The lucid dreamer in me wants to hate Christopher Nolan’s Inception. My own dreams, since you asked, tend to revolve around mastering flight, and then impressing girls with it. Were I to encounter Leonardo DiCaprio in said dream, I would show him exactly how high I can go (this goes double for Ellen Page and quadruple for Marion Cotillard), and probably give some game away, as I’ve just done here. But the dreaming in Inception, prevalent though it is, is primarily a cipher for questions of illusion, identity and reality. There are no rabbits who talk with the voice of one’s dad to be found here.
This is, of course, the plot’s main conceit – Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) specialise in the extraction of information from the dreams of their marks, and the construction of unassuming dreamscapes is part of the job. When energy mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) contracts them to perform an “inception”, that is, to plant a single idea in the mind of another, things become complicated. Assembling a ragtag heist team, consisting of a dream architect Ariadne (Page), subconscious forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and sedatives expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the extractors embark on a dream-within-a-dream-to-the-power-of-x inside the mind of Cillian Murphy.
What proceeds is chiefly an action-thriller, with some brilliant set-pieces emerging from the film’s core ideas. The premise that the body’s movement in the real world affects the physics of the dream world is consistently applied with remarkable (and oft remarked upon) results. More notable, in my opinion, are the projections that populate these dreams – as Cobb describes them, “white blood cells”, which act to censor the foreign presences in the dreamer’s mind. Indeed, it might be argued that this psychological aspect of Nolan’s dream-world is underplayed, in favour of the reductive body-is-moving/camera-is-shaking spectacles. Further, the concept of warped dream architecture, supposedly Ellen Page’s specialty, takes a backseat to the proceedings but for one comic interlude.
But the sinister nature of these projections and illusions are incorporated into the film’s emotional drive, in the figure of Cobb’s deceased wife Mal. I’ll admit to being dazzled, as always, by Marion Cotillard throughout this film. She was the best thing in Public Enemies, the only good thing in Nine, and continues to exude an otherworldly, European-film radiance that makes my commenting on her performance irrevocably compromised. But her character is guilty of cinema’s cardinal sin. Citing Shutter Island, The Departed and Romeo and Juliet as precedents, I’d warn all fictional women that under no circumstances should you engage in a romance with Leonardo DiCaprio. Seriously. It just ends in tears. We at Schlock Footage are beginning to suspect that Titanic was an inside job.
Leonardo Bluebeard’s agenda aside, Inception is notable, in true Nolan style, for its treatment of well-formed characters and their reaction to the impossible. There are bumps, however, and in a film as big as this they’re bound to crop up. Cobb’s backup Arthur, despite Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise take on the character and his role in the plot’s heist mechanics, is arguably undeveloped by the script. At times the scenes are (necessarily) exposition-heavy, bordering on goofy slingshot-around-the-sun analogies. Of course, Nolan incorporates a complex set of rules into his standalone narrative, follows them thoroughly, and accomplishes technobabble in probably the most succinct way possible. There are some sequences of gratuitous violence (narratively, not morally), and there is a sense that some scenes could be compacted without hurting the plot, such as those revolving around Cillian Murphy’s godfather (Tom Berenger).
But, while Inception is imperfect, it is no doubt destined to be a classic. Few films display such an exploration of original ideas, Nolan’s mastery of setting and composition, or the unforgettable series of images produced by modern special effects. This spectacle is grounded by strong performances, a sensitive treatment of memory and fantasy, and an uncanny handling of time, space and sound. You don’t need me to tell you to see this film. See you in the stratosphere with an anonymous redhead.