After seeing Inception, Christopher Nolan’s excellent new movie, you might have trouble choosing a favorite scene. My pick is the scene where Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dream-infiltrating corporate spy, is training novice Ariadne (Ellen Page) how to build dreamscapes. Standing in a Paris-of-the-mind, Ariadne, a quick study, pulls a boulevard over her head like a blanket. Cars and pedestrians pass on the street above her. I said “Cool”, and for the first time in a while, I really meant it.
Inception follows a gang of thieves as they infiltrate the dreams of others, stealing knowledge and planting ideas. Of course this draws comparisons to The Matrix, but Nolan’s film is smarter, sleeker and far less pompous than the 1999 cyberpunk shoot-em-up. Inception is more Don Draper than Neo, buttoned-up and restrained, imaginative and ambitious. This is the most thinking you’ve done in a movie theater in a while.
While Nolan is most famous for his Batman movies, Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006) best summarize the preoccupations that follow him from film to film. In Memento, an amnesiac insurance adjuster struggles with his goldfish-memory to avenge murdered wife. Reality is whatever he can remember – and what he tricks himself into forgetting. The Prestige, a film about two rival magicians, is similarly obsessed with illusion and willing deception.
We, the crowd, are no stranger to self-deception. We suspend our disbelief and buy into the plot, craving twists, reveals and catharsis. The magicians of The Prestige used illusion to captivate their audience; the thieves of Inception use illusion to steal their secrets.
Cobb, played by an ever-game DiCaprio, is an extractor. He knocks you out, wires you up and infiltrates your subconscious to nab whatever you have locked away – which, in Cobb’s profession, is more often than not a business secret. His partner Arthur, an icy Joseph Gordon-Levitt, backs him up; Ariadne, the architect, builds a dreamscape favorable to the thieves. In Inception, Cobb is tempted into one last job: convince a young energy magnate (Cilian Murphy) to dissolve his father’s empire. In return, his employer (Ken Watanabe) will grease the palms necessary to let Cobb return to the U.S., where he’s accused of murdering his wife.
The plot strands – especially the centerpiece heist – are woven together with incredible precision. At one point in the movie, events are occurring on four different planes of reality (possibly more, depending on how you interpret the film’s ending scene), at different speeds. Dreams unfold within dreams. The subconscious mind is hoodwinked into turning against itself. Amateur hour this isn’t; audiences will need to work to keep up with Inception, though to Nolan’s immense credit, he makes it easier than it could be.
The Mad Men look suits Gordon-Leavitt, fresh from 500 Days of Summer, and Page proves (redeems?) her worth post-Juno. But their characters are placeholders in Inception, just people meant to do things capably and attractively; the film’s soul is invested wholly in Cobb. DiCaprio rises to the challenge, and the scenes he shares with Mal, his dead wife (played by a delicious Marion Collitard) almost give Inception a warm, throbbing heart – almost.
Nolan is nothing if not cerebral. The Dark Knight, with its uneven plotting but dazzling performances, is less restrained, but Inception is firmly in the tradition of Memento: a taut, stern movie where clever plotting and premise tower over character and emotion. Even at its most affecting – Cobb lingering for time immemorial in a dream-state where his dead wife still lives – Inception’s emotional tenor feels all business.
Slate’s Dana Stevens said the film left her cold. That’s fine with me; I wasn’t looking for warmth. Inception is a 148-minute mind game. It’s M.C. Escher meets Michael Mann’s Heat, and it manages to be powerful without being sappy.
Whether or not Inception’s chilly remove detracts from the film depends entirely on your expectations. For my part, I was one of the many seeking refuge from mid-90s temperatures inside an air-conditioned theater. I wasn’t looking to be encumbered, but entertained, dazzled, deceived. I wanted to see Nolan pull a white rabbit from an empty hat. He pulled several.