DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan
PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?
WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).
COMMENTS: I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one where I knew the viewer would plop down with their tub of popcorn knowing from the outset that I intended to screw with his perception of reality, would I start with a reality-based scene that turns out to be a dream sequence, or try a double pump fake out by starting out with a real sequence and trying to make the audience believe it’s a dream? As it turns out, in Inception it doesn’t really matter; with its dreams-inside-of-dreams structure, the story creates a world where there’s little practical distinction between REM sleep and waking life (except that the stakes seem much higher in dreams). The question in the movie isn’t really “is this a dream?,” but rather “whose dream is this?” Inception is a surprise movie, where the reviewer feels a duty to provide as few spoilers as possible; although frankly, due to the intricacy of the plot, the film may be effectively spoiler-proof. DiCaprio plays Cobb, a dream “extraction” specialist who enters others’ minds, manipulates their dreams, and steals their valuable ideas. A new client wants him to plant an concept in a billionaire’s brain; but implanting an idea (“inception”) is much more difficult than stealing one (“extraction”), because the subject must be fooled into believing he came up with the notion himself. Cobb, while dodging corporate goons who want him dead for his past thefts, globe-trots around the world gathering a team, consisting, among others, of a chemist to make the sedative drug that makes the dream intrusion possible, a confidence man who can act like people known to the dreamer (a “forger”), and someone who can construct a controlled landscape for the dream to play out in (the “architect”). For this caper, the architect, a whiz-kid prodigy named Ariadne on her first job (Page), turns out to be the most important secondary character. She’s the one who takes it on herself to investigate Cobb’s strange behavior, and discovers that his subconscious is so obsessed with the memory of his departed wife Mal (Cotillard) that he keeps causing her to materialize in his target’s dreams, jeopardizing his missions. What transpired between Cobb and Mal years ago provides the dream agent’s motivation and becomes the movie’s central mystery, creating as much tension as the question of whether the caper will succeed once the subject’s dream starts crumbling. The dreamscapes the plotters build are carefully controlled, and, despite variable physics, don’t look much like dreams at all; the movie plays with reality and dreams are its substrate, but it’s not at all dreamlike. The most visionary sequences involve Cobb training the tyro Ariadne in dream navigation techniques. He takes her to a conjured Paris bistro, then explodes the world around her; she then starts experimenting with altering dream reality and creating impossible geometries, mentally bending a busy city street at a right angle to the ground. When the team actually begins building the complex phantasmagoria to pull off the scheme, however, it’s surprisingly familiar, with little surreal feel. In fact, as the plot unfolds, it turns into a multilayered action movie rather than a “dream” movie; the target’s subconscious resists infiltration, and that resistance manifests itself as an army of imaginary soldiers firing upon the intruders. At one point, Inception becomes a Bond movie, to the third power; simultaneously, we witness a car chase down slick streets in a rainy city, a zero-gravity melee in a hotel, and a shootout on skis on an Arctic tundra, as the scattered team members battle on three different dream layers. Nolan also lays out elaborate and firm, if somewhat arbitrary, rules about what can happen in a dream mission, which further grounds the picture in reality rather than surreality. The action scenes cater to the blockbuster spectacle crowd rather than those looking for psychothrills or a mindbending trip, but the movie is assembled and manipulated brilliantly to appeal to almost everyone: it contains visceral thrills, startling CGI sights, an intense speculative premise, emotional depth, suspense, and a mystery to solve. Inception is, bottom line, enormously entertaining, without sacrificing brains or depth. Given Hollywood’s low standards, that’s an impressive achievement for a summer blockbuster.
I will add one cryptic “spoiler.” I kept waiting for a twist at the end of the movie, but it never came. Or did it? The final shot is ambiguous, and although there’s no strong reason to doubt the main storyline, minor curiosities throughout the rest of the movie could give the clever viewer the option of constructing their own alternate narrative. This type of resolution, which suggests a possible further layer to the story without making it explicit, works better in this case than an open-and-shut twist ending that would seal the correct interpretation away in a vault forever.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This extraordinary movie, a profoundly strange – and strangely profound – spelunking trip through the cavernous human psyche, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a corporate thief who specializes in “extracting” secrets from the minds of dreaming victims… If that sounds weird, just you wait; it gets weirder.”–Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)