“Inception” is a movie about dreams — a genre that is usually the cinematic equivalent of a sleeping pill.
The film is thick with exposition and explanation: Every line spoken by Ellen Page, for example, sounds as if it came from a technical manual. Long stretches are difficult to comprehend in a single viewing. Most of the characters are thinly sketched, defined only by their professions. The picture bears the same emotionally cool — some would say detached — tone of Christopher Nolan’s previous work (“Insomnia,” “Following,” “Memento,” “The Prestige”).
I absolutely loved every minute.
Nolan has been breaking the basic rules of filmmaking since the start of his career (who else has dared to make a movie that unfolded backward?) but “Inception” is, even by his standards, an audacious feat — a $160 million experiment that is the antithesis of his previous picture, the audience-friendly “The Dark Knight.” The phenomenal success of that movie earned Nolan the opportunity to make “Inception,” which is basically an art film told on an enormous scale.
Its brilliant marketing campaign, which began last summer, has succeeded in piquing curiosity mostly through startling images, without any explanation of what the movie was about. There’s a reason: Any attempt to summarize the plot would result in a rudely prolonged conversation. The basic premise: Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a self-described extractor who can invade people’s dreams and steal their deepest secrets.
But the powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe) who hires Cobb and his team wants them not to steal, but to plant an idea inside the head of a corporate rival (Cillian Murphy). Genuine inspiration is the hardest thing for an extractor to pull off, because the idea has to be buried deep enough so that the target never questions its authenticity. Cobb’s teammates say the plan is doomed, the assignment impossible, because it requires delving too far into the target’s subconscious. But Cobb claims he has pulled the trick off before.
How and when Cobb achieved that first successful inception is one of the many story points Nolan reveals gradually, at just the right moment, giving new meaning to everything you’ve seen before. “Inception” is the sort of film that requires you to place your trust in the director and assume that the befuddling puzzle before you will eventually make sense. The movie offers too many concepts and grand ideas to absorb easily. This one requires work. If you like it — and not everyone will — you probably will want to see it again. But even just one viewing makes every other action movie released this year look like an episode of “Elmo’s World.”
Nolan has gotten a lot better at directing large-scale mayhem since “Batman Begins,” in which the action was often incomprehensible. Sequences here, such as a car chase interrupted by the sudden appearance of a speeding freight train barreling down a Paris street, are so well done they rival prime Spielberg (they also occasionally echo vintage James Bond, an obvious inspiration).
“Inception” is filled with grand, astonishing sights (in a dream, Page folds Paris onto itself as if she were folding a sheet of paper) and small, ingenious bits (DiCaprio gets stuck in a narrow alley while running away from bad guys, and the claustrophobia is nerve-racking). Nolan pays as much attention to small details as to big ones. The movie is as carefully constructed as a Faberge egg. The last half hour, a dream within a dream within a dream, is a breathtaking marvel of editing and pacing, cutting back and forth among three realms, the events in one impacting the others. The effect tickles your mind, then blows it right out of your skull.
Even during its most complex sequences, “Inception” grips you tightly, and the actors, although stranded with stick-figure characters, give it personality. Marion Cotillard is particularly good as Cobb’s wife, who has a tendency to show up in dreams to antagonize him (but why?), and DiCaprio, playing the film’s only well-rounded character, anchors this giant spectacle with tragic, human-sized angst.
For all its psychobabble and discussions of “unconstructed dream space,” “Inception” can be enjoyed as a caper picture suffused with sci-fi and fantasy. The movie ultimately doesn’t resonate with meaning — it’s not really about anything profound, other than the sheer joy of unfettered imagination. But as a piece of grade-A entertainment, “Inception” is a knockout capped off by a final, tantalizing image that will undoubtedly be the best closing shot of the year.
M.C. Escher, Carl Jung and Stanley Kubrick would have loved this movie. Here, finally, is something you’ve really never seen before.
Three and a half stars
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Ken Wantanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine
Writer-director: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas Christopher Nolan
Running time: 146 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for vulgar language, violence and adult themes