They move through cities that fold in on themselves, that resemble immense cemeteries, that erode into seas; through zero-gravity hotel corridors, across bridges, between skyscrapers, over arctic tundra, and into hidden chambers. The protagonists in Christopher Nolan’s Inception are in many ways your archetypical assemblage of criminal experts convening for the perfect heist, speaking in action movie boilerplate, wearing nifty duds, yet here the crime unfolds not in some bustling metropolis but rather in the vast and intricate dream worlds of the mark… or is it the dream of the criminal? If everyone’s sharing the same dream, can the dream “belong” to only one of the dreamers? While we try to sort this all out we can marvel at the scenery. The worlds within worlds invoked here are overwhelmingly impressive in terms of scale. Nolan, a great craftsman, has been given the resources to dream, and he dreams very, very big. I’m not sure he dreams very deep.
Master infiltrator Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is normally hired to extract information from the dreams he burgles, but a vaguely sinister, unfathomably affluent new client (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb instead to plant information in his target’s unconscious mind. The goal is to penetrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying industrialist, and convince him to divvy up dad’s monopoly. Cobb has something ugly in his past—like all Nolan’s protagonists, he’s so ridden with guilt it’s turning toxic—and remuneration includes his hassle-free passage home to the US, where he’s a wanted man, so Cobb accepts, introducing the one-last-gig trope into Inception’s genre touchstones. Cobb gathers his cohorts: the supporting ensemble includes an unusually stuffy Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bronson’s charismatic and dexterous Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, giving by far the film’s most natural performance, and Dileep Rao, that annoying magical guy from Drag Me to Hell. Gradually the group’s adventure becomes less about messing with Fischer’s business sense than it does staving off Cobb’s inner demons. Cobb’s been rattled by dream-encounters with his hysterical wife (Marion Cotillard), or at least his memory of her, with increasing frequency. He’s apparently in danger of slipping into this permanent, gray matter-draining REM state forever. Or, you know, something really bad, anyway.
Much time is spent establishing the rules of psychic corporate espionage—the unspecified injections used to plunge participants deep enough into sleep, the mental tricks required to navigate one’s way through another’s dreams without getting lost, the necessity of a dream architect, a sort of production designer of the future—though much of how this business really fails or functions is nonetheless left pretty sketchy. Nolan seems more concerned with the idea of inner logic than he does in its actual exploration. Still, there are enough intriguing details—the reliance on personal totems to ground the dreamers, such as Cobb’s tiny metal top, being chief among them—to satisfy one’s sense of having entered a world with some reasonably consistent chains of cause and effect, and the final scene, a cliffhanger of sorts, works to the film’s overall strengths.
More distracting is the sheer aneurotic, humourless tidiness of Nolan’s dream worlds, which bear little resemblance to the amorphous, murky, slippery dreams most of us experience, places far more vividly and idiosyncratically realized by filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, or Andrei Tarkovsky, a key influence on Inception’s morbid love story. The realms Inception traverses feel closer to some science fiction novelist’s notion of virtual reality than they do to the places we visit in out sleep. But if these realms fail to resonate as a reflection of our dreams at least they provide terrain for an unusually fantastical crime thriller, one which revels in elegantly edited set pieces that each fit snugly into their respective slots in the writer-director’s intricate stratagem. Inception is an exhausting film—and I actually think it kind of needs to be—and is more problematic the more you think about it. It’s also easily the most stimulating spectacle movie you’ll find on the menu this summer.