The Arizona Republic - July 14, 2010


'Inception': Intricate dream caper blows minds

by Bill Goodykoontz -


"Inception" is either a great, mind-bending movie or one big swindle.

Let's go with the former.

Christopher Nolan's film traffics in the landscape of dreams, taking us inside the heads of his characters and bringing us along for the wild rides that take place there. On the simplest level, it's a caper flick, about a thief trying to pull off one last score before leaving the business for good. But Nolan piles level upon level upon level, each more intricate than the last.

The visuals are stunning, perhaps the most fully realized of any film. And yet, as over-the-top as it may sound for the streets of Paris first to rise 90 degrees and then fold over on top of themselves, in this context it is not simply showing off for the sake of doing so, but a believable part of the story.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in trademark wounded-man mode (that's not a complaint; he does it well), plays Dom Cobb, whom we first meet washed up on a beach. He's taken to see an old man, and then he's somewhere else, with different people, and then somewhere else again. Nolan doesn't simplify the story for the audience; it's best just to hold on and wait for things to fall into place.

Gradually we learn that Cobb is an extractor, someone who can get inside a person's dreams and retrieve information there. He works with Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who handles the grunt work of dream infiltration. A high-powered client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), wants what some think is impossible: for Cobb to plant the seed of an idea into the dreams of a competitor (Cillian Murphy), a complicated process known as inception.

Cobb knows, from experience, that it can be done, but he also knows the cost. Still, if he can complete this one last job, it'll mean being cleared of a crime he was set up for, and seeing his beloved children, from whom he has been separated. Thus he brings more members to the team - Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who will take care of putting everyone into a dream state; Eames (Tom Hardy, so great as the title character in "Bronson" and exceptional here, as well), a "forger," who can impersonate people in dreams; and Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architecture student brought in to help construct the dreamscapes in which the inception will take place. Why does Cobb need an architect? Can't he build his own dreams? Ah, he can. But he won't. The reason why is a part of the story best discovered for yourself.

So is the role Cobb's wife, Mal (an outstanding Marion Cotillard), plays in his life. Loss, obsession and the possibility of redemption are key themes Nolan is working with here. Mal will come to embody all three for Cobb.

Nolan plays with a lot of things - perception and reality, of course, but also time. In life, a second is a second. In dreams, a second may last 10 minutes. In dreams within dreams, the second may stretch to an hour. In dreams within dreams within dreams? You could be talking about years. (Who would want to spend 10 years in a dream? "Depends on the dream," one character wisely observes.) Nolan puts this to great use, layering dream upon dream, and thus story upon story, creating an interlocking puzzle for the audience to figure out. (Don't worry, it's more fun than that sounds.)

The dreams are, as you would expect, marvels of computer-generated effects, but also marvels of Nolan's imagination (he also wrote the script). While an architect like Ariadne can construct specific elements, there are always wild cards to be dealt with, "projections," bits of your subconscious that take shape in dreams. These can range from amusing to deadly.

Movies like this are often suspect. Sure, we know that Nolan, who directed "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," but also numbers the time-twisting "Memento" among his credits, handles complex subjects and large canvases with relative ease. But here the effects are so immense and crucial to the story, it's easy to worry that we're being tricked, fooled into thinking we're watching a movie that looks fantastic but ultimately adds up to nothing.

Not so, not in this case. Nolan goes to great effort to tie up the loose ends, to hold the story together - inasmuch as dreams can be held together. For the movie to work, the story has to work on all its levels, and it does. So, too, do all elements of the film.

It's a stunning movie, the kind of thing we haven't seen before, the kind of thing so ambitious and creative you wonder when, or if, we'll see it again.

5 stars