'Inception': A Dream Thriller
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Christopher Nolan's "Inception" has been positioned for a while as the summer 2010 movie for which we've all been waiting. And it is startlingly good, even set against a background as dim as 2010's big studio films. It's an expensive, expansive emotional film, a nested set of tricks and stratagems with parallel plotlines leaping tracks to affect each other. It's a can-we-do-it caper film combined with a moody, brooding examination of the mysteries of the human heart. It is full of nods to other films, and to filmmaking, but also a uniquely personal work. It has all of Nolan's strengths, and some of his weaknesses, and it is undeniably his. It is the most exciting studio action film since 1999's "The Matrix," and has a slightly suspect similarity to the Wachowskis' brawny brain-bender. It is a $160 million action film about loss and regret, and it is exciting in part because of its flaws.
All you need to know about "Inception" on a plot level is that in a future five minutes from now (or, for that matter, now), a high-tech device allows collective shared dreaming. Hook everyone up to the box and you're in one person's dream. There are rules, and there are dangers, and you don't travel without baggage. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional dream thief who assembles teams to steal secrets out of slumbering heads. Lately, his subconscious break-ins are being disrupted by his own manifestation of a memory-vision of his ex-wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A wealthy client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires Dom to pull a job that is exactly like the other dream-heists he's pulled and absolutely unlike the other dream-heists he's pulled, with the promise of the one thing in the world Dom wants most as the reward for a job well done.
Or, as was said in "Heat," "Risk versus reward, baby." "Heat" is a big influence on Nolan -- he clearly admires Michael Mann's brute, brooding urban operas -- but there's also Kubrick in the mix here, and a nod to the majesty of the Bond films. "Inception" is a film that uses individual dreams to look at our collective dream of the cinema. It also, like "The Matrix," neatly side-steps the challenge of filmmaking in an age where any action scene can be made so cool as to be completely unreal by redefining reality itself around the action. Dom's team is a slickly scrappy dreaming half-dozen: veteran right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), new-recruit "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page), clever chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), man-of-action "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy, scene-stealing with a smile) and moneyman Saito (Watanabe). There's a plan. The plan goes wrong.
And yet for all of the brilliant action bits and heist-film clockwork, we keep coming back to Cobb, who cannot escape his wife (Cotillard doesn't just show up in the dreams but actively tries to disrupt Dom's plans, a glamorous expression of the self-sabotaging id) because he cannot let her go. That bold big-screen special-effects sentiment and sensitivity makes "Inception" stick emotionally -- dreams are a place where you can literally be trapped in your feelings, a place where your guilt will literally kill you.
Nolan might be a bit too frigid and formal in his screenwriting to convincingly blend high emotion with high production values throughout his direction -- but, considering how easily "Inception" could have become as mawkish and muddled as "What Dreams May Come," or as campy and empty as "Dreamscape," a little cold detachment sounds refreshing. "Inception" plays like a greatest-hits record of Nolan's work: It has the cityscape spectacles of "Following" and his Batman films, the psychological twists and cuts of "Insomnia" and "Memento," and the showy storytelling savvy and structural sleight-of-hand of his underappreciated "The Prestige." But it also works as its own film, and as a film unlike anything else Nolan's made before, mixing the mournful moods of his small indie films with the scale and sweep of his big-budget studio movies, aided by a host of collaborators he's worked with before to considerable effect, notably cinematographer Wally Pfister, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith.
"Inception" ultimately plays out as if Philip K. Dick (whose novels inspired "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall") had taken steroids instead of speed -- a movie of muscular metaphysics, an emotional epic, a tear-jerking thrill-ride. Nolan's psychological playground has both dream logic and dream illogic that can be slippery to wrap your head around. I'm still puzzling over some of the film's plot twists and revelations, but, at the same time, I am aware that I am not still musing over the narrative and symbolic elements of "The A-Team" or "Prince of Persia."
For all of its talk of dreams and guilt and sadness and undying love as both blessing and curse, "Inception" is also a very good espionage-action film --"The Freud Identity," or "The Jung Supremacy." It delivers popcorn thrills while trying to satisfy the tastes of moviegoers hungry for real feeling on-screen. "Inception" isn't as politically interesting as "The Matrix" -- which suggested that every aspect of modern urban life was the work of killer robots who hated us -- but it isn't as showily slick and facile, either. "Inception" is the best big-studio film of the summer, perhaps the year, one that aspires to be a film that endures while also succeeding as a movie that grabs you with the fierce urgency of now. When it's over, it does in fact feel like a dream. Even better, it feels like a dream you can't wait to have again.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.