A man washes up unconscious on a foreign beach. He is awakened by armed guards, and, delirious, speaks a name to them. The guards take him to a palatial home where he meets the bearer of that name, a man grown rich and wrinkled with the passage of years. The old man asks him, "Are you here to kill me?"
This might easily have been the opening of an austere, hypnotic noir, Raymond Chandler by way of Paul Bowles. Instead, it is the opening of the summer's most mind-bending action entertainment, Christopher Nolan's Inception. And if the early reviews are any indication, I may be very nearly alone in my disappointment.
First, the good news, of which there is plenty. Inception, Nolan's first picture since The Dark Knight put him in the billion-dollar-movie club, is a sharp and intricate diversion, and easily the summer's best blockbuster to date. (Yes, this may accurately be deemed faint praise; no, it's not intended as damnation.) Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, who may sound like a salad but has the look and disposition of a lean slice of beef. Cobb is a thief of the subconscious, the best in the world at the art of "extraction," or breaking and entering the dreams of the powerful in order to purloin their secrets.
His first target in the film is Saito (Ken Watanabe), an energy industrialist whose competitors would like to get a look under his hood. Though the mission fails, Saito is impressed enough by Cobb's effort that he offers to forgive the trespass—provided, of course, that Cobb perform him a service in return. What Saito demands, however, is a more delicate operation than the psychic burglary in which Cobb typically specializes: rather than pilfer an idea from the subconscious of his corporate adversary, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Saito contracts Cobb to implant one. (Hence, "inception.")
Befitting any proper heist movie, Cobb's mission begins with the assembly of a team. (Lest we be caught unprepared, Saito commands, "Assemble a team.") Cobb dutifully rounds up Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the right-hand man; Eames (Tom Hardy), the "forger," able to impersonate the dreamer's trusted friends and allies; Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architecture student tasked with designing the dreamscapes in which the operation will take place; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the sedative specialist responsible for making sure no one wakes up before the mission is complete. The job itself is to take place on three levels of escalating subliminality: a dream within a dream within a dream, each meticulously designed to lower their subject's resistance to the suggestion they seek to embed.
The requisite complications ensue. Among them is the belated discovery that Fischer's subconscious has been "militarized"—that is, trained to repel psychic invasion—with the upshot that Cobb et al. spend the latter half of the film being shot at by dreamworld security. (Envision The Matrix's Agent Smith, minus the sneer and sunglasses.) Worse, the team is haunted, with intensifying animosity, by Cobb's dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose guilt-ridden memory (backstory alert!) he cannot—and perhaps does not wish to—leave behind.
Nolan's film overflows with narrative ingenuity and cinematic showmanship. Snatches of dialogue recur, their meanings refracted through levels of reality and unreality. Gordon-Levitt tousles with henchmen in a rotating hotel hallway, putting to shame his own anti-gravity acrobatics on SNL. Allusions to Penrose stairs rub elbows with canny wordplay (e.g., "Mal," whose name conjures both "moll" and the French term for her predisposition). Four concurrent climaxes are piled one atop another on interdependent dream layers. And, perhaps most impressive, Nolan assembles the kaleidoscopic elements into a nearly seamless whole and buffs it all to an immaculate polish.
Quibbles can be found for those inclined to look. It is quickly evident to viewers, though somehow not to his teammates, that Cobb's deep psychic scars make him perhaps the least reliable dreamcrasher imaginable. (It can hardly be a good sign that, around the two-hour mark, Cobb confesses, "There's something you should know about me—about inception.") And bravura editing notwithstanding, the four-headed finale tends to undercut the impact of each of its components. It's one thing to marvel at a master juggler, but rather another to feel as if you are one of the balls.
In the end, it may be Inception's greatest strength, its precision engineering, that also proves its signal weakness. Nolan has always been a nimble, meticulous director, but his best work has exceeded such technical virtues. His first major film, Memento, may have taken the form of a gimmick movie, but it transcended its own structural ingenuity to become one of the most unique and resonant tragedies of the past 25 years. His last movie, The Dark Knight, was also his messiest, with flaws that included a collapsing final act. Yet it, too, perhaps in part thanks to that messiness, found unexpected grandeur and gravity in its subject.
For all its elegant construction, Inception is a film in which nothing feels comparably at stake. (In this it resembles Nolan's The Prestige, another admirably heady tale of perception and reality that never quite found a hearty emotional grip.) The dangers that loom with the failure of Cobb's mission range from the inconsequential (Saito's firm goes out of business!) to the inauthentic (Cobb won't be able to return to pretty, talismanic children he was forced to abandon: parenthood as MacGuffin). The sorrow of Cobb and Mal's doomed marriage, too, for all of Cotillard's hypnotic allure, feels nonetheless remote, a motivation in search of real meaning. Though questions may linger at the film's conclusion, they are less likely to be moral than mechanical: How many minutes of dream-time comprise a minute of waking life? How, again, did the heroes wake themselves up from their ultimate dream?
Like his protagonist, Nolan excels as an implanter of subversive ideas. This time, alas, he didn't dig quite deep enough for them to take root.