After The Dark Knight grossed a billion dollars worldwide, filmmaker Christopher Nolan earned the closest Hollywood offers to a blank check for his follow-up project. Nolan cashes in every dime of that creative capital with Inception, a dizzying head-trip disguised as an action film that's about as dense and demanding as mainstream movies get.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, the slick but haunted leader of a team of thieves trained and equipped to invade people's dreams. With the method called "extraction," Cobb and co. infiltrate slumberland to steal valued ideas from the subconscious. "Inception" involves implanting a new idea into their subject's psyche. Powerful industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb's team to give an idea to a rival company's scion (Cillian Murphy), and the film unfolds as a combination heist/con man film.
Inception takes place almost entirely in subconscious constructs built by Cobb or his "architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page). The settings tend to be glitzy hotels, teeming neighborhoods or exotic locales out of James Bond. Inception pays explicit homage to the art of M.C. Escher in the way the dreamscapes can fold in on themselves. When Ariadne discovers the malleability of the constructs, she literally bends a French street so half of its length lies vertiginously atop the other. As Cobb's unflappable partner Arthur, Joseph Gordon-Levitt fistfights bad guys in a corridor with gravity gone haywire in one of the most audacious action scenes ever filmed.
Directing his own screenplay, Nolan makes steep demands on the viewer's attention — information nearly exceeds the speed of comprehension. It's like playing a challenging game without peeking at the rule book, and instead hearing explanations on the fly. And just when you think you're caught up, Nolan introduces another complication. For instance, if a dream's background characters notice an intruder, they become increasingly hostile, "like white blood cells." Cobb's subconscious can be his team's worst enemy: Visions of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), transformed by his guilty conscience into a murderous femme fatale, can intrude when least expected.
Inception's dreams generally don't involve Jungian archetypes — nobody has nightmares that they're late for school so they ride a giant duck with Frodo and Jackie Kennedy, or whatever. Nolan seldom explores the way dreams can unleash the imagination or find symbolic expressions of character. He's clearly thrilled with his notions of stage-managing dreams, though, and his enthusiasm infects the audience. Cobb and his cohorts could even serve as surrogates for directors like Nolan and their creative partners. Instead of a screenwriter, Cobb enlists a "forger" (Tom Hardy) to craft a dream-narrative that will lead the subject where they want him to go. Arthur could be the producer, Ariadne the production designer, Saito an obtrusive investor, etc.
For a film so fascinated with the capabilities of the subconscious, it's a little disappointing that Inception builds to familiar notions of guilty secrets and redemption. The pop psychology of the film's resolution turns simplistic while everything else is sophisticated. It's also a surprise that DiCaprio made the film back-to-back with Shutter Island. The heavy, head-spinning dramas have so much overlap, it's like someone gave Nolan and Martin Scorsese the same leading man, behavioral themes, and even similar images.
In his previous films Memento, The Prestige and to a lesser extent even his Batman movies, Nolan put his viewers on parallel journeys with his main characters. We make our way through the labyrinthine story lines, learning the narrative rules while his characters struggle to negotiate moral gray areas. Inception isn't easy to follow, but Nolan puts the mystification to work for him. His protagonists may not succeed, but some kind of enlightenment always comes at the end.
Plus, Inception's repeat business should be great, since people will want to view it a second time once they know what's going on. If only life were as easy to control as movies or dreams.