Directors have been trying to replicate the world of dreams since the beginning of cinema, and acknowledged masters like Buñuel and David Lynch became renowned for their ability to visually articulate the subconscious mind. With his ingeniously inventive psychological thriller Inception, Christopher Nolan stakes his claim on this ambitious cinematic territory.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a thief who, with the help of his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), steals information from victims' dreams while they sleep. After a rare failure on his most recent corporate espionage job, their intended mark, Saito (Ken Watanabe), makes Dom an offer he can't refuse. Turns out our main character has legal problems stemming from his wife's death that prevent Dom from returning to the United States to see his children. The rich and powerful Saito offers to wipe away those troubles if Dom will, instead of stealing an idea from a particular business competitor, put an idea into the man's mind. Most believe this task, known as "inception," isn't possible, but Dom knows from personal history that he can do it. Aside from putting together the right team to get the job done, Dom's biggest obstacle is his deceased wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). More precisely, it's his memories of her, because when he goes into people's dreams he brings his own subconscious with him, and Dom's projections of Mal constantly undermine his efforts.
One of the most striking aspects of Inception is that it looks like a big-budget special-effects spectacle, but it sounds like a talky art film -- it's an ambitious combination of something like Dreamscape and Last Year at Marienbad, but with a somber tone. Revealing much more about the plot would be unkind because learning Nolan's rules for traveling through other people's subconscious is most of the fun. For a movie so dependent on exposition -- traditionally the most boring element of any story -- Inception skillfully (though not always gracefully) makes it work. Nolan keeps us off-balance with both the visuals and the storytelling so that we will listen closely when the characters explain various intricacies -- like how to force themselves awake out of a dream within a dream within a dream.
Half the reason a director casts a powerful figure like DiCaprio is to help the viewer through all the information. Sure, DiCaprio has the chops to play a haunted man with magnetic vulnerability -- much as he did in Shutter Island -- and Inception is another chance to appreciate why he's on the short list of genuine movie stars. But his engaging presence also helps sell the movie's insanely intricate plot developments; since Cobb always seems like he knows exactly what's going on, we trust that it all makes sense.
And what exactly makes sense is an unavoidable question throughout Inception. Nowhere do we suspend disbelief as readily, willingly, and automatically as when we dream, but Inception comes uncannily close to grabbing us just as authoritatively. Because of that, it makes complete and total sense while it's playing, but upon reflection the gaping logical holes are too numerous to list here.
Logic isn't what matters most in Inception, though. For all the detailed talk about mazes and architecture and chemistry and neuroscience, the movie is most concerned not with the brain but with the heart. Like The Prestige, Nolan gives viewers an ending that is open-ended enough that you could read the film in various ways, and how you react to the movie will tell you more about yourself than it will about Nolan.
But that's true of dreams as well, because interpretations of dreams mean far more than experiencing them. Nolan has given us a dream we can share -- a puzzle to dissect, debate, and ponder -- and odds are strong that the conversations Inception inspires will end up being just as interesting as the movie itself.