In Inception, Christopher Nolan has developed elements of some of his previous films—the action of Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), the haunting dissolution of certainty and questioning of reality of Memento (2000) and, to a lesser extent, Insomnia (2002), the intrigue of The Prestige (2006)—and gone beyond them to create a thoughtful, fast-paced, poignant new film.
Memento wasn't easy to watch, leaving the viewer with the almost palpable feeling that there's nothing to hang onto, no reality to life other than a thin and faulty web we fashion around ourselves from memory. Insomnia made it seem Nolan was so determined to make a more conventional thriller that he was willing to shunt his own concerns to the background, but could not let them go entirely. The Prestige continued his examination of what's real while playing with trickery, intrigue, and misdirection. The Batman films were energetic and dark, but the comic book franchise seemed to co-opt his talents in the service of something lesser, and inescapably hokey; unfortunately, he seems to be doing a third. But his experience in making those wasn't for naught. Inception is a film that drives on constantly, but without ever presenting pointlessly frenetic action or eye-popping fantasy for their own sake.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert in navigating people's dreams and their dreaming minds, and uses that expertise to obtain their secrets, an illicit practice called "extraction." In trouble with, and hunted by, his last employer, a huge corporation, for a failed job, and unable to return to his young children in the U.S. because he's wanted for a crime, he takes an especially difficult assignment from the head of another huge corporation to perform not an extraction but an "inception:" inserting an idea unobtrusively into a dreaming mind. In this case, his employer wants the head of a rival corporation to decide to break up his business. This operation will require dreams within dreams, a technically difficult feat, as they're unstable; it's easier to lose oneself in deeper dreams; and the procedure will take more time than an extraction, and therefore requires sedatives that make death within the dream not a ticket back to reality but to submersion in the depths of a dreaming limbo.
Cobb assembles a Mission Impossible-type team of various experts, such as an architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design the dream (the victim is brought into it, but then populates it from his own subconscious), and Eames (Tom Hardy), a "forger"—one who can take on other forms in dreams.
The film has a natural sense of urgency and suspense throughout; Nolan uses many classic ploys to achieve it. First, his protagonist is in many kinds of trouble and faces several threats. Externally, the threats are large corporations and arrest in the U.S. In the dream world, the threats are projections—agents of the victims' subconscious reacting to a foreign presence. These are especially dangerous when the victim has been psychologically prepped against extraction, in which case the projections resemble the hostile corporate agents in the real world (not an accidental resemblance, I think). And in dreams—which Cobb can now attain only through drugs—he's also stalked by his projection of his wife, Mal, who murderously sabotages his operations. We learn their difficult story as the movie progresses. Though deeply attached, they have, out of need and/or misguided good intentions, mutually done one another in.
Suspense also arises from the protagonist having something at stake or at risk. Cobb has an enormous amount to lose, beyond professional success or failure. This is a "one last caper" movie. The payoff for Cobb is a fix of his legal problems and reunion with his beloved children. The actual "caper" takes place on a flight to the U.S.; if it doesn't work, Cobb will face arrest on landing. And even though we're in dreams, the violence is convincingly set up to bear almost more weight than it would in life, a threat to everyone in the dream, one for which Cobb bears a certain responsibility.
If this were just a fantasy action thriller it would be a standout, hard-driving and complex, consistently entertaining. But it's not just a kinetic series of exciting or fantastic images, a hyperactive body, if you will; it has a head and a heart. The head is concerned, as Memento was, with questions of epistemology and memory, of how we know what we know and how we can know and be sure of it, especially after the fact, given the pitiable frailty of the perceptions and memories we cling to as the sources of our world. The heart is concerned with passionate love and attachment, and with the desire to transcend limits, to explore the unknown, to risk and win—with concomitant desire, longing, loss, regret, guilt, and grief. These aspects are embodied in the "caper in dreams within dreams" scenario in clever and creative ways, to raise issues of just what can be at stake for us, how much we can risk and lose. The film takes these issues beyond their normal limits to a metaphysical realm where the possibility of loss is nearly infinite.
To take one aspect as an example (while struggling to avoid spoilers): to rescue not only a team member, but the one who can get him back into the U.S. without arrest, Cobb has to return to the lowest level of dream, where it is very easy to lose one's sense of reality, where time passes so slowly one can remain there for a virtual infinity. Because of his own hubristic wish to explore dream's deepest levels, Cobb and his wife once "lived" there for decades, and it's there that she—or her projection—wants him to stay with her. This recalls the hell where Robin Williams' Chris Nielsen was willing to forget himself to stay with his wife in What Dreams May Come (1998). But Nolan ties this tempting, dangerous, emotionally-fraught realm in to the immediate success of the caper, Cobb and Mal's tragic history, her murderous projection, Cobb's experience with "inception," the use of "talismans" to discern reality from dream, and the question of just what is real and how we know it that Philip K. Dick explored so often. It's impossible to pull one thematic or philosophic strand without drawing out the others; it's all brilliantly interwoven, like dreams within dreams within dreams.
The most immediate source of the film's unrelenting suspense is the "ticking clock" against which the action takes place. In fact, Inception has several interrelated clocks ticking all at once—a real life time window for the mental "heist" and several levels of dream time, in each of which time moves more slowly compared with the levels above. (There's a bit of handwaving in the explanation, but we've all had the experience of what seemed a long dream in a short period, and it's convincing enough.) By the time the movie's in full swing, with one whirling clockwork within another, like gearwork Matrushkas, it's as if one were watching What Dreams May Come within Where Eagles Dare within The Matrix within a Bourne thriller, all wrapped up in a Mission Impossible frame story, the whole of it written by Philip K. Dick. It all works amazingly well; it's a masterful job of conceiving, writing, and film-making.
The characters, and their actors, help hold it all together for us, but above all, DiCaprio's Cobb. At this point in his career, DiCaprio has added gravity and avoirdupois to his natural energy, intensity, and ready appeal as a leading man. He's a bit like a younger Jack Nicholson, but better-looking and without the mannered performances. Even though most of the supporting characters are not well-developed (we do get to see enough of Cobb's wife, Mal, in different situations, to come to know her pretty well), in most cases that doesn't matter; they are strong presences we hold to through the film's complications, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Arthur, who is with Cobb throughout. Only Ellen Page's Ariadne seems to be more than just "one of the team," either due to the part or to her performance, and to need more development. That doesn't come. The movie is really DiCaprio's, but he carries it easily.
There are tiny details that fail, although even here, there's sometimes a question whether we have slipshod movie making or a reference (even a sly reference) to the unreality of dream. Are the villains really bad shots, and the heroes good ones, and does this director really think that heavy-caliber bullets will ricochet off automobile bodies . . . or is the shooting ability of the "good guys" just a sort of Matrix-like power?
Once or twice the dream scenes look fake, if only for an instant. And there may be a bit of cheating toward the end, where it's key to a certain ambiguity Nolan wants to maintain that we not know the manner of transition from the final dream sequence to the film's final scenes.
For the compulsives who stay through the credits to the very, very end, there may be a clue to how to take that ambiguity in the final reprise of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (a song used as a psychological trigger for waking), and what happens to that music when it encounters the dark, threatening, vigorous theme Hans Zimmer has provided for much of the action. But perhaps not.
That, at length, is my estimation of the film. In case it's not clear, here's a more succinct take: Holy cow, this movie was good! Wow!
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over two hundred and fifty nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.