One of the first movies I thought of when I heard about Inception was the afterlife flick starring Robin Williams and based off of the book of the same name, What Dreams May Come. It touched on the idea that the afterlife is literally what we make it and stood as an incredibly imaginative film that didn’t quite do as well at the box office. I also lamented about how no one had yet come out with a decent adaptation of Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Now comes Inception, a smartly slick sci-fi thriller from Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento) that has made hacking into other people’s dreams a new trade for a future eerily close to our own. And it is awesome.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an “extractor” whose talents allow him to take part in people’s dreams and literally steal what they hide within their deepest thoughts when they are asleep. Thanks to technology developed by the military to train soldiers by killing each other within their heads, it’s now out in the wild and entrepreneurs like Cobb make a living in plying their trade for the highest bidders such as a corporation that wants in on a competitor’s plans.
He’s aided by a team of experts, each one trained to be the best at what they do, but the latest job goes wrong leaving Cobb and his people on the run from an employer that doesn’t accept failure. That’s when things get even more interesting.
The same man, Saito (Ken Watanabe), that Cobb was supposed to be stealing from now offers him a counter-proposal: inception. Instead of stealing an idea, he wants Cobb to plant one in the head of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). Everyone believes it’s impossible, but Cobb believes it can be done. That, and his benefactor has promised to clear the way for him to return home to the United States to see his family without being arrested like a criminal. After living in exile for so many years, it’s almost too good to be true.
From there, Christopher Nolan’s film straps us into a roller-coaster of thrilling chases and idealistic possibilities as we follow Cobb from his first steps in assembling the team that will help him through the final twisting act while avoiding the bullets of the corporate master that is still after its pound of flesh.
The film wastes little time on techno-babble, explaining how Cobb and his team slip into other peoples’ dreams with a pragmatism that won’t glaze eyeballs that are paying attention, planting those ideas into the heads of the audience with deft precision. This isn’t a film that will require you to buy the book for answers, but it is a film filled with subtle clues and lush effects – not all of it CG – that bring forward Nolan’s vision of how a single idea can change the lives of everyone that it touches.
All of the actors bring out the best of what their characters are presented as in the film. DiCaprio’s Cobb struggles both with his own inner demons while doing the best that he can to see this final job through. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Arthur, portrays Cobb’s longtime partner-in-crime with a muted dependability that comes across in what he knows and hints of what he’s already seen in his friend’s head. Ellen Paige is the new “architect” of the group, Ariadne, charged with building the fantasies needed to trick the dreamer as well as the only person willing to question whether Cobb has gone too far. Cillian Murphy, as Robert Fischer Jr., is easily convincing as an unsuspecting lump of mental clay just waiting for Cobb and his cohorts to work their magic before time runs out, keeping everyone guessing.
As each act plays out, it feels as if the film is building a stack of mental cards that can be blown away at any second. Gun fights, chases, and even the mind of the dreamer are created as weapons and virtual spaces where reality doesn’t always follow the rules – though most of it comes close enough without alienating the audience.
Nolan’s practical interpretation of the sleeping imagination makes sense enough for him to pull the proverbial wool over everyone’s eyes by keeping it grounded in the familiar before kicking you out of it with something that could only happen in your head. It might not feature pink elephants, floating cities, or the dreamer as a super hero, but it actually works if not lack some explanation for why that isn’t so.
Hans Zimmer delivers a stark, often heavy handed, track that easily matches the film’s quieter moments versus the staccato gunfire and screeching explosions that tear into the screen. The pacing is fast and quick, little is left behind, though some parts can unexpectedly linger too long for a breath before wishing that it would simply get on with the next act.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming is just how pedestrian Nolan’s dreamscape can be in regards to what we want it to be. The effects are convincing enough to separate it out from the real world, but it can also come off as the easiest of excuses to deliver cherry picked sequences off of a laundry list of must-do action sets.
But despite those particular walls in which the film takes places in, Nolan and his actors deftly work their magic to make it all fit snugly together making it as good a reason than any to remind us of why we go to the movies. Or why movies are made in the first place.