occasionally with some clunkiness. The main twist is that dreams can be multi-leveled; you can sedate someone, force them into a dream, then sedate their dream selves again and force them into a deeper
dream, so as to confuse their subconscious and more readily extract the information you require. The reason the film is called what it is, however, is that Cobb and Arthur are eventually hired to do the opposite of an extraction: "inception" is the notion that, if you plant an idea deeply enough into the subconscious of a target, they will wake up thinking that the idea was theirs, effectively allowing you to implant sometimes harmful ideas without leaving a trace.
Of course, any movie that takes such pains to set out its system is going to throw complications into the works, and the second half of the film does precisely that, as set pieces occur inside set pieces, with the scenes inside a gravity-disordered hotel being among the most entertaining in the entire film. This is where things get complicated, as you might imagine, since each layer of the dream takes place in different locations and each layer takes place simultaneously, but Nolan charges forth and is confident enough in the intelligence of his viewers to keep up that you're left dizzied and enthralled by the proceedings.
That's about as far as it's appropriate to go on Inception's storyline without venturing into territory that you're better off exploring for yourself (by which I mean to say: see this film before learning too much about it). Nolan has obviously spent a tremendous amount of time simply thinking out the logic of Inception
's world-building process and what the possible ramifications of multiple levels of dreams might be; the conclusions he draws are intriguing, to say the least, but, again, he never uses the fact that his characters are dreaming as an excuse to bend the rules that he's set up.
If anything, it might be said that the dreams in this film don't go quite as far as they could have; aside from the city-twisting exercise that Ellen Page
's character Ariadne (a name that's a little too on the nose) creates, most of the dreams are built so that the target is not capable of recognizing them as dreams, and as such they tend to be grounded in reality and not the crazy dreamspace that all of us enter when we sleep. That's a conscious choice, and Nolan embraces it by largely avoiding the use of CGI in favor of practical effects whenever possible. Those hotel hallway fights with Gordon-Levitt flipping off of the walls, for instance, were filmed in a set that simply rotated around its long axis; it's this marriage of avant-garde concept with the ability to bring it to the screen in a believable visual form that is one of the more exciting things about Inception
So, the film is well-imagined, but that wouldn't matter very much if the ensemble cast wasn't up to the game; luckily every actor brought on board slips right into their characters. DiCaprio dials down his Shutter Island
tics and quirks somewhat as Cobb, but still manages to give the impression of a man who's barely keeping it together, for reasons that are explained when you meet his wife Mal (again with the names that are a bit too on the nose). That Marion Cotillard
is excellent should be no surprise to anyone who saw her in La Vie En Rose
or Public Enemies
, but her eerily sinister performance here fits into the late-movie revelations about her character in a way that makes you appreciate it all the more in retrospect. I'll admit to having a bit of a boner for Gordon-Levitt, but even so, he often winds up stealing the scenes he's in as Cobb's slick partner with an understated sense of humor. The rest of the (large) cast are all superb (with Bronson's Tom Hardy
and the always phenomenal Ken Watanabe
being particular standouts), although it does feel as if, even with a running time of almost 150 minutes, there might be one or two characters more than the film needs.
has weaknesses, they are relatively minor when compared to its strengths. This is at times a self-consciously serious film, with relatively few moments of humor (although what few there are are genuinely amusing, especially when Gordon-Levitt or Tom Hardy's characters are on-screen). It also dabbles a bit too often in the obvious trappings of dream-related films, with locks and safes and mirrors and keys and all the various Freudian symbols that we've seen in countless other films about the subconscious.
But again, those weaknesses are hardly distracting when you're actually viewing Inception
, which is easily among the best films of the year thus far; even if it does present its ideas very seriously, it is at times difficult not to giggle with glee when you realize not only how the movie is manipulating you, but also how much you like it. Like a Russian nesting doll, this is a film that sets itself up with dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams, but still offers a genuinely convincing explanation for everything that occurs. But, most importantly, there's just enough of a mystery to leave you wanting more, and enough unanswered questions to make you want to see the film again almost immediately. And when was the last time you could say that about a movie?