Inception opens with a dream within a dream. Then it gets complicated.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan is messing with our heads once more, as he did in his breakout film, Memento, and the excellent Hollywood entertainments that followed (The Prestige and the most recent Batman films). This is a filmmaker who plays big: big sets, big effects and – rare to most blockbusters – big ideas.
The story involves a team of dream thieves – corporate spies who enter subjects’ subconscious while they are sleeping and try to pry out top secrets. The team leader here is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an extraction specialist whose own subconscious is plagued with guilt involving his late wife (Marion Cotillard). This makes things complicated when Cobb enters someone else’s dreams and brings along his own id.
This is the kind of movie for which you have to mentally prepare. The challenge is as much visual as intellectual, considering much of Inception plays like a M.C. Escher print come to life. There is that mind-bending moment when a cityscape folds in on itself, for instance, as well as the sight of skyscrapers sliding into the sea. When these dreams “collapse,” things really fall apart.
DiCaprio may have the lead (in a role that’s psychologically similar to his part in Shutter Island), but it’s the supporting cast that excels. Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy all add invaluable notes, while Cotillard outshines everyone in a performance that manages to combine malevolence with lovelorn desire.
Adding such emotion to this heady mix is only one of the tricks Nolan manages to pull. By the time Inception reaches its climax and we’ve entered dreams within dreams within dreams – and then some – you’re literally watching five films at once.
In many ways, Inception is the first masterful video game movie (never mind that it isn’t based on a video game). After all, it’s constructed of a series of levels, each one requiring a specific set of actions to be taken so that a particular goal is met. And yet each of those levels carries great thematic and emotional weight. How ironic that it took a movie to convince me that video games can be considered art.
All of this makes Inception sound academic – and, indeed, the word “cold” was the fall-back term used by many of its detractors. But nothing could be further from the truth. The tragic relationship between Cobb and his wife is at the center of the film; it’s directly woven into the picture’s mechanics. In the opening sequence, when Cobb uses his wife’s chair as an anchor while rappelling from a window, I found the gesture deeply romantic. This is Nolan using the cinematic playground he’s created to communicate the risk involved with Cobb’s wife – and Cobb’s willingness to take it.
Perhaps it’s also the romantic in me that finds closure in the film’s open-ended final seconds. All along, as the movie proceeds, the thematic weight shifts from the heist itself to Cobb’s struggle to come to terms with the guilt that has been plaguing his subconscious. Inception ultimately is about achieving psychological – if not narrative – resolution. That goal can only achieved if Cobb genuinely, authentically, consciously forgives his wife and himself. Meaning – spoiler alert! – the spinning top must fall.