Movie Review: Inception
The Charlotte Observer
Midway through “Inception,” a woman learning to invade people’s dreams turns to the man training her for the task. “Wait a minute,” she murmurs. “Whose subconscious are we going to enter?”
I shared her confusion, her fascination with the topic and her jaw-dropped reaction to the visual inventiveness reshaping the world around her. She was happily entangled, and so was I.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan, who re-defined a classic myth in “Batman Begins” and ”The Dark Knight,” has leapt into completely new territory with his most complicated movie to date.
It links many themes that run through all seven features he’s directed: the ways memory can mislead us, the unexpected consequences of crime, the emotional blow we suffer when we fail to protect a loved one. Yet the technique is so mind-stretching that he breaks new ground from start to finish – and it isn’t ground over which folks will follow him, if they want only thoughtless summer relaxation.
The concept is simple: “Extractor” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters people’s dreams to uncover secrets – or, in extraordinary cases, to plant ideas in a process known as inception. But Nolan’s execution is relentlessly complex: At one point, a team of dream invaders operates on five levels of consciousness – reality plus four layers of their subject’s subconscious – at the same time.
Cobb, on the run from American authorities for a crime he did not commit, works mostly for corporations who want to steal rivals’ knowledge. Then Japanese energy mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers a deal: He’ll buy off Cobb’s persecutors if Cobb can convince billionaire Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy) to break up his oil empire.
Cobb assembles a dream team of idea-implanters: a chemist to mix sedatives (Dileep Rao), a hardware expert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a master forger and impersonator (Tom Hardy) and an “architect” (Ellen Page) who can shape the dream worlds through which they move. But the trip will be bumpy: Fischer’s subconscious will be full of figures who try to destroy them, the way white blood cells repel unwanted intruders, and Cobb’s dead wife (Marion Cotillard) always emerges from his own subconscious to imperil his missions.
The main problem is that the script explains both too little and too much. Nolan invents lots of rules for dream states as the movie goes along, yet he occasionally seems to skirt them. For instance, time passes at different speeds; enter a dream within a dream within a dream, and an hour of real slumber can translate to a year in the subconscious. At the lowest level, called “limbo,” we’re told time virtually stops – or maybe it doesn’t.
That said, Nolan and editor Lee Smith (who cut “The Prestige” and both “Batman” films) tell the story lucidly most of the time. Wally Pfister, cinematographer on every Nolan movie since “Memento,” gives each level of (sur)reality its own look and maximizes the stunning special effects.
The acting is fine, from DiCaprio’s demonic intensity to Cotillard’s ethereal sadness. Though “Inception” dazzles the eye, it also weighs upon the heart. It’s no accident that Cobb’s theme song – the trigger used to return his team to waking reality – is Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (“I Regret Nothing”).
Nolan’s tale is not only a trip through mental labyrinths but a reminder that memories may cripple us, unless we learn to let them go.