During a particularly gnarled strand of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where plot and exposition are delivered at a speed best reserved for those wearing appropriate crash gear, Ellen Page’s character — a quick-minded but childlike elf with the pointedly symbolic name of Ariadne — asks, “Now, whose subconscious are we going into now?” It gets a good chuckle from the audience, which at that point has been racing along with the characters as they jump from one level of dreaming to the next, fending off phantom guardians of the subconscious and struggling to finish a mission of world-shaking importance. From that point on, it’s every viewer for himself.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a mostly humorless dream thief for hire, or “extractor,” who gets paid to sneak into the sleeping minds to extract those secrets they hold most near and dear. It seems the kind of work custom-made for corporate espionage, as we see in an early sequence, where Cobb and his point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as buttoned-up in manner as his trimly tailored outfits) are trying to make themselves unobtrusive in a sprawling, super-secure oceanside mansion of Japanese design. They are trying to extract a secret from fantastically wealthy energy conglomerate executive Saito (Ken Watanabe), who is in fact only auditioning Cobb for a top-secret spy mission of his own.
For that mission, Cobb needs to pull together a crack team. As in most any heist caper, this leads to a deeply satisfying series of encounters in exotic locales, from the teeming bazaars of Kenya’s Mombasa to a quiet café in one of Paris’ quainter arrondissements. In these scenes, Inception feels close to a post-Bourne-era Bond film, with whip-fast chases and a casual air of jet-set skullduggery, enhanced by the succession of sleek designer hotels and high-end duds the cast is encased in. Cobb’s specialists (a chemist, a forger, and most importantly, an architect for building believable dreamscapes that the mark can loose themselves in) are assembled in due order, and then they get to work figuring out how to perform not an extraction but something unheard of in their rarified specialist circles: an inception, in which an idea isn’t stolen from the mark, but instead implanted, without the mark having any idea that the idea wasn’t theirs to begin with.
Once the true nature of Cobb’s mission is unveiled — it will involve penetrating three successive layers of dreams-within-dreams — the film turns into something else entirely. The mission is pursued with a summer blockbuster’s number of cliffhangers and slow-motion action sequences (a free-floating martial-arts battle in a gravity-free hotel corridor), but with a shimmering gloss of uncertainty around it all.
As with DiCaprio’s last film, the Scorsese phantasmagoria Shutter Island, the mystery his character is pursuing keeps getting tripped up by an unsolvable constant: his dead wife. The monkey wrench that keeps banging around inside Cobb’s coolly machinated plans is his memory of Mal (a haunting Marion Cotillard), a free-floating figment of subconscious vengeance determined to drag Cobb back to her dream-reality. Nolan’s film has a cleaner, less B-movie sensibility, however, made by much of the same team that gave The Dark Knight such a finely polished sheen. The wife is not the focus of this adventure, but rather, the idea of dream thievery.
Nolan’s conceit here is more revolutionary in its realization than initial concept. After all, 1984’s Dreamscape featured Dennis Quaid as a psychic who could scamper around in people’s minds as though he were Indiana Jones. But where the mental environment of Dreamscape was strictly pop-gothic, all flickering shadows and portentous symbolism that recalled Luke’s dark tunnel adventure in The Empire Strikes Back, Nolan’s world is less outré.
His explorers walk through their dream worlds like tourists out for a stroll, the landscapes around them sometimes shifting and bending into impossible forms (the infinitely descending staircase that Arthur shows off, or the distant Parisian city blocks that Cobb folds up on top of the one he’s currently standing on in one of the film’s more eye-popping moments). When they are chased or must do battle, it isn’t with demonic figures out of a Rorschach inkblot test, it is with elements of the subconscious (some subjects get mental training so that their minds can battle extraction) dressed and armed like corporate security heavies of any big action film of the last 20 years. The normalcy of behavior is so intoxicating that during one shootout, Arthur is plugging away at a target with a rifle, only to have his cohort Eames (a scene-stealing Tom Hardy, playing the team’s forger and bon vivant) sidle up with a repeating grenade launcher and gently admonish him, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
Nolan could never be accused of failing to heed Eames’ advice. A giant dream of dreams that was many years in the planning, Inception can seem overbaked at times, without the clearly delineated puzzles of Memento and The Prestige. One of the dreamscapes confronting Cobb’s team is cleverly conceived (the mark’s subconscious visualized as a wintry mountain fortress, with dark corridors and swarms of guards straight out of G.I. Joe), but the segment itself is somewhat lazy and repetitive. As well, the screenplay can sometimes fold into itself in seemingly unnecessarily perplexing ways. Still, it can also vividly parallel the experiences of the characters, who plunge so rapidly through so many levels of imagination that reality — itself an idea — begins to recede into a fog of second-guessing and Jungian archetypes.