Inception is brilliant. Even its flaws are brilliant—and without its flaws and a few evidences of self-mocking humor, I’m not sure I’d like it nearly as well as I do. For the first time ever, I walked away from a Christopher Nolan film—and a big-budget, effects-heavy one, too—with an actual sense of the filmmaker’s humanity. That becomes more curious to me in light of the film’s detractors complaining about its lack of emotion. I wonder if we actually watched the same movie. (But then I wonder the same thing about the supporters of Cyrus.)
Depending on your frame of reference, Inception may remind you of many things. It immediately reminded me of Marc Forster’s Stay (2005), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). At the same time, it differs a great deal from these. Stay is visceral and enigmatic, where Inception tends to be cerebral and hides its enigmas. There’s imagery that’s almost straight out of Eternal Sunshine, but the film that Inception most felt like to me was Synecdoche. It’s also inevitably going to recall Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but I suspect this is more coincidental than not. At the same time, there’s one level of the film where it seems to turn into Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but it turns out to be O.H.M.S.S. with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at its core.
All that probably sounds confusing and derivative, but Inception is ultimately neither. Complaints that it’s hard to follow—with its levels of dream states—don’t surprise me, but also don’t hold true for me. I don’t recall ever having any great difficulty understanding what was going on. The story’s science—or lack thereof—doesn’t interest me. (I leave that to the nerdier fanboys, who want to come up with definite “answers” to what really happened without realizing that a large part of the experience lies in personal reading.) I’m willing to simply accept Nolan’s premise and go with it.
The premise—reduced to its simplest (ha!) level—involves Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who has taken industrial espionage to a new level by invading a subject’s dreams and accessing the dreamer’s secrets in them. He is also a man with issues and a central problem, the latter involving a desire to go back home to the U.S. and his children, but that’s thwarted by the fact that there’s a murder charge hanging over him for supposedly killing his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). An opportunity arises to change that when an influential and wealthy industrialist, Saito (Ken Watanabe), promises he can and will settle things if Cobb can go into someone’s dreams and plant a thought rather than extract one. Specifically, he wants to plant the seed in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to break up his dying father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) business empire. Conventional wisdom—generally expressed by Cobb’s prosaic-minded assistant, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—says this is impossible. Cobb says otherwise.
A large chunk of the movie consists of setting up the concept combined with a fairly traditional variation on the heist film structure of assembling a crack team for the purpose. Nolan here offers us an interesting blend of popular moviemaking and art-house fare. It’s actually one of the best commerce and art balancing acts I’ve seen in some time. One thing that sets Inception apart—and this has troubled some viewers—is that it alters a key point in the heist scenario. Where the audience is normally kept from being able to quite grasp how it will work (the better to dazzle you with), here the participants themselves are being deliberately kept in the dark on several aspects. This results in a deliberate detachment from Cobb that makes him too distant for the viewer to much care about—at least during the first section of the film. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
Nolan has finally crafted a film—a wonderful puzzle of a film—with a strong emotional component. His previous attempts at doing so have always felt forced to me—like he’s going though the motions because he realizes he needs to, but isn’t really connected to them himself. Here, however, the ending scenes (especially one single line from a passport official) provide an emotional punch unlike any I’ve encountered this year. And I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with a single viewing. There’s more in Inception than I realize at this point. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.