Well that does it. I’m now convinced Christopher Nolan can do no wrong. In his seventh feature film in a nearly perfect resume, the ambitious visionary behind Memento and The Dark Knight has outdone himself again, constructing a mere work of genius and arguably his most accomplished movie yet, in spite of that memorial performance by Heath Ledger. It’s called Inception. And it’s the best motion picture of the summer and, perhaps, 2010.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb [Editor's note: Check out our Q&A with DiCaprio here], a subconscious thief who steals ideas through dreams, the sci-fi action thriller follows Cobb as he takes on one last job that, if successful, will free him from the inescapable life he’s created for himself, having lost everything he loves, including his wife and kids, while becoming an international fugitive. The only problem is, this job isn’t like any other. Cobb, who specializes in extracting information, is tasked with the impossible: to incept it.
Hired by a mysterious businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), Cobb seeks to alter the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cilian Murphy), the recent beneficiary to a corrupted corporate empire, by implanting in him a thought to dismantle his father's business altogether. Joined by a special team made up of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) the Point Man, Ariadne (Ellen Page) the Architect and Eames (Tom Hardy) the Forger, along with a few others, Cobb is resolute to execute the operation, regardless of danger—particularly that of his own mind, like memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard).
Cobb’s subconscious isn’t, however, the only obstacle facing him. The concept of inception, as well as extraction, like any distinctive scientific theory, is complex beyond belief, entailing particular rules, laws and elements that make matters quite complicated. For example, individuals familiar with it—specifically high-profile magnates like Fischer—may train their psyches against mind criminals. And time acts as a factor, as well. A minute in reality equals ten minutes in the dream world. Dreams within dreams translate to an hour. And dreams within dreams within dreams could essentially add up to years.
As the ideas get more involved, there begins to be no question Nolan has developed something brilliant. Many aspects of his film function positively like a classic heist movie, reminding us what eminence looks like for that genre via a cohesive composite plot that unwinds smoothly. However, the bigger chunk of Inception—the science of it—is wholly original. Despite psychology’s rationales, dreams remain perhaps the most mysterious and fascinating aspect of the human experience, and Nolan has taken that inevitable absorption and explored it with pure imagination, through a multifaceted concept concerned with both the physical and metaphysical.
For this reason, as well as themes that delve into philosophical ideas like objectivity, Inception will be criticized for a lack of emotional appeal, particularly in the first 30 minutes where characters sit discussing the ins and outs of Nolan’s dream world in a way reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s theoretical trip, Waking Life. Toneless or not, I found this introduction not only necessary but absolutely intriguing. In the latter half of the film, these empty notions are filled with substance as character motivations are made transparent, establishing a sinister yet jaunty tone.
But Cobb’s character is the ultimate determiner of Nolan’s work—encompassing the heart and keeping it from feeling cold. Like standard heist films, such as Reservoir Dogs and the Oceans franchise, most of Inception’s characters are purposefully underdeveloped because of a focus on the heist itself. But Nolan works to make his protagonist a comprehensive human being—not a flat archetype. And because of Cobb, we become attached to the story and not just entertained by it—we actually care about the characters and what happens to them.
Still, Nolan’s script shouldn’t receive all the praise: It’s DiCaprio who ultimately brings Cobb to life. In a role as convincing as his turn in Shutter Island, DiCaprio—an actor who continues to improve with every role he’s in—performs lights out, creating a sincere persona motivated by love for his family but hindered by remorse. Outside Gordon-Levitt, who wasn’t fully convincing to me, every actor gives a solid, believable performance, especially Cotillard and Page who take complete control of their characters.
These performers, particularly DiCaprio and Hardy, are also notable in the film’s action sequences which, while not excessively frequent, are stunning in front of Hans Zimmer’s powerful, foghorn-esque score. As with The Dark Knight, Nolan doesn’t Michael Bay his movie with an overabundance of forced, unnecessary action: The slick explosives and intense battles come at just the right times to provide emotional relief from intellectual complexities. Nolan’s entire film is visually vivid, though. From his distinctive use of color, to the ornate dream worlds designed by Ariadne, the visual effects remind you that Inception is the work of a great artist.
While that great artist’s latest accomplishment obviously has missteps (Gordon-Levitt’s mediocre turn; Watanabe’s unintelligible lines; a sometimes over-ambitiousness), it, in the end, epitomizes everything that constitutes good cinema—and aesthetics. There’s a reason Nolan’s idol is Kubrick, and I have no reservations in saying he’s becoming the 21st century’s version of that cherished filmmaker. Visually, intellectually and emotionally, Inception is a masterpiece.