Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe
Thank God for Inception because, other than a couple of smaller movies in limited release, this has been a very uneventful summer for me, movie-wise. Fortunately Inception was worth waiting for, as it's a smart, slick movie that engages the mind as much as the eye.
The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future when technology allows for shared dreaming and shared dreaming allows thieves to break into a person's subconscious to steal information. One such thief is Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is attempting in the film's opening minutes to extract information from a man named Saito (Ken Watanabe). The job is unsuccessful but Saito is so impressed with Cobb's work that he offers him a new opportunity. Maurice Fisher (Pete Postlethwaite), a powerful tycoon, is on his death bed and his son, Robert (Cillian Murphy), is about the inherit his empire. Saito wants Cobb and his team to venture into Robert's unconscious and plant the idea of selling off the pieces of his father's business. Though his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), insists that it can't be done, Cobb is persuaded to take the job after Saito informs him that he can pull some strings which would allow Cobb to return to the U.S., where he's currently a wanted man.
Cobb puts together a team which includes Arthur, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger capable of assuming someone else's identity in dreams, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect who will design the dreams. Since inception is more complicated than extraction, the process will involve dreams within dreams within dreams and since each dream level is more unstable than the last, the team also includes Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who can make a compound that will allow them to submerge themselves deep enough to enter the lower levels. The team goes under but almost immediately things begin to go awry. For one thing, Fischer has been trained to fight attempts at extraction and his subconscious fights back fiercely against the invaders. For another, Cobb is dragging along a lot of baggage in his own subconscious that threatens to derail the entire operation.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is a labyrinth of ideas, the density of which makes this a particularly ambitious film. Using Ariadne - who is new to the process of shared dreaming - as a surrogate for the audience, Nolan methodically sets up the rules of the unconscious state in the film's first half and then plunges us into action in the second half as level upon level upon level of unconsciousness first open out of each other and then collapse in. There is the threat that the characters will go too deep, that they'll submerge themselves so far that they'll be trapped in the unconscious indefinitely or that they'll no longer be able to tell reality from the dream state. Both risks are associated with Cobb who has essentially been to the other side and come back, though the things he left behind constantly threaten to pull him back. The final scene is ambiguous and already scores of theories have been put forth as possible explanations; this is a film that is obviously inspiring a lot of discussion and thought and I think that it's worthy of all of that effort.
The film has been described as "cold" by some critics and while I agree that it's cold, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Stanley Kubrick's films are cold and his coldest - 2001: A Space Odyssey which Nolan references here - is widely considered one of the highest achievements in film history. Besides which, I think coldness is entirely appropriate given the subject. If our unconscious is home to our baser instincts and our consciousness is tempered by our humanity, doesn't it make sense that it would get colder the deep you go? Just a thought.
Other criticisms of the film are, I think, more legitimate. There is a heavy handedness in terms of the naming of characters (aside from Ariadne there's also Mal, French for "bad" and the name of Cobb's destructive projection) and aside from Cobb, none of the characters is really fleshed out (though even that isn't necessarily a criticism, depending on your theory about the film). Still, Inception is an engrossing and often challenging film that makes up for whatever weaknesses it might have through the sheer force of its many strengths. I think it's safe to say that with this film and the rebooted Batman franchise under his belt, Nolan has a blank check to do whatever crazy shit he wants for the next ten years at least.