Leonardo DiCaprio, in 'Incepption'

Dir. Christopher Nolan
(2010, PG-13, 148 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

I want to go swimming in this movie. Inception is so full of imagination, of visual and narrative invention, of filmmaking verve, and yet with a strong emotional thread that pulls us through its labyrinth of consciousness, that I want to luxuriate in it for hours. I can’t say for sure after one viewing whether all its dots connect, but I was increasingly spellbound the deeper I went, and when it’s over there are tantalizing mysteries left to uncover. Its possibilities — and the possibilities under its possibilities — may be limitless.

Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard

It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, one of the best filmmakers of the past ten years, who has placed three films on my yearly list of best films. This will be the fourth. In a summer that has brought us another critically panned film by M. Night Shyamalan, it is interesting to compare their opposite career trajectories. Both announced themselves with films founded on clever storytelling hooks, but where Shyamalan’s twists descended to gimmickry (it’s not really olden times!), Nolan matured, became philosophic. From his blockbuster The Dark Knight to his less renowned, underrated films Insomnia and The Prestige, he considers human nature, responsibility, and moral compromise. Now he dissects human consciousness.

His story puts us off-balance from the very first scene. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Cobb, wakes up on the beach and is taken before an old man. Next, in the same setting, we see him offering his services to Saito (Ken Watanabe). Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) specialize in extracting secrets from the dreams of unconscious subjects. Right away we’re unsure whether we’re in a dream or reality. We learn of dreams within dreams. You make wake up, but what have you woken up into?

The screenplay is front-loaded with exposition, and there’s quite a bit of it. Dreams are tricky. We populate them with projections of our subconscious, and if outsiders interfere the projections attack. It’s important to carry with you at all times a “totem” that only you know so you can be sure you’re in a world of your making. But how do you know if you’re is in the real world or just your own dream?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The film takes off upon entering the mind of a new mark, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), an heir to a powerful corporation on whom Cobb and his team will attempt “inception,” the near-impossible act of planting an original idea into a mind. I won’t give away the elaborate three-level dreamscape they create, except to say that Nolan shows dazzling ingenuity in his use of slow-motion, camera angles, gravity, time, and visual effects, all the while engaging our emotions with the mystery of Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who looms like a ghost over his memories and dreams. Nolan creates an elaborate architecture of the mind and in its corridors navigates a psyche scarred by loss and guilt; thought processes become physical avenues, and buried emotions become frightfully tangible. This is not unlike DiCaprio’s other exceptional film this year, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island.

Think of how Nolan’s conception of dream logic is distinctly cinematic. “How did you get here? Where are you right now?” Cobb asks his protégé Ariadne (Ellen Page). We don’t move from place to place in dreams, we simply are there and then somewhere else, as if by editing. Cobb needs to recruit a forger from Marrakesh, and in an instant he is there. This editing technique is so basic we take it for granted; these scenes take place in reality … don’t they? How did he get there? Does he remember? Movies in their making take the form of dreams, or perhaps movies have rewritten the way we dream. “You never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you?” They start in medias res. So does Inception.

We leave the film thinking differently about movies, about dreams, about how we perceive the world. The question it poses about human nature is whether we seek the utmost truth or just the most pleasing illusion. It’s easy to lose track, and maybe sometimes we want to. Our subconscious desires are projected onto the screen, shielding us from the harsh light of day.