Cinematographer: Wally Pfister
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
An exhilarating ride, from Genesis to Revelation
In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). How, then, to create a compelling movie where that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story? Director Christopher Nolan does just that with Inception, a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama. Nolan has amassed considerable directorial bona fides for the numerous quality blockbusters on his resumé, and he’s very clearly cashing in on that creative capital with his latest, a techno-thriller spin on the heist movie.
Shades of cyberpunk literature underpin the bones of the plot—in the not-too-distant future, a military-developed machine allows users to plug-in and enter people’s dreams, whence “dream-sharing.” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an American expat jet-setting around the globe as an “Extractor” for one of the world’s superpower-status multinational corporations. Extractors glean secret and hidden information from people by breaking in to the one place they’re most defenseless: their dreams. After Cobb’s dream-raid on an phlegmatic Japanese CEO named Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes awry, Saito turns the tables on Cobb and hires him to use his skills against the soon-to-be CEO of a rival corporation (Cillian Murphy). And the dangled carrot is a promise that Cobb can return to his estranged children in the U.S. The catch? This time, it’s not Extraction he’ll be up to, it’s “Inception”—planting, not stealing, a memory.
All of Nolan’s films are meticulously directed, and Inception is no exception. Indeed, the measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and the gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail on Nolan’s part. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole.
Like any decent heist movie, Cobb has to assemble a scrappy band of genius-savants to pull off this robbery. DiCaprio devours his role with gusto, using his screentime to deploy an endless variety of knitted brows, grimaces and gesticulations. (Between this and Shutter Island, it seems he’s mastered the art of playing the tortured thirty-something.) Gordon-Levitt turns in a solid performance as Arthur, Cobb’s fastidiously-dressed partner in crime. And Tom Hardy plays his role as a caustic, latter-day superspy to the hilt, breaking up the film’s otherwise self-serious proceedings with some well-delivered deadpan levity.
Mercifully, Inception is short on “is-this-a-dream-or-is-this-reality” pseudo-philosophizing, allowing the near-Kubrickian visual stimuli to drive the exposition and action. And it works; the film never drags during its lengthy runtime, though the plot becomes mildly incoherent in its third act—events start to happen and characters make decisions for reasons unclear, or half-baked at best. But Inception’s characters—though memorable at times—are merely sounding boards for Nolan’s ambitious, no-holds-barred take on the nature of dreams and reality, the concealed and revealed, love and loss, and the way ideas behave like a virus. As Cobb and his team train for the heist and then delve deeper and deeper into their mark’s dreams (with degrees of consciousness arranged as “levels,” like a videogame) a rollercoaster of hallucinogenic special effects overwhelm the senses—objects of all sizes are created and disintegrate, staircases become infinite à la M.C. Escher, and entire cities bend, twist and explode into dust before our eyes.
Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work towards the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream.