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As much as I want to describe in meticulous detail the ways upon ways that I loved Christopher Nolan's Inception, there's a part of me that almost wants you to not read this until you've seen the film itself. Not unlike Warner Brothers' marketing campaign has suggested, it's a film that benefits from knowing as little as possible about it before seeing it, because its individual twists and turns are almost as exciting to discover as their cumulative visceral, intellectual and emotional impact. In which case, I will do my best for those continuing to read further to avoid too many spoilers or specifics in the service of proclaiming Inception a stunning achievement and the most completely entertaining film I've seen in years.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in what the film calls extraction, the theft of secrets or information from the subconscious mind. After botching a job thanks to the intrusion of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb finds an unlikely opportunity for redemption from one of his former victims: Saito (Ken Watanabe), CEO of a flourishing multinational, offers him amnesty in exchange for planting an idea – known as inception – within the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), one of Saito's competitors. Enlisting the help of teammates Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), Cobb reluctantly agrees to the mission, only to discover that the mind's defenses are more formidable than any physical threat he could face.
Heist-movie plot details notwithstanding, the above description scarcely scratches at the surface of what's in the film, and certainly reveals nothing of the deeper conceptual and thematic dimensions of its story. Nolan, working with the sort of confidence (not to mention free financial reign) that comes from making a studio a mint on one's previous picture, crafts an amazingly sophisticated, subversive, thoughtful, and even occasionally confusing (albeit in only good ways) tale about the layers of reality in the mind that calcify and crumble when constructed from the raw materials of memory and emotion. At the same time, he's made an utter crowd pleaser, an epic piece of entertainment that ultimately feels so simple precisely because of all of its complexity, and one that rouses and inspires and excites in the same way as blockbusters comprised of pure spectacle.
Watching the film, there's a palpable sort of glee that Nolan takes in setting up the rules for his mental universe and then betraying them, contradicting them, or destroying them outright. In several successive scenes, Cobb describes the process by which something is supposed to, or must happen, and then something occurs that makes all of his expository admonitions pointless. In a lesser film, such contradictions would be deficiencies – the inability of a screenwriter or filmmaker to deliver upon the promise of a premise – but Nolan seems to relish the opportunity to take his own questions, those pesky, legitimate quandaries of coherence, logic, or even morality, and turn them into plot points. After only one viewing, it's admittedly impossible to determine precisely how perfectly its internal logic works, but the fact that Nolan hermetically seals the world both with dexterous plotting and rich emotional substance answers many objections before they even arise.
Despite its intellectual sophistication, Inception is no mere mental workout. On a purely visceral level, Nolan unassailably conceives and delivers a series of set pieces that build dramatic energy directly from that thoughtful foundation; the return to a shot previously abandoned midway inspires excitement, both because of the anticipation of its eventual payoff and because you're so engrossed in whatever happened in the meantime you forgot this or that was going on at the same time. Then, of course, there's the centerpiece zero-G fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a mental henchman, which Nolan wisely doesn't hang the film (or even its primary story) upon and yet it nevertheless qualifies as some of the most bravura, involving filmmaking in recent memory. That it's seamless and totally believable not only sustains the integrity of the mind-exercises Nolan puts on screen as some sort of genius-level jacob's ladder, but further reiterates the completeness of Nolan's ideas in both conceptual and physical terms.
As if it could possibly be subordinate to the rest of these theoretical and technical considerations, then there's the world, the dream world, which Nolan defines and then dedicates to the telling of this story. A colleague described the experience more accurately as psychoanalysis than immersion in full-fledged dreams, but what it lacks in surreality, Nolan's film more than makes up for with a seemingly legitimate emotional architecture. More specifically, he doesn't create dreams that feel dream-like, but it's because they're meant to be a form of reality, whether they're an inhabitable world where thought and memory are procurable objects, or a refuge or sanctuary from the cruelties of a person's actual life.
Moreover, Nolan conceives a physical universe where technology and intellectual discipline has made it possible for people not only to control their own dreams, but enter the dreams of other people, and then manipulate those mental realities to accomplish their own goals. Suffice it to say it produces a vertiginous, doubt-filled spiral of questions where those dreams end and reality begins, but it's so interesting and again, entertaining, that getting lost is sometimes part and parcel with the fun in the film, so to speak.
I wasn't the only critic who prophesized (and later admitted to) weird dreams afterwards, and that's the legacy – immediate and lasting – that Inception has on the viewer: it haunts them, makes them ruminate and think, and leaves them with the kinds of explanation and answers whose questions are invigorating with or without them. It's a sort of deconstruction of the motives and meanings we assign to our dreamtime behavior - the guilt, liberation, fear, regret, empowerment we enjoy when we're processing our physical experiences during sleep. It's a joke, a sort of commentary on our own self-imposed limitations, and a glorious payoff to one dream sequence when Hardy's character Eames chides Gordon-Levitt's to "dream bigger, darling," before lifting a fairly massive gun into frame and picking off an attacking adversary.
Meanwhile, only in a film this rich and interesting could Nolan and his work overshadow that of the actors – in a review, anyway. DiCaprio is the film's default star, and his own emotional journey gets inadvertently grafted onto the heist he and the team undertake; as a companion piece to his earlier 2010 film, Shutter Island, his work here functions on multiple levels, effectively exerting control over an environment even as it swallows him, and eventually, vice versa. DiCaprio continues to subject himself to tougher and tougher acting challenges, and aside from the comparatively more manageable challenge of determining between different levels of dream logic, the juggling of his character's extremely troubled and complex interior life results in some of the most heartbreaking and affecting moments of his entire career.
While the remainder of the cast more than matches DiCaprio's commitment and effectiveness, two actors in particular – Gordon-Levitt and Hardy – give performances for which phrases like "star-making turn" were invented. The secret to Gordon-Levitt's success, interestingly, is that he doesn't try to compete with DiCaprio, even though Cobb is precisely the sort of out-of-control boss that demands an intervention; the young actor maintains composure and a cool kind of professionalism – both as the character and as an actor – that distinguishes him, and pays off gorgeously when he's given a physical and dramatic showcase like the aforementioned fight scene.
Hardy, meanwhile, plays Eames as some kind of no-nonsense dandy – a guy who's unflappable in almost any situation, and sort of relishes the chance to indulge in James Bond-esque silhouettes both in dreams and his real life. Although he'd given great performances in Marie Antoinette and RocknRolla, his breakthrough last year as the star of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson was an explosive demonstration of his charisma, and he transforms himself into someone completely different in this film without sacrificing that underlying appeal and intensity. It's details like his ongoing antagonism of Gordon-Levitt's Arthur that makes him such an *sshole and a charmer, but he generally establishes Eames' personality so effectively that no matter how much or little the actor actually did during, say, a snow-capped dream-sequence siege, the character far or near feels recognizable and more importantly connects with the audience through the action.
As amazing as these performances are, however, Inception is Nolan's show, and he exerts control of every detail in the film effortlessly, whether he's setting up some subconscious concept, destroying a character's emotional security, or merely demolishing a city block from top to bottom. It's in this multi-dimensionality that the film works so brilliantly – it's 360 degrees of thought, feeling and action – and which works together in concert to make the overall experience comprehensible (and indeed, relatively uncomplicated if looked at as a whole). Again, that completeness of vision is not just what makes it a great movie, it's what sets it apart from every other movie this year, and most of them from the last decade.
Further, its sublime combination of theoretical and humanistic elements puts it in the company of films like, yes, The Matrix, but more accurately dense, character-driven concept movies like Synecdoche, New York, itself arguably one of the best and most important (if also impenetrable) of the last decade. But it's also the kind of movie that transcends any easy comparisons, and resists previous standards of achievement, innovation, or impact, which is why it's difficult to pinpoint the last time I felt quite so passionately about every single part of a cinematic experience. And that may ultimately be the film's greatest achievement: to consume and possess its audience with that passion, whether you're as inspired and excited as I am, or disappointed, confused or frustrated as many will no doubt also be.
Ultimately, Nolan's is probably not the kind of movie that should be written about after just one viewing, and shouldn't be viewed even once with any preconceptions or expectations, sky-high as I may have made them for folks who read this far. Hopefully, after seeing the film at least once, you'll revisit this review and - agree or disagree - compare your reaction with mine. But in the interim, and hopefully without providing too many specifics, it will nevertheless suffice to say without considering it exaggeration or unsupported hyperbole that Inception is nothing short of a stunning, spectacular, visionary achievement.