Hollywood, like many industries, likes to find trends and ride them like rented pack mules until they are well beyond dead. Take your talking animals and your spy genres (both popular these days), mash them together, and you get some abomination, like Cats and Dogs. Since people like comic books , why not find a marginal hero like Thor and make a movie out of that? Or, you know, since people liked the first Little Mermaid, why don’t we make 4 more?
But sometimes, there are creative people out there who have enough time, money, and influence to take a chance and make something original. What if toys were alive and acted of their own volition when we weren’t around? What if the world you knew was just an excellent re-creation in your mind, which is enslaved by robots? Inception, Christopher Nolan’s 10 year pet project is one of these original films, one that asks: What if you could control the dreams, and thereby, the thoughts or beliefs of others? The film opens in medias res, with DiCaprio’s character, Jack Cobb, lying prone on a beach somewhere. He’s dragged into a Japanese style house palace by soldiers, where he is confronted by a very old Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe). It turns out these two have a history.
What ensues is a raucous and complex narrative that demands you suspend your disbelief (not hard), and forces you to keep up (rare for a summer blockbuster). Cobb, it turns out, is an industrial spy, one that uses a particularly tricky form of espionage called extraction. Cobb enters his subjects’ dreams, and preys on their unprotected subconscious using various tricks and deceptions. It’s a startling idea, one that feels uncomfortably close to home when you first hear him explain it.
More complicated still is the act of inception – or planting a thought or idea in someone’s subconscious instead of stealing it. Cobb is tasked with this undertaking, and, after assembling his pirate’s crew which includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his close friend and stick-in-the-mud compatriot), Ariadne (Ellen Page, good as always, as the young dream architect), Eames (Tom Hardy as a “forger” or impersonator inside the dream) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao, as the chemist that keeps them sedated, allowing the team to go deeper into the unconscious), Cobb attempts to plant the idea of breaking up the energy empire of the father of Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy, otherwise known as Scarecrow from the new Batman movies). Sounds simple right?
And it almost is, except for some minor administrative issues, the secrets that lie beneath Cobb’s conscious mind, and the guilt he feels over his wife’s death. In a regular extraction, if you are killed in the dream, you just wake up. But it turns out if you are sedated while dreaming, as our heroes are, and you are killed inside your dream, you are thrown deep into your subconscious, into a place called Limbo, where your notion of dreams and reality are blurred, and where you can be trapped, seemingly, forever. Making this more complicated is the fact that time is distorted in the dream world. You can dream for only 5 minutes in reality, but that equates to an hour in a dream (20 times the time). Each level down into one’s subconscious multiplies the time lapse by 20 again. So 2 levels down, 5 minutes in reality is 20 hours, and so on.
What makes it even more difficult is that they find out that Fischer’s been trained to resist extraction, and the defenses of his self-conscious take the form of random security teams, loaded for bear. With the threat of banishment to the depths of their minds, and bullets raining down on them from all angles, the team ducks, dives, cons, punches, kicks, and shoots their way through the mission. It’s an intricate maze of events and rules that the viewer is compelled to follow.
Now, that’s not to say that the movie is without flaw. Nolan seemingly throws in new rules throughout the movie that dramatically shift the abilities of his characters. An egregious example is the idea of a fall. Our heroes use a fall in order to snap themselves out of a dream. Just like when you feel like you’re falling in a dream and wake up, so do our heroes. So when Yusuf rolls the van in dream level 1, how does that not equate to a fall for the others?
Some critics claim that the plot is too convoluted, that the movie makes you think too hard. Having seen this movie twice, I can only say that the plot is easy to follow and the concepts are startling in their simplicity – it is the rules that are difficult to follow. And even then, Nolan does a pretty good job in reminding you when you need reminding.
Also, there are times at which the furious following of the plot distracts you from enjoying the incredible CG images. I’m not sure if this is a flaw, as much as it is a coming together of story and image that make this movie an example of what movies can be.
All I know is that this is, quite easily, the best movie of the summer. Very few movies engage you on all levels – intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally. This one does it with subtle aplomb, while taking elements from spy and action movies. That there are full message boards of people debating, arguing, speculating on the meaning of a particular section of the film, or the imagery, or the last scene is a testament to how well this movie is created. It is a rare gem, involving a great cast, and a director who has become one of the bright stars of his generation. I heartily recommend seeing it.