"Inception," the latest film to spring from the brain of writer-director Christopher Nolan, will leave you with a feeling similar to the one experienced at the conclusion of his first full-length feature, "Memento" -- you're not sure what exactly happened, but it was kinda awesome.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a man with a gift for sneaking into people's dreams and stealing their ideas, a crime known as "extraction." With legal troubles standing between him and his children, Cobb takes a job he maybe shouldn't, enticed by the promise that all charges against him will be dropped if he manages to plant an idea in a businessman's head -- a trick known as "inception."
The audience is thrown right into the action with no tedious exposition, and we spend the next 148 minutes scrambling to catch up. Though the film does sag a bit in the middle of the second act, all in all it passes as quickly as a movie this long can. With his dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream scenario, Nolan has his characters trying to coordinate different time compressions (don't ask, they'll explain it) across different climates and geographies to pull off a crime of unprecedented scope. It's a clever conceit that leaves the story bullet-proof to claims that things don't work that way -- it's dream, things work however they're dreamt.
The (a-hem) science behind being able to get inside a persons dreams is glossed over (little more than "Here, put this on"), and you can be sure that some shut-in will write a 5,000-word blog post charting all the layers of the film to prove that the story doesn't work. But when you're four dreams deep, getting hung up on how things work feels beside the point.
Nolan has said the film was inspired by his personal experiences trying to manipulate his own dreams. It was also inspired in no small part by "La Jetée," the seminal French short film from 1962 which inspired "12 Monkeys," with a nod to MC Escher's Ascending and Descending. "Inception" is a Möbius strip where you can never be sure where along space, time and reality you are. Throughout the film, DiCaprio's wrestles with doubt, guilt, addiction, regret, loyalty... he's a mess just trying to find his way home.
In an age where every clown with a nine-figure budget decides to convert his film to 3D, Nolan's "Inception" comes as a reminder that you can make a damn fine looking film in two dimensions. His vision is epic, the film populated by sweeping vistas, looming towers, soaring cliffs, crashing waves, snow-capped mountains...
Hans Zimmer's score is propulsive and heart pounding, if at times louder than necessary. As our anti-heroes wheel wildly throughout a treacherous dreamscape, the music keeps pushing us and the action forward. The use of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien", however, is an unfortunate choice. It's a beautiful song whose lyrics suit the film to a T. But with Marion Cotillard in the film, just three years removed from winning an Oscar for playing Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," its presence causes a bit of dissonance.
Cotillard is just a small part of the cast surrounding DiCaprio (a Chris Nolan doppelganger, as Armond White notes in his scathing review). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a minor disappointment, we've come to expect more from him, but Tom Hardy (haven't seen "Bronson"? Rent it) is a magnetic beast, that rare actor who can chew scenery with his mouth closed, grabbing your attention at every turn, and leavening a dark film with much-needed wit. He's our dark horse for a Supporting Actor Oscar nod. Rounding out the cast are Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Tom Berenger and Lukas Haas. No other film in 2010 will touch this kind of talent.
"Inception" is the blockbuster with a brain we've been waiting for all summer. At its core, it's a classic heist film -- a master criminal assembling a top-flight crew for the crime of the century, one that will set him free. And it's the most jaw-dropping fun to hit theaters in a long time. We're gonna see it again with the wife on Saturday.
"Inception" opens nationally on Friday