Here’s what I think: somewhere back in his secret past (you know he must have one) director Chris Nolan made a bet with another director, or a close friend, or maybe the devil that sounded something like this: “I bet I can entertain, absorb and manipulate an audience so thoroughly, that, by the end of my film, they will sit on the edge of their seats watching a simple object do something it normally does – they’ll watch a spinning top spin and hold their breaths, waiting for it to fall.” With “Inception,” Nolan pulls it off. Somebody somewhere owes him something.
If you’ve seen the movie already, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you should. If you don’t read another line of this review, read this: see this movie. You will be absorbed, thrilled, and entertained. This is the best movie of the summer.
And it is very much a summer movie. Really, “Inception” is like that spinning top; it’s endlessly fun to watch, and generates a certain amount of suspense, but at its heart, it’s little more than a machine operating in the way it’s bound to operate. The last thing I would call “Inception” is predictable, but the feeling I have coming away from is that I just watched an immensely complicated contraption do just what it’s supposed to do. Every move “Inception” makes is exactly the move it ought to make; it manages to keep from being predictable because we’ve never seen a film make these moves before. That’s an impressive achievement in and of itself.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Leavitt are a pair of dream robbers, not all that different from bank robbers. This is sci fi corporate espionage/Philip K. Dick territory (Christopher Nolan says he came up with the idea when he was 16; I can guess what he was reading at the time.) They make a living by surreptitiously breaking into the dreams of the rich and powerful and stealing their secrets, then selling them to their competitors. DiCaprio is the talented genius, improvising and taking risks; Leavitt the methodical down to earth type, doing the research first and advising his partner against his craziest ideas. Not that he listens. “He said not to do that,” Ellen Page says to Leavitt, at one point, while helplessly watching DiCaprio take the lives of the entire crew into his own hands. “Have you noticed yet how often he does things he says not to do?” Leavitt responds.
After a failed attempt to steal his secrets, multimillionaire Ken Watanabe (who really needs to work on his English) hires DiCaprio and Leavitt to implant idea in his competitor’s brain that will lead to his downfall. It can’t be done, Leavitt says. Yes, it can, DiCaprio says, it’s just very, very difficult. So they assemble a team. This includes Tom Hardy, who is able to impersonate people close to the dreamer within their dreams, and Dileep Rao, a sedation expert. Ellen Page rounds out the team, as the architect; she is responsible for creating the (meta)physical spaces in which the dreams take place. She is also a helpful plot device; as DiCaprio et al teach her about dream thieving, we, the audience, learn as well. And there’s a lot to learn.
Their mark is Cillian Murphy, who is set to inherit a utilities empire from his dying father. In order to successfully implant the idea into Murphy’s head, DiCaprio decides that the team must not simply enter his dream – they have to go down 3 levels; that is, they must enter his dream, then cause him to dream inside that dream, and then enter that dream, and repeat. (I’ve dreamed I was dreaming before; I’ve never dreamed that I dreamed I was dreaming. Have you? Is it even possible? Irrelevant questions. This is a sci fi action flick.)
Mucking things up at every level is DiCaprio’s dead wife, Marion Cotillard. There’s a heck of a back-story here, but I’d hate to give all the movie’s juicy secrets away. It’s enough to say that DiCaprio’s estranged from his children, and has taken on this risky job because Watanabe assures him he can make the trouble go away. But every dream DiCaprio’s in, Cotillard’s in as well, and working against him. He must deal with her before she spoils everything, or worse, causes him to lose his mind, and his friends.
A couple days removed from the film, it doesn’t seem like there was enough at stake in “Inception.” Is Watanabe really a better guy than Murphy, and can we trust him when he says that planting this idea is, well, a good idea? Certainly not. Do we get to know DiCaprio and his kids well enough to long for their reunion? Hmm…not really. And yet, while watching “Inception,” these concerns never entered my mind, probably because Christopher Nolan kept things moving so fast, that I didn’t have time to think about them. This is an absorbing, exciting, entertaining film; it may not be a deeply emotionally resonant and powerful film. But hey, it’s summer, and this is summer entertainment. And as far as that goes, I dearly wish there were more directors and smart, and skilled as Nolan. I had a great time watching “Inception;” the best time I’ve had at the movie theater in a long while. But I’m really curious to see if it’s as much fun the second time around, when my head’s not spinning quite so fast.