My mind has just been blown.
Inception (2010), the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan, is a mind-boggling exercise of epic proportions. Not since David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) has a film left me so utterly speechless; I do not even know where to begin with this review. The film is a combination of all the best parts of The Matrix (1999), Memento (2000), Dark City (1998), and the television show Lost, put together in one spectacular whole. This is a film that will remain with you for days, trying to put all the pieces together. Even now, hours after watching the film, my mind is still racing, wanting to learn more. It is a film that must be seen to be believed.
***WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS BELOW***
The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, an expert thief (the same name as the thief in Nolan’s first film, Following (1998)). However, it is not jewelry or money that he is good at stealing, but ideas. He is a thief of the mind: Cobb has the ability to enter the dreams of others, and expose their most hidden secrets, the most buried ideas that one does not want anyone else to know; this is called “extraction.” Like an expert craftsman, Cobb can enter the world of the dreamer, navigate the perimeter, take down obstacles, and crack the safe with the slightest effort. This, of course, makes him a hot commodity for those trying to learn the private aspects of other people.
Things get interesting when Cobb is hired by a former target in Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of an energy corporation desperate to take down their main competition in Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy). To do this, Cobb must do the reverse of his expertise, and instead of taking an idea out of his target’s mind, he must place an idea in it: the idea for Fischer to take apart his business, which was built by the hands of his estranged father. This type of mental manipulation is called “inception.” If Cobb accomplishes this, he will be reunited with his children, taken from him by circumstances that I will not get in to here.
Cobb assembles a team of experts all specializing in the set up of this daring reverse-heist. Newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page) will lay the groundwork, the literal world that the action will take place. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will be the number two on the team, Eames (Tom Hardy) will be the undercover man, while Saito and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) provide back up. I was reminded of heist movies ranging from Bob le flambeur (1956) to Ocean’s 11 (2001) in the way the crew members prepared diagrams, plotted out the action, and designated the escape routes, all in anticipation for what will happen. The only difference with Inception is that it will all happen in the mind instead of the bank vault.
Now pay attention closely, the next part may get a little confusing.
To avoid any risk of being detected by the dreamer, the team decides to put the target in to a multilayered dream: a dream within a dream…within a dream. This will take us from the streets of an urban city to the heights of a snow-capped mountain. By doing this, the ability to con the target in to opening his mind will become easier, but for the team, it’ll make things riskier, for they have the chance of getting lost in one of the dreams, believing it to be reality, and never waking up. Things get even worse when they realize that the target has subconsciously prepared defense mechanisms, in the form of mercenaries and armed soldiers, to stop and kill them from entering the deep realms of his mind. At the same time, one of the crewmembers holds a secret of their own; a dark memory that has the potential to not just ruin the plan, but also risk the real-lives of everyone involved.
Now, what I have just described to you is nowhere near what the experience of this film is; the movie is a completely original mind-trip. Christopher Nolan has crafted a story that not only bends a character’s thoughts, but also plays with time, space, and visuals; everything we see on screen is subject to manipulation. For example, time itself is portrayed as an element that can be twisted and shaped. A character explains that in the dream world, time is stretched: what takes 5 minutes in the real world can last days in the dream. Therefore, if the thieves are in a dream of a dream, they can stretch time longer, giving themselves more room to implant their idea in to the target. In fact, all the action that takes place near the climax of the film lasts only seconds in the first dream state. Confused? Don’t worry, I was too, but this playing with literal conventions opens up the film to new possibilities, Nolan has certainly created something here that is entirely unique.
On a purely visual level, Inception is quite the achievement. This is the first time where we have seen Nolan adopt a wider range of computer generated effects, and he amps up the use of it to the maximum. We see buildings rise and fall, the contours of a landscape change before our very eyes, stairs and walls appear from out of nowhere, we move between levels like an elevator moving between different floors. When a person is about to wake up, we see their dream world crumble all around them like a house of cards. One moment, we are racing through a crowded city street, and then in the very next, a train flies by, smashing through all of the cars. At one point in the movie, a character literally folds the world they are in upon itself, the sky becomes the street, the street becomes the sky, and so forth. This is epic and thrilling movie-making. What happens in one dream will effect the environment of another. In one of the best sequences of the film, a character that is asleep is flipped and rotated in to the air, and as a result, his dream self is flung around the very room he is in, while at the same time battling an enemy. This is one of the most creative action scenes I have ever seen; they fight on the ceiling, on the floor, on the wall and in mid air, sometimes all within the same shot! I sat wide-eyed during this portion, dazed and confused at how Christopher Nolan could pull off such an amazing sequence.
The best aspect of the film, and probably the most mind numbing, is trying to put all of the narrative threads together in to one cohesive piece. If this character is shot in the 3rd dream level, how will that affect his character in the 2nd? If dreams are fragments of memories, then how do we know if a character is an actual team member or a figment of one’s own history? If they are all working in the same dream, then who’s dream is it, and how do they wake themselves up? And if they do wake up, how do they know that they’re actually awake, or still sleeping? There are so many questions that I had, I felt I needed a piece of paper to write down and make sure I was following every single detail correctly. The confusing aspects of the film is not a bad thing; in fact it’s one of the things that I admire most. There are so many tiny details that Nolan puts in, that I wanted to point out plot holes, but I don’t know if there are any. It’s like putting five different jigsaw puzzles together at the same time.
There are a few things that I am sure of. First, the acting here is great all around. DiCaprio plays Cobb with the same intense obsession that has plagued many of the characters in Nolan’s films, desperate to finish the job and return to those he loves. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s wife in beautiful and idyllic fashion. She is the emotional thread that binds the film together; Nolan shoots her in a way that makes it believable that one would go to the depths of madness to be with her. The side characters (Gordon-Levitt, Watanabe and Hardy) bring shape and humor to their roles, despite being slightly one-dimensional. Even Ellen Page, whom I’ve never been a real big fan of, pulls off her role of the naïve architect convincingly; she is the stable counterpoint to the growing chaos around the team. One of the many surprises comes from Cillian Murphy, the target. Nolan does a great job giving this character depth and sympathy. Although our heroes are manipulating him, we can’t help but feel for this man and the broken relationship he has with his father, peaking at a crucial scene by his father’s bed.
Another detail that I am sure of is that this is a great action movie. Nolan takes the real-life intensity that he had with The Dark Knight (2008), and fleshes it again here. The chase scene in the city is reminiscent of the Joker/Batman chase scene, and the shoot out at the snowy mountain echoes Bruce Wayne’s escape of Ra’s Al Ghul’s lair in Batman Begins (2005). Although these scenes may seem similar, Nolan puts them together effectively. He may be using more CGI in this film, but those are real cars being chased and shot at, those are real explosions happening around the team, there are real stakes at hand. We as the audience care about what is happening because Nolan makes us care, we understand what is at risk and what would happen if the team fails. This is a detail so often glazed over in lesser action movies. And even more amazingly, is that all of these action scenes are happening at the exact same time.
I have read that Christopher Nolan spent nearly ten years writing this film, and I can believe that. He must have racked his mind trying to make sure everything works as they appear to, that the levels flowed together and made sense, and that the audience would be able to follow along without completely losing their way. No review can fully encapsulate what kind of an experience a person will have watching this movie. This is a film unlike anything I have ever seen, a first-class entry to a summer season of lackluster movies. I highly recommend you see this as soon as you can; go in to it with an open mind, and be ready for the rollercoaster ride that follows. In the end, you will have experienced a labyrinth of a story, and one of the best movies of 2010.