Christopher Nolan's Inception is a silly maze with a relentlessly pounding score seemingly designed to SHOUT that this film is not BORING, but it IS in places, and it also takes outrageous liberties with the willing suspension of disbelief which I will not decree here is necessarily a good or bad thing. Despite all that, it's good, complex and solidly entertaining. The acting is all first-rate, with stiff upper lips for yelling out significant plot points without giggling.
Inception incepts with our hero, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio of the similar Shutter Island), washing up on the beach against the vanilla sky in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Clearly something titanic has happened in this boy's life; he seems a dead man. Within view is a sort of pagoda-palace, surrounded by security guards who notice him and quickly take his gun and another significant memento, which are all he is carrying. They bring the prisoner face to face with the lord of the manor, with whom he has a cryptic conversation about the nature of time and existen(z)ce.
Before we can determine if this is real or only a dreamscape, if we're lost in Okinawa, Dallas, on Mulholland Dr. or Elm Street or in the twilight zone, we seem to skip forward and back at the same time to a naked lunch in the same ornate chamber, where Cobb explains to Saito (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) that he is a neuromancer, or "dream extractor," offering to work for Saito to protect his dreams from similar intrusions to the one Cobb represents, into Saito's subconscious.
But Saito's had some experience with these dream invasions before, training his subconscious to dream lucidly and fight back against unwanted dream contact. Strange days indeed when such outrageous technology in the science of sleep has spread widely enough that people train against it. Saito manages to escape from the altered states in which Cobb and his team are holding him in the dream world and in his waking life, but secretly begins to agree with Cobb's own stated worth as the Wizard of Oz of dream warriors--as an avatar, he's the aviator--and offers him another gig: inception.
Inception is different from extraction, inception represents the true outer limits of the dream-creating art. Cobb and his team have extraction down pretty pat, they plant an idea in the subject's mind of where the secrets are kept, allow his subconscious to place all its x-files there, then steal them. Sometimes this involves creating levels, dreams within dreams, to fool even well-trained fortress minds. Inception means planting an idea or course of action in a subject's mind as if it were their own, and must involve a complicated Jacob's Ladder, or cabinet of Dr. Caligari, if you will, of dreams within dreams, with information and intellectual and emotional manipulation placed just so on each level to hide the true origin of the idea. Cobb thinks he can do it, that he even may have done it before. He's skeptical of Saito at first, until he's made an offer he can't refuse, a chance to avoid taking the fall, and his objections fly away on wings of desire.
His team having recently experienced some growing pains with the failure of the first Saito operation, Cobb and his trusted partner, taxi driver and ceiling-dancer ("I had a dream, I had an awesome dream"), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), begin assembling a larger team for the inception mission, the target of which is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy, The Dark Knight), heir to a large energy fortune Saito would like to see scattered to the wind, and whose father (Pete Postlethwaite), rarely enough, is not named Robert, Sr., but Maurice (also Michael Caine's real name). Caine, a frequent Nolan collaborator, plays Cobb's father, a professor, and a consultation with him about smart people gets Cobb a recommendation for a new "dream architect," Ariadne (Ellen Page), who builds the matrix of the dreams. Cobb finds forger and mercenary Eames (Tom Hardy, smashing) in Mombasa, in a barroom drinking gin (like Roland found Van Owen), then together they drop some real-world surveillance and recruit the sedation expert Yusuf (Dileep Rao, fun in Drag Me to Hell and good here). The cell trains and plans and grabs Fischer on his regular redeye flight from Sydney to L.A., and gets ready for what dreams may come.
Ah, but there are secrets. Cobb has a past with his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, Oscar winner for La Vie en Rose, so great in Nine and Public Enemies), a fellow pioneer in lucid dreaming research, and architect, with Cobb, of a dark city of shared fantasy. She stalks his dreams--not just his, but those he shares with his team--as a memory, an obsession, an obstacle, a projection of his own subconscious as well as his long-held notions of her. If he's Alice, she's the mad clatter in his dream Wonderlands. Her presence frequently threatens the integrity of the team's plans, even to make flatliners of them all, not to mention Cobb's own at-times tenuous connection to the fountain of reality. Will it end up as a ghost story, a Romeo + Juliet tragedy, or another sunny (500) days of summer? Emit Flesti can tell you the answer is faraway so close.
Hans Zimmer contributes a notably and relentlessly pounding score inspired by the depressing parts of Mahler and Herrmann, with some Tibetan- or Mongolian-style deep vibrations for the climax. It's strangely free of artifice or even wit, and effectively becomes the driving pulse of the film. The scenes change, the rules change, the characters change a little, but the score just THROBS and THRUMS. Except when it plays Edith Piaf (not "My Husband Makes Movies" or "Bye Bye Blackbird"). But there are regrets.
Inception is unique, and uniquely successful, despite many similarities to many other films, and direct references to others. It artistically limns strong themes of obsession, romance, self-sabotage, group action and dynamics, reality vs. fantasy, memories of the departed, sanity, longing and of course the dream world and its true nature. It moves emotionally and moves fast even for an action film, despite talkiness at times. It seems to conclude, like Macbeth, that life "is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." But, what the heck, still and all, it's a wonderful life. I wish it were a little less tidy and neat and a bit more dangerous. It's not necessarily the greatest movie of its often-oddball genre. And it's not for everybody, indeed, some may wish that instead of seeing it, they'd kept their eyes wide shut, especially those who've seen signs or had a sixth sense they might not like it. We don't find out what's on the thirteenth floor, why 12 monkeys and not 11, the secret of Roan Inish, what it's like being John Malkovich in Synecdoche, New York, or what's eating Gilbert Grape, but it still works. I've seen it twice, and with a good crowd, there'll probably be gasping and laughing at the very end. So-lar-is that....
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