Inception is, at its roots, a classic caper film. The movie introduces us to a group of criminals, assembled by mastermind Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), with a truly unique set of talents. Cobb and his right hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are professional "Extractors." Using a special device, these men are skilled in the art of "dream sharing." By entering another's slumber, or pulling others into their own subconscious, Cobb and his allies comb the depths of their target's mind for carefully guarded secrets. In the competitive corporate world, this is a lucrative, though often dangerous career.
Cobb is a skilled extractor, but he is haunted by his past. Accused of murdering his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), he is unable to return to the United States and be with his two young children. Furthermore, his deceased lover is a recurring presence that appears in his dreams. Growing progressively more violent, the ghost of his wife becomes a dangerous part of his subconscious that poses a threat to his missions in the dream world. With this in mind, Cobb accepts a job from energy magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe). The catch is that this is a mission of inception, and not extraction. Inception requires that an idea be placed in the subject's mind so that it will spread to affect their actions in the real world. This is a difficult task which, according to many who dabble in dream sharing, simply cannot be done. Saito wants Cobb and his team to convince rival energy heir Robert Fischer (Cilian Murphy) to break up the his dying father's (Pete Postlethwaite) company, and has offered DiCaprio's character a safe return to his family in the US as the reward. Unable to resist the opportunity to put his demons to rest, Cobb agrees, and his last job is afoot.
The cast of Inception is one of the film's greatest strengths. As is often the case, DiCaprio does not disappoint. He plays a lead that exudes the confidence of a skilled thief, while letting the audience view the gradually enlarging chinks in his armor as they become more relevant. As the appropriately named Ariadne, Ellen Page is the character with which the audience can most readily relate. As a new recruit to Cobb's team of experts, her training for the role of "architect" (the one who literally builds the landscape of the dreams) provides Nolan with the excuse to explain the rich fiction of the art of dream manipulation to the audience. She plays the part with the trademark precocious and adorable air that has made her famous. Ken Watanabe is also a welcome presence. His bit part in Batman Begins (2005) is far surpassed by his headstrong transformation from extraction victim, to insistent member of the inception team. Tom Hardy plays Eames, a "forger" with the ability to impersonate others in the dream world. His character's smooth charisma and nonchalance provides refreshing comic relief against Cobb's serious determination and Arthur's by-the-books attitude. Nolan's old standby Michael Caine also makes a brief, but pleasant appearance. Each member of the inception team is only given a first name. It is one of the few reminders that each of these characters is portraying a contract criminal out to destroy a man's livelihood. Their likability, when paired with their less-than-admirable goals gives Inception a unique dynamic. If I may lodge one minor complaint, it would be that as the ailing, and eventually deceased Maurice Fischer, Pete Postlethwaite's tremendous talent as a character actor is woefully underused.
(Gordon-Levitt's Arthur [Left] plays the proverbial "straight man" to DiCaprio's brilliant but risk-prone Cobb [Right].)
It is the complex nature of Inception's fiction that will make or break the film for many. Nolan has endeavored to render the art of dream sharing as detailed science. The first half of the film, as with many caper movies, consists of the planning stages for the job. Many of these scenes are used to explain the complicated rules behind invading others' dreams. It is easy to get lost in the web of explanations, and this lengthy exposition may be too much for some. For those truly creative minds who are interested in the realm of dreams however, it is this beginning portion, and not the action packed journey through Fischer's mind, that is the true star of the film. Anyone who has ever been fascinated by flights of fancy that their own minds have taken as they sleep, or bothered to investigate the possibility of lucid dreaming, will be swept up in the way that Nolan has engaged with many age-old questions. What happens when you die in a dream? Why is it that you can never explain exactly how a dream began? How does the mind populate itself with random faces to build crowds in our fantasies? Why does our body wake us with a jolt and the distinct feeling of falling? These questions all become part of the world of Inception and are cleverly made into matters of importance with which dream sharers must deal.
(The dream worlds of Inception are governed by a series of fascinating rules. Here a dreamer tumbles, and the world of his subconscious is sent into a disorienting spiral.)
In his review of the film Kotaku's Stephen Totilo related the world of Inception to the world of video games. I would be remiss if The Consummate Nerd failed to mention this connection. As Totilo points out, whether Nolan intended or not, the dream realm of the film, and those who operate within it, bear more than a striking resemblance to the video game industry. I would expand this parable to cover the film industry as well. The creation of these worlds, and attempt to populate them, and make them immersive, resembles the craft that developers and filmmakers engage in each day. As the movie's characters grapple with getting lost in dreams, and becoming ever more dissatisfied with what reality can offer, film buffs and game fans may find their daily sentiments eerily echoed.
As Ariadne first revels in the creative possibilities of the dream world, audiences will hopefully remember exactly why it is that sometimes they are so reticent to leave the mysterious realities that their subconscious creates each night. For me, Inception ended with the same distinct sense of loss that I feel when I abruptly wake from an incredible dream; complete fascination, with my mind unable to give up on milling over what it had just experienced. This is, in many ways, what going the movies is all about. In Inception, Christopher Nolan has created a true gem. By manipulating a classic form, and telling a story with love and dedication, he has made a dream for lifelong dreamers.