Inception

I think it is fairly well established at this point that Christopher Nolan is really damn good at what he does. His past work as writer, director, and sometimes producer of films such as Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight have demonstrated his particular aptitude for darkly brilliant films that often make you think just as much as you feel.

That same brilliance shines through again with his latest masterpiece, Inception, which I feel is one of the most intellectually stimulating “action” movies I’ve seen in a very long time. The film is nothing short of  work of art, but it avoids the pitfalls some “artistic” movies fall into by seamlessly blending its complicated ideas and absolutely stunning visuals with some incredible and intense action to keep you engaged for the entire two and a half hours it takes to play out.

Inception takes place not too far into the future, with the main noticeable difference being  several advances in technology that allows enforced sleep and manipulation of dreams. We are introduced to two of our main characters, Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the midst of a job. Cobb and Arthur are “extractors”, people who infiltrate the dreams of others to steal their deepest secrets. As we join them, Cobb and Arthur are trying to get the secrets of a wealthy CEO named Saito (Ken Watanabe) in an act of corporate espionage, but the extraction is apparently foiled thanks to interference by Cobb’s ex-wife Mal, and Arthur and Cobb find themselves on the run from their employer.

Saito tracks Cobb and Arthur down and tells them he will use his power to make all their problems go away if they can perform a nearly impossible task for him; the titular Inception, the process of implanting an idea in a dreaming mind so subtly the dreamer will believe the idea was theirs. Cobb, who is desperate to “go home” for reasons the movie gradually reveals, accepts the job. To pull off such a risky operationm, Cobb expands his team, adding a Forager named Eames (Tom Hardy), who can fabricate things and his own appearance in dreams to manipulate dreamers, a college student Architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page) who will build the artificial dream-worlds the team will draw their target into, and a chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao) who will be using various compounds to induce a sleep deep enough to add two additional levels to the dream to pull off an Inception.

Ariadne acts as the audience surrogate for this film, understanding some of the basic concepts but needing the more complex dream cosmology explained to her, so we learn a few complicated but important facts about dreaming with her. Time is distorted within a dream, so five minutes outside will seem like an hour within the dream. Space is more malleable, as Ariadne discovers when she folds a dream-city in on itself and takes a stroll through streets in the sky, but this has its dangers; since a Dreamer fills the dream world with projections from their subconscious to act as people, these projections can become aware of an alien presence in the dream if Ariadne or one of the others changes things too much and become violent. Dying within a dream will wake you up, but pain is a function of the mind, so it will carry through. To escape a dream without dying in it requires a “kick”, a sufficient misbalance to the sleeping body that the person jerks themselves awake. It’s in this section we are also introduced to the idea of “totems”, a method by which someone can test whether or not they’re in a dream; Cobb makes use of a top that will never stop spinning in the dream world, while Arthur has a weighted die that will always land the same way except in a dream.

As the team prepares to start their mission, however, Ariadne makes some disquieting discoveries about Cobb; the top he uses as a totem used to belong to his wife, but Mal has been dead for some time while Cobb is accused of murdering her. The Mal encountered earlier in the film is a projection of her from Cobb’s subconscious who will do everything in her power to sabotage the mission if Cobb (and by extension, she) knows the details.

The mark for the Inception is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) the son of a dying energy tycoon. Saito is concerned that his company will establish a monopoly on energy if the empire passes to Fischer intact, and so wants Cobb to give Fischer an Inception that will convince him to break up his father’s company. We see a little of Fischer before the mission begins, which shows us he is a somewhat troubled man with a strained relationship with his father.

With the exposition out of the way, the true action begins as the team boards Robert’s 10-hour flight and successfully puts him under to begin the operation, but things go terribly wrong only a few minutes in; it turns out Fischer has been trained to defend himself subconsciously against Extractors, which means the subconscious projections he fills the dream world with include a heavily armed private army trying their best to kill the team. This unexpected twist prompts Cobb to reveal another important piece of information he’d been keeping from the others; at the level of sedation required to have three levels of dream, simply killing oneself will not be sufficient to escape. If anyone real dies in the dream, their mind will be trapped in Limbo, a deep level of dreaming where time and the person’s understanding of reality are distorted, risking being trapped for what feels like a very real eternity for the dreamers. What follows is an epic game of cat-and-mouse on three separate levels of dreaming as the protagonists evade Fischer’s projection guards and try to lead him to the third level and the inception they’re trying to plant while Fischer’s subconscious and Mal attempt to stop them. While I’m not entirely sure a movie like this can truly be spoiled, I will be ending the plot summary here to avoid that possibility. You’ll have to watch the movie to see what happens from there.

I thought Inception was one of the most brilliant movies to come out in a long while, and Nolan has had some tough acts to follow before that. This is really Nolan’s greatest triumph as a director and a writer, surpassing even The Dark Knight. The story is original, complex, and intelligent, the dialogue is great, the emotions and soundtrack craft atmosphere fantastically, and the stunning visuals and dream cosmology established mix seamlessly with the action to lead to some really fascinating chases and fights. The layered time and space of a dream within a dream within a dream impressed me so much my sister told me I started laughing inside the theater. I believe all filmmakers can take a lesson from Inception, and hope that Nolan daring to push the envelope with such an intellectually stimulating blockbuster will help film evolve just a little further.
Do you need to see Inception twice to really get it? I don’t personally think so. Would seeing Inception multiple times enrich the experience dramatically? In a word, yes. This is an incredibly subtle movie with various little details that can help make sense of the at times ambiguous plot and cast certain scenes in an entirely different light. In some ways, I feel Inception is not merely commenting on dreams as it discusses the boundaries between dream and reality, but also on film itself. By presenting challenging concepts to us, is Nolan in fact performing an Inception on his audience by making us question our certainty on the exact boundaries of fantasy and reality?

I cannot be as subtle as Cobb or Nolan in trying to plant this idea in your mind; go see this movie.

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