Believe it or not, the choice is far from simple: spend the rest of your life in a reality where you are hunted, hated, and humiliated, or disappear into a dream, into a realm of your own design, where you make the rules, you control the elements, and you impose as much happiness or horror are you want. For Extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio), that’s been the dilemma ever since his beloved wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) exited his world. Even better, his job actually allows him such an option. He works for a company that specializes in “subconscious security”, using a high tech device to synchronize states of sleep with their marks to allow for some secret, subversive espionage. It’s all part of the puzzle box currently constructed by the brilliant Christopher Nolan. Entitled Inception, this truly remarkable movie represents imagination of the highest order conducted by a true master of the art of motion pictures.
Unable to return to America and reclaim his past (as well as his children), a psychologically distraught Cobb eventually agrees to one final dangerous “last” mission. Influential Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants to target a rival corporate concern run by dying patriarch Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite) and his son Robert (Cillian Murphy). The plan – use Cobb’s complicated dream infiltration system to implant an idea in the younger man’s mind. While not impossible, it is the most difficult of all the dream maneuvers. For it to work, Cobb and his ‘point man’ Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must find three new team members – a chemist (Dileep Rao) to mix the intense sedative needed, a ‘forger’ (Tom Hardy), who can mimic a key player, and an architect (Ellen Page), someone to design the complex new realm. With Saito along, the group will enter Robert Fischer’s mind, dig deep into his thoughts, and hopefully influence a major business decision. The stakes are indeed great – both professionally, and personally.
Sometimes, you fall too far down the rabbit hole – with no return in sight. One’s grip on reality is already tenuous at best, a series of spiritual and technological links convincing you that what exists around you is all too real. But what is real? Is a dream not real? Is it not an actual projection of your subconscious, an alternate existence generated by the mind to give sleep a cognizant state as well? Artists have long struggled with the connection between the waking and the somber world, and no one has taken up the challenge quite as well as Christopher Nolan. Inception is a masterpiece, a work of deep wonder that unveils its many intricate levels in slow, deliberate delights. This is not a hurried film, thought it has a time sensitive heist at the center of its plot. It is also not a overly complex film, though the entire set-up and situation soar through various levels of interlocking intricacies. Instead, Nolan uses the mind map as a means of playing with audience expectations, of luring the typical Summer movie viewer into a blockbuster made up of big ideas, not big explosions. Luckily, the payoffs are just as magnificent.
Nolan is blessed to get Dicaprio at the top of his game (between this turn and his work in Revolutionary Road and Shutter Island, the 35-year-old actor has visibly matured – and gotten significantly better) and then surrounding him with a more than capable cast, Nolan is out to push the boundaries of his craft, to use the standard science fiction motifs to explore concepts like loss, love, the importance of memories and the value in faith. It’s reminiscent of what Danny Boyle offered in Sunshine or Darren Aronofsky did in The Fountain – speculation that doesn’t forget the human face. This is a movie that’s about much more than the mechanics of its 3D chessboard plotting – in fact, it’s quite sinister in that regard. While characters walk through collapsing cityscapes and fight inside weightless hotel hallways, Nolan keeps questioning: Cobb’s motives; his new architect’s concerns; Saito’s credibility; Robert Fischer’s real issues with his father. It’s those tempting tidbits that last longer than the F/X turns.
As the various ideas bubble and brew, as each cinematic sip offers an experience more satisfying than the next, Inception places all its bets on one final gambit – that we will care about Cobb and if he ever gets his old life back – and then reinforces that sentiment with a series of confrontations from the character’s checkered history. Marion Cotillard, as the personification of his many mistakes, is so sinister, so unpredictable in her delicate destructiveness, that we cringe whenever she arrives onscreen. She like somnambulist napalm, sticking to everything she comes in contact with. Even better, Dicaprio’s newly discovered rage, a performance facet her barely utilized in the past, puts her constant threat in even greater perspective. Toss in Hardy who breaths fresh air into the sometimes stuffy exposition and Page who’s geek gal perkiness prepares us for the worst, and this actors earn their asset status.
At its heart, Inception is about dealing with death – the death of a loved one, the death of an empire, the death of normalcy, the death of guilt. By setting this notion within the everchanging dominion of dreams, Nolan can find fresh ways of getting us involved. The action also helps. The director proved with both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight that he can put grand stunt spectacle onscreen and Inception is loaded with such electrifying moments. The last act storming of Fischer’s snow covered encampment is a high altitude war movie wound inside a physics-defying watch. Similarly, Gordon-Levitt gets the Neo treatment as his Arthur takes on an army of consciousness projections, defying reason and gravity in the process. Early on, Dicaprio tries to escape a Japanese stronghold with similarly super results, and throughout, Nolan uses his broad, epic canvas to turn the commonplace into the extraordinary, the routine into a real manifestation of a world locked deep within our own head.
Even the quietest moments work well here, the small conversations that avoid science speak jargon and outsized lingo, or the sequences where Dicaprio wanders around the limbo like landscape he “built” with his late wife. Since he doesn’t make it easy for us, since we can’t simply shut off our brains and be entertained mindlessly, Nolan appears aggressive – and arrogant. In fact, such defiance in the face of a studio system which demands easy demographical access and cliche-collecting convenience must be wholly unnerving to the powers that be. Such unmitigated gall. What they really should be is stunned by the artistic and aesthetic achievement at hand. Inception will probably go down as one of the odder additions to the annual May to August box office bonanza. While it might fail at the turnstiles, it will more than continue turning endlessly in your mind. It is one of the best films of the year – uncompromising and visually/intellectually stunning.