Silver Screen: Inception ****1/2
Writer-director Christopher Nolan brilliantly marries the cerebral mystery of his earlier work (Following, Memento) with the spectacle-driven blockbuster action of his Batman films in Inception. In doing so, he manages to make not only the best film of the year so far, but also the most viscerally entertaining.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief with an intriguing specialty-- he enters the minds of his marks while they sleep and, by manipulating their dreams, steals valuable information. This dream-thievery has turned Cobb into a fugitive living abroad, separated from his children by an ocean and an arrest warrant.
It's for the sake of reuniting with his family that he agrees to take on the riskiest job of his career. A wealthy industrialist (Ken Watanabe) promises to have Cobb's record expunged if he can pull off the most difficult dream-feat of all: inception, which is to say not taking an idea from someone's mind but rather implanting a new one.
The target is Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to an energy monopoly whose dying father is about to bequeath him the empire. Cobb's task is to trick Fischer, via meddling with his subconscious, into making the capitalist prince want to bust the trust his father created. Doing so will require Cobb and his crack team-- including cohort Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), dream architect Ariande (Ellen Page), impersonator Eames (Tom Hardy), and chemist Yusef (Dileep Rao)-- to enter the volatile realm of dreams within dreams, where the layers of unreality begin to fold in on themselves and the risk of failure is a kind of permanent imprisonment within one's own mind.
It's even more elaborate than all that. Inception, which is chock full of effects and action sequences, demands as much attention and focus from the audience as any blockbuster in memory. Be warned: You simply cannot get up to pee, lest you risk being hopelessly lost. Even though it runs just shy of two-and-a-half hours, there's not an extraneous minute in the film, and each scene is densely packed with vital details about the science of dream manipulation and essential backstories about the characters, Cobb in particular. But that's not to say that Inception is willfully obtuse, just elaborate and intricately plotted.
The first of many smart moves Nolan makes is not bothering to overexplain the science of dream manipulation. Viewers spend a good deal of time learning how it works, as it pertains to the rules of the game, but not the whys; there's no notion of pseudoscience or overtechnical explanations. Viewers are simply thrust into an unidentified time (presumably in the near-ish future) and asked to accept the reality of Cobb's process, which Nolan concocts as a perfect blend of verisimilitude and trippiness.
Inception is purely plot-driven. There's precious little character development, and what of it there is exists entirely to serve the labyrinthine story. Only Cobb is fleshed out in any significant way, and even then it's debatable how much of his history is real, and also how many of the plot machinations are actually avatars of his true self. (The most interesting of his mental constructs is his recreation of his dead wife, played by the otherwise lovely but here menacing Marion Cotillard.) Inception invites several different interpretations, one of which is that the whole ordeal is an extraordinary shadow play of the figures haunting Cobb's mind. From the opening sequence there lurks the possibility that all of this is just a dream-- that great movie copout, which here might actually be perfectly reasonable and not at all a dodge. That said, all of these questions have more bearing on the movie as a puzzlebox rather than a character study. It's not so much thematically complicated as narratively complex, and it may be a valid criticism to say that the entire film has the same solipsistic aim as a Rubik's Cube, which is to say it exists only to be solved for its own sake.
One particular gripe that has less to do with the movie's function than its form is that Nolan, having set the bar so high in the first hour and a half with astounding visuals and a deep well of novel ideas, lets himself down a bit when he seems to run short of whizbang concepts. Having entered dreams within dreams, creating incredible, imaginative worlds explicitly labeled as within the imagination, Nolan defaults to some stock action tropes that thoroughly underwhelm by contrast. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'll simply note: Arctic commandos? Really?)
That said, Inception is fantastic. Nolan is absolutely firing on all cylinders, his multiple talents all working in concert seemingly at their zenith. It's a mindpuzzle as elegant as Memento (and the wonderful, low-budget Following) but also an overwhelming sensory assault that outpaces even the flashiest of the Dark Knight's genre fireworks. There are familiar elements here, sure-- the imagined masses as cannon-fodder à la The Matrix, Blade Runner's origami totem, and a supporting cast straight out of every heist movie ever-- but Nolan combines it all into something new, mesmerizing, and wonderful.