There is something new to dissect and digest in almost every scene of Christopher Nolan's Inception, a film made with so much bravura that it's hard to dismiss any part of it. A near-perfect heist movie, a near-perfect sci-fi movie and a near-perfect film noir, Inception is the work of an absolute clinician in total control.
The only drawback is that watching Inception means consciously watching Christopher Nolan work—and he may have been such a perfectionist here that he drains out a little of the joy of watching the movie.
Some have compared Nolan's latest to the work of Stanley Kubrick. The tone of the film—and the high-wire act the filmmaker walks knowing that there's a definite risk of failure—is reminiscent of Kubrick. And, in fact, Inception has some of the fingerprints of Kubrick's The Killing on its most basic structure.
However, a comparison of what Nolan is attempting to do—even to the work of a great filmmaker like Kubrick—isn't fair to what is one of the most technically accomplished films you'll ever see. Original storytelling, original stunt work and original visual effects add up to a disorienting experience, and yet, Nolan takes great pains to make sure that the plot, its characters and its unique world make perfect sense throughout—although it still requires a massive amount of explanation, so complex is Nolan's story.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants nothing more than to get home to his children. He's half a world away, constantly working and waiting for the day when he can finally return. He's offered one last job by a powerful client named Saito (Ken Watanabe). Cobb is a thief of sorts; he breaks into people's minds and steals their deepest secrets, using a method called Deception.
The dream state is chemically induced, and is shared by a team, just as there would be necessary collaboration during a bank heist: someone to plan it, someone to be a decoy, someone to crack the vault, and someone to drive the car.
For every five minutes Dom is under, an hour of dream time elapses. Supposing the dream went one level deeper—a dream within a dream—those five minutes would buy Dom about 12 hours. That's a long time, which serves an extractor very well, because the world of the dream is completely constructed by an architect. In other words, all the world's a stage.
For Saito, though, this Deception is not nearly enough. Rather than steal an idea from his business rival, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy)—who stands to inherit the energy empire of his father—Saito wants Cobb to insert an idea into the younger Fischer's subconscious: to break up the corporation. In other words: Inception.
Cobb has attempted Inception only once before, with his late wife, Mal (a transcendent Marion Cotillard), though he does not want to share the details. Needless to say, Mal's death haunts Cobb, and since it's buried deep in his own subconscious, Mal features prominently in other people's dreams.
To build the world for Saito's stratagem and to execute the heist, Cobb assembles a team including a young architect (Ellen Page), a point man who does all the necessary research on Fischer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a forger who can falsify identities within dreams (Tom Hardy). The scheme is so extensive that the dream world eventually goes four levels deep and inspires a maddening race against time: As a van careens off a bridge in the first dream, the players have hours to work three levels below before seconds tick off the clock in the levels above.
Inception is clearly ahead of its time in many ways. It challenges audiences to think on multiple levels for more than two hours, and it can be exhausting. The illusion of creating a dream world—so ingeniously envisioned as a walk through a four-dimensional Paris with DiCaprio and Page—rewrites the rules of visual effects, making them narrative structures rather than simply visual ones.
Those visuals only matter if the execution of the plot and the development of the characters are worth watching, and this is the true strength of Inception. Bridging several genres by embracing their most recognizable elements, Nolan is able to create something brand-new, a film that won't be duplicated. Unlike many motion pictures that are so densely packed and detailed, Inception includes a series of magnificent performances. DiCaprio, normally a better character actor than a leading man, is the anchor, and Cotillard, Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are all excellent.
However, this is patently Christopher Nolan's achievement. And "achievement" is a word rarely heard in discussions about films, because so few of them actually do anything out of the ordinary. Inception does just about everything out of the ordinary, and, in fact, is built on it; there isn't a stitch out of place. But in a tangible way, Inception feels more like a film made for Christopher Nolan than for audiences. He has every right to be proud of it, though; it's an alarming piece of filmmaking, but maybe not a fully entertaining one.