Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard. (2010, PG-13, 149 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 16, 2010
Writer/director Christopher Nolan is a brainy filmmaker, no doubt about it, but I’m not sure he’s a terribly philosophic one. Inception, Nolan’s first film since the eye-rollingly overpraised The Dark Knight, is a mind-bender bearing superficial resemblance to other question-reality manifestos like The Matrix and Synecdoche, New York, only minus the giddy pop psychology of the former and the me-myself-and-I (or is that "the It, the I, and the Over-I"?) self-seeking of the latter. Strip away Inception’s central conceit – that humans can experience shared dreams, and that nefarious deeds may take place while we’re poking around in one another’s subconscious – and what you’re left with is, in essence, a heist movie, with all the familiar tropes of the genre: a conflicted leader who behaves immorally, but for righteous reasons; his assembled team (here, temperamentally and ethnically diverse); and that one last job that almost certainly promises our hero’s undoing. DiCaprio plays Cobb, the lead of a crew that traffics in a unique kind of corporate espionage in which they design a dreamscape, then trap, say, a CEO into said dream in order to extract highly sensitive, highly profitable information. That’s what the team usually does – extraction – but early on, they are hired to do the opposite: to plant an original idea in the head of an heir to an energy conglomerate (Murphy). Inception is unproven – though not untested, Cobb grimly suggests – and in order for it to work, Cobb’s team determines they will have to go much further than a shared dream, but rather, into a dream within the dream within the dream. That means that at one point, Nolan thrillingly juggles in tandem almost a half-dozen loci on the time-space continuum... and that’s why you can’t discount the novelty and dazzling invention of Nolan’s premise. Certainly he’s an able action director, but via this dream anti-logic, he’s written himself full license to hurl his film into exotic, often otherworldly locales defined by an altogether other kind of physics. Hurl, indeed: While there is, of course, that typically Nolanesque self-possessedness to the film, what endures is its sense of desperate tumult as worlds collapse, multiple ticking clocks go off, and a broken man tries, badly, to make reparations. Hans Zimmer’s characteristically assaultive score strikes the right tone: While logic tells us nothing could be less life-and-death than what happens when we dream, experience tells us otherwise. The terrors and ecstasies of our dream lives feel just as vivid, if not more, than what happens outside of REM. The problem with Cobb is that he can’t tell the difference anymore. DiCaprio’s Cobb isn’t so far removed from his shaky and grieving antihero of Shutter Island – and does the actor have some kind of contract rider dictating bronzer and an undernourished Van Dyke beard? – but his blend of unflappable cool and spittle-sob emotiveness is irresistible here. The rest of the actors are hardly afforded backstories, but Nolan has cannily cast a terrific assemblage of character actors, including Hardy, Gordon-Levitt, and Page, who are so watchable that the slightness of their characters comes off as economical rather than neglectful. Page, playing the newest member of the team, serves as proxy for the audience: As the rules are explained to her, so they are explained to us, and we share in her delight as whole worlds are built anew before our eyes. That delight somewhat dampens as we enter the film’s second hour – Nolan’s end-act pacing has always felt ponderous – but it’s not enough to ruin what is surely the most intellectually and viscerally engaging action film in years. The soul doesn’t stir, no, but everything else is wildly somersaulting.