Christopher Nolan's Inception is a summer blockbuster that doesn't act like one. Unlike so many of the tedious, one-note Big Movies that get released year after year, Inception has not only brains, but a heart and a soul as well. The fact that this sci-fier/thriller also offers fascinating special effects is like icing on the cake. They're not necessary, but having them makes the whole thing that much better.
In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a man who steals information for high-priced clients; his method is to enter people's dreams to extract data hidden in their subconscious. When the powerful businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers him a new job, Cobb sees an offer he can't refuse for it will allow him to return home to his children in America, where he is a fugitive of the law.
The catch is this: rather than extract an idea, Saito requests that Cobb perform an inception, that is, plant a brand new idea from within someone's mind. Specifically, the job entails planting an idea in the mind of the son (Cillian Murphy) of the CEO of his largest competitor. The CEO (Pete Postlethwaite) is dying, and Saito wants the company broken up so as to prevent it from becoming a monopoly.
Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of Cobb's associates, claims it can't be done. Cobb disagrees. "I've done it," he proclaims. But he won't say how or to whom.
Cobb is a man full of secrets, one of which is Mal (Marion Cotillard), his dead wife who invades his dreams with a mix of glaring rage and deep sadness. Cotillard's brilliant performance creates Mal as a figure that is both scary and tragic; and the more we see the two of them together, the better we understand both her and his pain.
'Classic heist movie' with a twist
Essentially, Saito's job offer sets up Inception as a classic heist movie, but with one twist: they're not trying to break into a vault to get something, but to put it in there. This twist alone imbues freshness to a genre that sorely needs it. That director-screenwriter Christopher Nolan goes much beyond the genre's basic formula makes Inception all the more gripping.
The way dreams operate in Inception is best explained by the film itself; having said that, as far as I can see the mechanics perform flawlessly within the film's framework – and I've now seen Inception three times. Nolan reportedly spent over a decade working on the script, and his care is evident. The way he constructs and then maneuvers through each dream, and then through dreams within dreams, is mesmerizing.
On a personal level, Inception has compelled me to think about my own dreams and how they work. How often do we actually know that we're dreaming? I'm reminded of Richard Linklater's Waking Life, which discusses the idea of lucid dreaming: dreaming with the knowledge that you're dreaming. Nolan takes this concept one step further, asking the question, "What if we could share lucid dreams with someone else? Or many other people?"
'Inception': 'Visually stunning'
Besides its intriguing philosophical issues, Inception is a sight to behold thanks to outstanding work by cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, and set decorators Larry Dias and Doug Mowat. Yet, what makes Inception visually stunning are its special effects, for Christopher Nolan relies not on odd or fake-looking computer-generated images, but rather on old-fashioned real stunts.
That is not to say that CGI isn't employed at all, but that when it is, it is done effectively – not for cheap thrills or to save money. Scenes like the one where a hallway spins while characters have a fistfight, or another in which the city of Paris folds in over itself like a puzzle piece fitting in place are both well-crafted and amazingly fresh in a day and age when dazzling an audience is near-impossible. After all, with the advent of CGI the magic of special effects has become less and less "magical." Nolan, however, allows us to once again feel impressed by incredible and incredibly well-realized visual effects.
'Inception': 'Not perfect,' but 'indelible experience' all the same
Admittedly, despite its many virtues Inception is not perfect. For a movie about dreams, it's surprisingly straightforward as its first third is filled with what some could easily consider "too much exposition." After all, we're talking about dreams. How often do we ourselves understand the dreams we have? In fact, our own dreams are at times impossible to even conceive of in our waking minds; Christopher Nolan's dreamworlds are all too clear.
But maybe this is a misreading of the movie. Nolan doesn't seem as interested in trying to make the audience feel as if they're in a dream as he is in using dreams as a means to manipulate the characters and the story to accomplish tasks that would otherwise seem unbelievable – or downright absurd – in the real world.
Ultimately, what can be said is that Inception is an indelible experience. In today's movie world, computers make it easier to create L.A. imploding upon itself than to show us believable human stunts. Inception, however, reminds us that it's not the scale that matters, but the effectiveness of what we see. It's a film that looks like a blockbuster, while showing us it has an awe-inspiring brain to go with its brawn.
In Inception, Christopher Nolan has given us a movie that is both immensely entertaining and thought-provoking. Let's hope he gives us many more.
© Nathan Donarum
Inception (2010). Director and Screenplay: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Lukas Haas.
Photo of Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan's Inception movie: Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.