Seven films into his career Nolan has revealed himself to be a man fascinated with puzzles, mazes, and logic that twists and turns on itself. In Memento, his breakout film, the plot traveled backwards and forward simultaneously while the protagonist remained perpetually rooted in the present. The Prestige is a film about magicians and, not content to just have its characters obsess over trickery, Nolan built the story itself as an elaborate enigma containing fake identities, double-crosses, and flashbacks within flashbacks. He seems positively allergic to telling a story in direct A to Z fashion with even Batman Begins looping back through Bruce Wayne's backstory at the same time it covers the creation of Batman.
Now Nolan has released Inception. After this he may have to move onto exploring other obsessions because it is difficult to imagine a story more labyrinth than this one, which stacks so many layers of reality on top of each other you worry whether the characters will ever make it back up to the surface for air.
I will not dwell long on plot synopsis, firstly, because it's better to see this movie with as little knowledge of the story as possible, and second, if I start down that road this review will be roughly the length of Robert's Rules of Order by the time I'm done scratching the surface.
The main character is Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who declares himself one of the world's best "extractors", which is to say he is a thief who sneaks into people's dreams and steals information, sort of like a cross between Danny Ocean and the Sandman. Cobb can't return home to his children in America because he's wanted for a crime, the details of which reveal themselves slowly. Early in the film he is hired to assemble a team to invade the mind of one of the most powerful executives in the world and attempt the unheard of: an "inception", the planting of an idea rather than the theft of one. If all goes according to plan the subject will wake up to believe he has arrived at the idea independently. None of the characters can say with certainty that this is even possible, and the operation is not without substantial risks to the mind of subject and to those of the invaders.
Inception, first and foremost, is a remarkably ambitious film - you want to stand up and applaud their even attempting it. Fresh off the success of The Dark Knight, Nolan has been given the resources to realize whatever his imagination can conjure, and he sets himself no limits on the scope of this story. Inception bounds through a dizzying series of dreamscapes over the course of his two hour plus running time, while at the same time unfolding an action movie, a heist flick, and underneath it all, a tragic love story. Nolan clearly delights in pushing past what the audience thinks is possible. He is like a juggler who convinces us that he is keeping the absolute maximum number of objects in the air and then proceeds to produce a live chainsaw from behind his back.
Of all the different genres thrown into the stew here, I'd say the heist stuff works the best. The mission is briskly outlined and the obstacles and consequences are effectively defined. During the course of the mission when new problems are introduced and the stakes are raised, Nolan does a masterful job of keeping all the threads straight. Even when the story is twisting like a corkscrew and the plot points should be colliding like cars in a demolition derby, the audience is able to follow along the story's clean, broad strokes. (Although a second viewing would probably be helpful with the plot's finer details.) It's a bravura directorial performance.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers another in a series of strong performances, dialing back the mental anguish of Shutter Island several degrees and layering on a slick professionalism that should have Michael Mann ringing up his agent in the near future. The rest of the team is an engaging collection of professionals loosely sketched by the script and filled in the rest of the way by the charisma of the actors. Since Leo is the only character with any depth to him (A conscious choice by the writers? Think about it.) Inception can be viewed as an interesting test of star power - Which actor can make the most of his or her screen time with only a thinly drawn supporting role? By that standard it's no contest. Although the whole cast acquits itself very well it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who somehow manages to own his every moment of screen time, and what's more amazing, he does it all without ever seeming to strain for attention. This guy has star presence to burn.
Inception's take on the world of dreams is unusually literal. I mean this not as a complaint, but as an observation. In this world dreams remain constant, can be mapped and explored. Ellen Page plays an "architect" brought on board to create these environments in her imagination, so they can then be used later as settings for team members to stage their mission, like a person designing levels in a video game. I am used to dreams being much more fluid, fanciful places with little if any restrictions. Fellini's take on reality is more fanciful than Nolan's dreamlands. Inception's dreams are only a couple of steps removed from reality, like the movie Heat with an occasional loss of gravity. It doesn't really ring true to what I know of dreams, but this is Nolan's game and I had no trouble playing by his rules. Plus, it makes it all the more striking when the carefully constructed dreamscapes begin to crack and devolve.
Nolan is celebrated for his originality and his showmanship but that is not what makes him unique among directors. Greengrass can direct an action sequence with equal urgency and Del Toro has an imagination just as fertile. What sets Nolan apart is his ability to take these dense cerebral ideas and translate to the screen in unforgettable images - Guy Pearce's tattooed body in Memento or that desolate pile of top hats in The Prestige. That to me is the test of a great director. Can they express an idea in such a way that it imprints itself indelibly on our psyche? People have been doing their take on Batman and the Joker for decades, but it took Nolan to boil the Joker down to his essence, leaning blissfully out the window of a stolen cop car, Gotham city a blur of colors behind him.
Inception delivers a collection of images as strong as anything he's yet produced, among them a freight train from out of nowhere barreling down a busy street, a whole city folding over itself like a piece of paper, and a stunning zero gravity fight in a hotel hallway, that to my mind one-ups the bullet-time battles of The Matrix.
So with this level of accomplishment, why I am holding back a perfect score? Why do I not classify Inception a masterpiece? I have to confess for all the ways the film thrilled and delighted my mind, it left my emotions mostly unscathed. The relationship between Cobb and his wife, which is supposed to pack the emotional punch, didn't have much of an effect on me and is essentially one more moving part in the elaborate gears of the film. It's hard to care too much about a character who may exist entirely as a reflection in the memory of a character, a fact the script itself addresses.
I think it's useful to compare Inception with another film it strongly reminded me of, Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films involve protagonists who navigate a world of dreams and memories, haunted by the specter of a lost love. Charlie Kaufman's script for Eternal Sunshine was so powerful because the narrative trickery and the emotional journey of the story were one and the same. The journey backward through Joel's memories taken by the mind erasers is the same one Joel takes as he rediscovers his love for Clementine. So in the end, Joel arrives at the first perfect blush of love at the same moment he is losing it forever. The script for Eternal Sunshine is as mind-bending, in its own way, as the one for Inception, but it's much easier to get a handle on because it keeps a grip on the relationship between Joel and Clementine as the constant around which all the plot twists can spin.
The central relationship in Inception doesn't register as strongly. While the script does lead Cobb down into the depths of his memories, it does so as a parallel to the main heist story, so that Cobb is going to be forced to face his demons as the final obstacle to the mission's success. His wife, played well by Marion Cotillard, hangs over the film like an elusive specter most of the time. The story concerns itself more with the elaborate circumstances of Cobb and his wife's situation than it does with exploring the characters with much depth.
In the final balance, the criticism here are dwarfed by the accomplishments, the story works like gangbusters. I'm merely trying to understand why I can't quite join in the chorus of those declaring Inception an unqualified masterpiece. For all the desire I have to stand up on my theater seat and cheer, cheer the ambition, cheer the craftsmanship, cheer that there are even people attempting intelligent filmmaking on this scale, I would be lying if I didn't admit the whole thing was a curiously unmoving experience.
Verdict - Although Inception doesn't come close to dislodging my favorite Nolan film from its perch (Memento, if you were wondering) it is a film that demands to be seen, and seen more than once. 8 out of 10