Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Dileep Rao, Pete Postlethwaite, Lukas Haas
Running Time: 148 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
In Inception writer/director Christopher Nolan presents ideas so intriguing it seems almost impossible for him to completely deliver on them. Yet somehow he mostly does. When you arrive late to a hyped-up film after everyone has already seen and discussed it, spoilers are practically unavoidable (as are certain expectations) but now after finally viewing it, I'm confused as to what could even be spoiled. Anyone who hasn't seen it likely wouldn't understand what you were trying to tell them anyway. It's not so much that the plot is hard to follow, but rather it's just a lot to process at once and the undivided attention required nearly mandates a second viewing. That's not something audiences like hearing, but in this case it's really true. Once you get past that it's pretty cut and dry and even the much-debated final scene isn't really all that debatable. If you think about it, how else could it end? The fun in watching and re-watching Inception is to admire the ways Nolan puts all the puzzle pieces in place for us to arrive there. While it goes without saying this is a meticulously crafted science fiction think piece on every level, I still can't help but think Nolan again falls slightly short of delivering an all-out masterpiece. But that's probably just me being greedy. This is about as close as it gets.
The story, every bit as ambitious as you've heard, centers around Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dream extraction specialist who with the help of his right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enters the unconscious minds of his targets while they're asleep, invading their dreams and extracting valuable information for his corporate clients. Unfortunately many of Cobb's recent missions have failed, as the painful memory of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) infiltrates all his dreams, haunting him in the form of a subconscious projection. His only chance to return home" to the U.S. and reunite with his children comes in the form of an offer from Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) who wants Cobb to deliver the near-impossible in "inception," or the planting of an idea in someone's dreams. The mark is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) and the objective is to subconsciously give him the idea of breaking up his terminally ill father's (Pete Postlethwaite) energy empire. To do this he assembles a team to join him, Arthur and Saito consisting of dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), expert "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy) who can impersonate anyone in a dream and sedation specialist Yusef (Dileep Rao). The latter must determine the best method to put everyone under long enough to travel an unprecedented three levels deep (a dream within a dream within a dream) to perform the inception and then somehow safely bring them back. Of course, complications arise.
The best scenes in Inception come early when we're teased with all the excitement and potential possibilities the central concept has to offer and learn the very specific rules of the world the characters inhabit, which reflect our own preconceived notions and questions about dreaming. How do you come out of it? How do you KNOW you're out of it? Or in your own and not someone else's? How much time passes? What if you free fall? What if you die? The answers aren't what you'd expect and that second question is the foundation on which the film is built. And that isn't even to speak of the idea of planting a concept in someone's subconscious and all the potential ramifications of that, which are explored, shown and discussed in intricate detail, amazingly without ever slowing the narrative of the plot. How "the smallest seed of an idea can grow" in the mind is really the genesis for the entire story and Cobb's tortured, complex relationship with his late wife Mal is where the film gets its emotional and intellectual kick. As many have already pointed out, this main sub-plot bares much more than a striking similarity to another DiCaprio thriller from this past year, Shutter Island. Exactly how I can't reveal but even knowing a lot going in I was still surprised just how many details the two stories had in common.
Despite featuring one of the most talented ensemble casts in years, this isn't an actor's showcase, but rather an idea showcase where the actors fill certain utility roles that drive the story. No single performer runs away with the film as Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight. That opportunity just doesn't exist in something this plot driven, but if I had to choose, DiCaprio and Cotillard come the closest to doing it, since they have the deepest, most complex roles, and in the case of DiCaprio, the most important. He's probably given better performances but I can't ever remember him seeming as in command on screen as he is here, as Cobb alternates between leading fearlessly and completely losing his grip on reality. It would be a shame if this performance and the one he gave in Shutter Island cancel each other out in the minds of some because of their similarities since they're actually very different. DiCaprio is so consistent in a non-showy way in everything that many probably take for granted just how good an actor he can be. The memorably haunting Cotillard has the even the tougher role since scene-by-scene she has to adjust and act in whatever way the protagonist chooses to view her. Her character's essentially a fake projection, but she has to play her real.
Of the other supporting players, Joseph-Gordon Levitt (in maybe his highest profile role to date) was an inspired choice to play Cobb's point man since the actor always kind of seemed like a younger version of DiCaprio in terms of his acting style so watching them work onscreen together for the first time is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, JGL skillfully fleshes out what could have easily been a forgettable role in the hands of a lesser performer, and excels at intelligibly delivering a lot of expository dialogue. Some will undoubtedly criticize the casting of Ellen Page (whose contribution was about a thousand times larger than I expected) but for a change it's nice to see her playing a character who doesn't just think she's smart, but actually is. As our entry point into the story, she shares the film's most memorable sequence (the awe inspiring street folding scene), which serves as a lesson in dream building for her and a primer on the film's concepts for us. Tom Hardy has a smaller role as the forger but brings a lot to it, adding his quick wit and dry humor at unexpected moments. The always reliable Michael Caine has what amounts to little more than a cameo as Cobb's father-in-law and plays it as only he can while Tom Berenger (!) effectively fills the Eric Roberts "WTF is HE doing here?" spot as a sleazy business executive.
On an initial viewing the main job of Cobb's team seems like some of the same organized crime filler Nolan discarded bigger ideas for in The Dark Knight but a second, closer look reveals the corporate espionage plot to be an important cog in the machine that powers the entire plot and its themes. There's tons of action (my favorite: the third act Ice Station Zebra-inspired snow fortress shootout) but the script does an excellent job of always making it feel like there's something at stake despite all of this action taking place in a dream world. There are real world consequences to everything these characters do and we feel the weight of them throughout. This isn't in any way comparable to garbage like The Matrix which used its "ideas" as an excuse to pummel the audience with cutting-edge technology. Here's a screenplay that's actually about what it purports to be about all the way through and when CGI is used sparingly, it's for the right reasons, calling attention only to the story unfolding in front of us (the now infamous zero gravity hotel corridor scene being the best example).
The potential connection between our dreams, reality and existence (and where each begins and ends) is the driving force that propels the psychological journey of the film's tortured protagonist, as well as our own fascination with the entire concept of dreaming. The is one of the few science fiction screenplays where it actually seems as if a fair amount of of actual research was required to write it and it's a high compliment to Nolan that he bothers to invest a premise this fanciful with realistic, concrete details. It's becomes a completely different film on a second viewing and may just play differently each succeeding time after. It's also tighter edited, more focused and considerably less sloppy than The Dark Knight was. In a genre where it's often easier to copy then create, Nolan creates. Any way you choose to spin it, Inception is a huge achievement likely to loom larger each time you watch.