Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'
Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

It’s a magical mystery tour, a mathematical print by M. C. Escher, a family drama, and a suspense thriller, all wrapped up in one huge, dazzling package. It’s Inception, and it may blow your mind.

Or it may not. Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight is strikingly reminiscent of The Prestige, his follow-up to Batman Begins. Filled with puzzles, populated with good actors, and hiding much of its intellectual heft beneath its distracting surfaces (like the iceberg in Titanic), the movie is challenging but not revolutionary. It feels like an extended, exhilarating roller-coaster ride that slows now and again, allowing time to think about the distance that’s been covered, and to take a quick peek ahead.

The movie takes place in a world where thieves can steal secrets from the dreams of (sometimes) unsuspecting victims. There is some indication that the business world at large is aware of this phenomenon, but its impact upon the general public is not examined. Some wealthy executives have taken precautions by hiring security forces to guard against kidnapping, and have undergone special training to provide resistance against such illegal incursions. It’s corporate espionage at a whole new level.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a veteran of the trade who is well-trained in the art of dreamworld theft. His latest caper, involving a powerful Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe), has gone off the rails. Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are prepared to go into hiding when Saito makes them a proposition: Rather than stealing information from someone’s mind, can they plant a new idea into someone’s brain — and make him think it’s his own?

“Inception” is defined by one dictionary as the establishment or starting point of an activity, and both Cobb and Arthur realize just how daunting that challenge will be. Saito’s firm is in competition with a corporation headed by the dying Maurice Fischer (Pete Postlewaite). Fischer’s son Robert (Cillian Murphy) is in line to run the company; Saito wants him to diversify in order to give his own company the opportunity to compete.

It’s not exactly altruism.

Cobb is strongly motivated, however, by Saito’s promise that he can help Cobb get back to his family, which is the true crux of the film. What keeps Cobb from his family? Why is he running all over the world when he has two young children in the care of their grandparents? What’s the deal with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard)?

Mal’s introduction shows her to be a nasty, vindictive, violent woman, but that only scratches the surface of her character. Cobb’s relationship with her, revealed over the length of the film, is very, very complicated, and he’s been reluctant to talk about it with Arthur or other co-workers such as Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Eames (Tom Hardy). Over time he opens up to Ariadne (Ellen Page), a graduate student brought on to serve as architect for the dream worlds that need to be constructed in order to carry out the inception on Robert Fischer.

Plot-wise, it gets much more involved than that, paralleling the dream-within-a-dream (and the dream within that) structure of Inception as a whole. As dazzling and difficult as it often is to follow a story where time and space merge, and the line between reality and dreams is erased, that’s all secondary to the visual tale that unfolds. Very often I found myself smiling at the screen, as wondrous things I’d never seen before played out in ways I could barely comprehend.

It’s much more than merely flash graphics, however. This is a film that is intensely focused on ideas. Some of the ideas may feel shopworn to certain viewers, and there are others expressed in wearisome pop-psychology double-speak.

But it’s refreshing and invigorating to watch a summer blockbuster that has something on its mind, a movie that is ambitious and strives to break rules in order to convey a sense of wonder. I suspect Inception will richly reward multiple viewings.

First, though, I need to finish processing my first viewing.

[Inception opens wide throughout Dallas today.]