Last week I wrote an article where I wondered if Christopher Nolan’s Inception would be the awesome head-trip sci-fi movie we were hoping for, or an overblown passion project that makes no sense. I’m very pleased to report that the verdict is overwhelmingly the former. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, though I’m not sure I could entirely ruin the surprises even if I tried.
The story follows Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, who specializes in a unique kind of information extraction: retrieving sensitive information by invading people’s dreams. He works with new technology and a crack team that includes Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao, and Tom Hardy. However, Cobb is having problems of his own: he is being haunted by his former wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who keeps invading his shared dreams and causing his jobs to implode, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. Now Cobb has a new assignment courtesy of a powerful businessman (Ken Watanabe): infiltrate someone’s mind and plant a whole new idea. If he can achieve this, he can finally find the redemption he has been seeking for years.
That summary doesn’t even come close to capturing this film. Entering the world of dreams is fertile ground for any imaginative filmmaker, and Nolan uses the opportunity to create a tale that bends time, space, physics, thought, and much more. In spite of the weird factor, Nolan keeps his audience invested by structuring the movie in a familiar way. Most of the Inception plays as a basic heist movie: there is a ragtag group of pros, each with their own specialty (tech geek, weapons guy, chemist, etc.). There’s the leader dealing with personal issues. There’s the intricate and seemingly foolproof break-in plan that begins to unravel almost immediately, forcing the team to scramble to salvage the operation without getting killed (or trapped in limbo, a concept I still don’t quite get but which sounded pretty scary anyway).
The movie is pretty light when it comes to hand-holding. The first ten minutes can only be deciphered on multiple viewings, with Leo and company in the thick of an operation with no explanation (until later) of what the hell is going on. Ellen Page (as Ariadne, recruited for her unique architectural skills) is basically the audience surrogate, or the closest thing to it. Leo explains the rules of shared dreaming to her, but she catches on pretty quickly and really doesn’t seem all that weirded out by it. There are a lot of rules to keep track of: your perception of time increases exponentially with each layer of dreaming (which creates a clever subversion of the ticking clock scenario); if you die in the dream, you instantly awaken (unless certain chemicals are involved); whoever is crafting the dream must be careful not to alert the subconscious projections milling about, lest they attack. As the situation in the main story escalates, the team must descend deeper and deeper into the dream world. You have to keep your wits about you; the movie demands a lot from its audience in these scenes, a challenge which makes the film more engaging. Any attempt to predict the plot eventually becomes less rewarding than just sitting back and waiting to see where the movie goes next.
If I have one real complaint about the movie, and I apologize if this sounds petty, it would be Ken Watanabe. Now, he’s a great actor, I’ve enjoyed his presence in every role I’ve seen him do including this one. But I kept getting annoyed whenever he talked and I couldn’t understand his accent, which was frustrating because he’s saying some pretty important things. This was enough of a recurring problem to warrant mention here.
Overall, Inception is exactly what this summer so badly needs.