“You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...” That famous 1971 lyric may well have been describing the concept of “shared dreaming”, the founding principle of Christopher Nolan's latest mind-bending thriller Inception, and it is one sweet dream!
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a man who exploits the art of shared dreaming for unique and valuable purposes. He can occupy the same dream as another person, whose deepest thoughts and ideas are vulnerable in the dream state, making them ripe for the plucking by Cobb. He hires himself out to corporations who pay big bucks to steal the secrets of competing businesses, but his lack of success has kept him from being able to finally buy his way back into the United States (from where he's a fugitive) and being reunited with his two children. So he hops the globe in search of jobs, until an energy CEO (Ken Watanabe) offers him a job that just might be his chance to make it home, but rather than stealing an idea, Cobb is commissioned to instead plant an idea deep within the subconscious of a rival businessman (Cillian Murphy).
From there, Inception snowballs into a grand heist movie, as Cobb and his squad of dream manipulators (including the likes of Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) lead their unsuspecting subject through a maze of dreams within dreams within dreams. Underlying it all is a surprisingly affecting emotional character arc for Cobb, haunted in every dream by visions of his wife Mal (excellently played by Marion Cotillard) that threaten to sabotage his mission. Some could fault Nolan for giving virtually no depth treatment to the other characters, but DiCaprio carries off Cobb's development so well, that the film still works as a character study, though not always a focused one.
As a thriller/action movie, it more than works – it excels. Nolan pushes the envelope on the tried and true “race against time” technique by staging races against time within races against time within races against time! The entire final hour of the film is a masterstroke bravura storytelling, executed with infallible clockwork precision by Nolan and his film editor Lee Smith, who surely deserves an Academy Award. No less worthy of awards attention are Nolan's sound crew, Jeffery Perkins, Lora Hirschberg, and Gary Rizzo, who help blur the distinction between dream and reality with a sophisticated mix. Composer Hans Zimmer has written another awesome score, continuing what has been a career hot streak as of late. The visual panache is accomplished via the married efforts of production designer Guy Dyas (whose dazzling sets define various dream environments with tremendous subtlety), DP Wally Pfister (whose photography is kinetic although less painterly than his work on The Dark Knight), and a terrific FX team (who pull off some truly miraculous non-CG effects, the most notable of which is an amazing zero-gravity fight sequence).
Ecstatic as I am, I must emphasize that Inception may not be for everybody. People who enjoy being challenged by complex narratives that demand multiple viewing and require full involvement on the part of the viewer will likely find it an utterly engaging and rewarding experience, but that's not everybody's cuppa' tea. Some may grow impatient with the second act's thick exposition, as Cobb explains to a rookie team member the principles governing the world of the dream for the benefit of the audience, as well as divulging personal demons that define his character. It's a necessary evil for this film, without which that incredible third act would have had little impact, but it does slow things down a tad.
It's not hard to understand why Inception is a divisive film. Give yourself over to the story, and the overall effect is a dream come true. Nitpick about details and script conflicts, and it's a labyrinthine nightmare. I ultimately think Inception earns the right to have its faults (and it does have faults) forgiven. As far as ambitious, committed, exhilarating, and above all, intelligent movie entertainment goes, it's a winner. Nolan's influences are apparent, but still, you've never seen one like this. It's a true original. A work of genius.
**** out of ****
(P.S. As far as Oscar prospects go, everything I currently have it predicted for seems reasonable)