Christopher Nolan pulled off the year’s most daring cinematic coup with his mind-boggling thriller Inception.
In a summer when the big studios mostly played safe with remakes, rip-offs and sequels, Nolan somehow managed to make a dazzlingly smart, deeply personal art-house movie on a blockbuster budget.
Combining the conceptual daring of his thrifty debut film Following with the multi-million-dollar spectacle of his Batman blockbusters, Inception put its brain-dead rivals to shame with its dizzying intelligence and eye-popping visuals.
Inception is a brain-twister, to be sure. But the fact that the plot demands attention only adds to the exhilaration. This is a story about dreams that requires the audience to stay awake.
A labyrinth of dreams within dreams
Here, though, is a brief summary of what’s in store. The setting is a near future in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s corporate spy, Dom Cobb, steals industrial secrets by infiltrating his victims’ dreams. Can this master ‘Extractor’, however, pull off the seemingly impossible feat of ‘Inception’ and implant a thought in the mind of the heir to a multi-billion-dollar energy company?
If that’s challenging enough to get your head around, it gets even trickier. To accomplish the task, Cobb and his team have to penetrate a labyrinth of dreams within dreams, encountering ever more perilous hazards on every level – many of them springing from Cobb’s guilty sub-conscious memories of his dead wife, Marion Cottilard’s Mal.
As this suggests, Inception keeps its viewers on their toes. Stripped down to its essence, however, Nolan’s film is basically a ‘guys on a mission’ tale, with DiCaprio’s leader the conflicted hero who must carry out ‘one last job’. In Cobb’s case, the motivation is his desire to end his exile from his children, which complicates things no end for the team of specialists he assembles for the enterprise.
Treacherous femme fatale
As in The Sting, Cob’s companions all have apt role-names. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, Cobb’s right-hand, is The Point Man. Ellen Page’s Ariadne (named after the heroine of Greek myth who helped hero Theseus find his way through the Cretan labyrinth) is The Architect whose job is to design the maze-like structures of the dreams.
Tom Hardy’s wily, charming Eames is The Forger. Dileep Rao’s Yusuf is The Chemist. Ken Watanabe’s Saito, the mission’s paymaster, is The Tourist. And Cillian Murphy’s billion-heir, Robert Fisher Jr, is The Mark.
Cottilard’s Mal, meanwhile, is the treacherous femme fatale whose presence threatens to sabotage the whole endeavour.
Cerebral puzzle… and a thrill ride
That should give you an idea of the genre pleasures that Inception fulfills. The film isn’t just a cerebral puzzle; it’s also an exciting thrill-ride. Indeed, all those different dreamscapes give Nolan the chance to reprise what I can well imagine are some of his favourite episodes of cinematic derring-do and adventure – from James Bond’s alpine escapades in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to the scorching gun battles of Heat.
But Inception has another level, and it’s one that prevents the film from being just a clever intellectual game. As my sometime Movie Talk colleague Heidi has observed elsewhere, there’s also “a haunting tale of love and loss lurking inside all the mind-blowing FX and plot contortions.” At every twist and turn in the narrative, we’re grounded by the burden Cob carries with him everywhere – his crushing grief over the death of his wife and his separation from his children. A movie with heart, then, as well as brains.
Inception is released on Blu-ray & DVD by Warner Home Video.