Inception is the most original, visually stunning and intellectually stimulating film to come across the screen in years. Filled with suspense, action and drama, filmmaker Christopher Nolan continues to top himself, proving over and over again that he is the ultimate auteur of his 30something peer group.
For those who were blown away by the world he created in the Batman franchise, brace yourselves to be taken to unimaginable heights with "Inception." Nolan has managed to write a script where the entire story takes place in a character's mind, several layers deep, with characters engaging in suspense-filled action packed fights, chases and shoot-outs that would rival Jason Bourne's.
Meet Dom Cobb, played expertly by Leonardo DiCaprio. He's a gun-for-hire in the corporate espionage world because of his ability to steal secrets from the mind when it is in a dream state. At the same time, he's battling personal demons. He can't get over the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and longs to get back to his two little children - except he happens to be an international fugitive.
Cobb is promised his old life back by Saito, a rich and powerful business magnate (Ken Watanabe), but only if he can pull-off one last job for Saito. Instead of stealing from someone's mind, Cobb is asked to accomplish an inception: planting an idea in a subject's mind so that after he wakes up, he thinks the idea is his own.
The mark here is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who stands to inherit a multi-billion-dollar empire from his dying father (Pete Postlethwaite). Saito needs Cobb to convince Fischer's mind that when it wakes up, the best course of action is to dissolve his fathers' business, effectively making rival Saito the most powerful man in business.
Cobb assembles an Ocean's 11-type crew with each member bringing their own strength to the table. There's Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) Cobb's right-hand man; Eames (Tom Hardy), who forges identities in dream states to become a completely different person; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist whose drug enables the crew to share the different dream states.
The newcomer to the group is Ariadne (a terrific Ellen Page), an architecture student who is brought on to design the dream world the group will travel in to. She becomes not only a key member for the group, but also a key member for the viewing audience. As Ariadne learns the rules of how the mind works, so do we. What could have potentially been a plot that's too convoluted or complicated for moviegoers to follow is made much easier through the learning curve experienced by Ariadne and, simultaneously, us.
(What's complicated to understand at times is Watannabe's English language, which could have been easily fixed with some ADR during post-production.)
Meanwhile, Cobb has not gotten over Mal's death. His former wife keeps showing up in every dream he travels to, almost ruining entire operations. Mal's presence distracts Cobb from the task at hand, preys on his jumbled emotions and weakens him like Kryptonite.
In fact, with the inception plan, Mal could possibly be the ruin of them all if Cobb doesn't find a way to come to terms with her passing - especially since on this assignment, Cobb and his crew must travel three dream states deep, each more delicate and hazardous than the last.
This is where Nolan has us sitting on the edge of our seats: as each new dream state is entered, the action continues to go on in the previous levels. We jump back and forth between all of them until we're watching three dream states going on a the same time. The actions in one affect the outcome in the other.
It is Mal's effect on Cobb and his longing to have his family together again that provides the emotional core of the story. It prevents the film from being just another blockbuster action flick - albeit a breathtakingly epic one where streets literally fold in on themselves, a freight train runs through the middle of a street and torrents of water smash through windows. The reality of Cobb's life is so bleak, he actually prefers to live in dream worlds, no matter how dangerous they are, because he doesn't have to deal with the pain and loneliness of his situation. There is a metaphor in there for how we choose to project images on to those around us rather than accept them for how they really are.
The dream worlds are so brilliantly imagined by Nolan, one has to wonder what his personal dreams are like at night. In one of the film's dream states, an anti-gravity hotel corridor is the setting for a fight scene where Gordon-Levitt's Arthur not only battles villains trying to kill him, but gathers his sleeping teammates to safety - all in a state of total weightlessness.
Gordon-Levitt, who is skilled in gymnastics, takes ownership of the zero gravity scenes, handling the acrobatics beautifully. In a conversation I had with Nolan at a recent press junket, he explained to me how shooting the scene involved creating a suspended 100 ft. long corridor that rotated a full 360 degrees, and was powered by electric motors. Gordon-Levitt was in a harness and wire, maneuvering every punch and kick in mid-air.
(That sequence and a few others were shot in the same converted airship hangars in London where Nolan previously filmed certain sequences in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.)
The film was shot in six different countries including Tokyo, England, France, Morocco, the U.S. and Canada to create the different dream worlds. According to the press notes, this - rather and soundstages and CGI overkill - was done because Nolan wanted those worlds to feel as real and concrete as possible since that is exactly how our dreams feel while we are in them - no mater what kinds of unreal things may occur within them.
Murphy, Watanabe and Michael Caine - in a small role as Cobb's father-in-law - previously worked with Nolan in his Batman franchise, as did director of photography Waly Pfister, editor Lee Smith, special effects supervisor Chris Cordould, aerial director of photography Hans Bjerno, helicopter pilot Craig Hoskins, stunt coordinator Tom Struthers, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and composer Hans Zimmer.
Hans even used an Edith Piaf song in the film, providing a subtle twist of irony: Cotillard won a best actress Oscar for portraying the torch singer in the 2007 film, La Vie En Rose.
Despite being over two hours long, the film goes by rather quickly. The tantalizing ending leaves plenty of room for discussion and debate. No doubt there is more to learn from, to understand and to notice upon multiple viewings. Inception is clearly Nolan's vision and Nolan's dream. We, as viewers, are all just simply visiting it.