The lights had barely begun to dim for the screening of Inception before a member of the audience noted that “Inception‘s a ridiculous name for a film”. “It’s not even a real word,” he added. “I looked it up in the dictionary. It’s like ‘reboot’ – it’s made up.”
While said gentleman was wrong about inception being a made-up word, it is very much an unusual title for a summer blockbuster with a $200 million budget. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York may have had some movie-goers running for a dictionary, but that film was made for one-tenth the cost of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
From its title upwards though, Inception is the kind of film a major studio would only let you make if your last picture broke a billion dollars at the box office. It’s also the kind of film whose concept can’t be summed up in a few words, and whose labyrinthine plot will almost certainly confuse as many as it entertains.
But in a summer season whose schedules are clogged with sequels and unimaginative remake after unimaginative remake, director Christopher Nolan’s latest film comes as a genuine relief to our jaded sensibilities.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a professional thief whose speciality is sneaking into his victims’ sleep to steal information valuable to various powerful and sinister corporations. He’s aided and abetted by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who acts as Cobb’s point man and researcher during his dream-world heists.
But while Cobb is apparently the best thief in the business, his operations become increasingly disrupted by the ethereal presence of Mal (a brilliant Marion Cotillard), his deceased wife, who bubbles up from Cobb’s subconscious at the most inopportune times to wreck his carefully laid plans.
When Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to attempt to implant an idea into the head of the slumbering heir to a vast rival company, Cobb and his team of specialists find themselves completely unprepared for the strange dream world which awaits them.
To try to explain in further detail the matyroshka doll-like plot simply wouldn’t do it justice – Inception is a film best watched with as few preconceptions as possible, and in any case, Nolan’s urgent direction means there’s often little time to ponder one event in the action before another, even more bewildering shift in reality replaces it.
The director wastes no time in explaining exactly how Inception‘s dream-infiltrating technology works, and instead immerses us in his seductive central concept: that in the world of dreams, anything is possible, from constructing impossibly complex buildings to, in one extraordinary scene, folding an entire city over on top of itself.
Inception plays with audience perceptions in a way that hasn’t been attempted with such imaginative verve since David Cronenberg’s hugely underrated eXistenZ in 1999, and whose shifts in reality echo the best moments of writer Philip K. Dick – here, Nolan has created a world where technology renders dreams so lucid, they’re insidiously, sometimes disastrously, addictive.
Perhaps inevitably, given the breadth and ambition of Inception, it’s not a film without flaw – the first act drags somewhat, and a lengthy action sequence shot among the icy wastes of Calgary feels oddly muted, particularly compared to the more visceral shoot-outs and car chases which preceed it.
Inception also requires a phenomenal amount of belief suspension, as Nolan continously places one mind-bending plot development in front of the other. When the narrative reaches its conclusion, however, it’s with a crowd-pleasing bang, as the director’s carefully constructed realities crash down on top of one another like a tumbling house of cards.
Nolan’s status as one of Hollywood’s most preeminent directors has also allowed him to assemble an extraordinary stellar cast. Ellen Page lends the film a human, vulnerable edge as Ariadne, who Cobb hires to help him construct the worlds in which his heists take place. And Tom Hardy provides rare sparkles of comedy as Eames, a smooth-talking master of disguise.
So starry is Inception‘s cast, in fact, that respected actors such as Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite show up in comparatively small – though vital – roles with a mere handful of lines.
The quality of Inception‘s cast and often astounding visual effects aside, perhaps Nolan’s biggest triumph is that he’s managed to get such a film made in the first place. Much has been made of Inception‘s blending of sci-fi, heist and action genres, but less has been said, thus far, about what’s really at the movie’s core.
Like Nolan’s second film, the unforgettable Memento, Inception is at its heart a tragedy. Both movies are about a doomed relationship, and in particular a conflicted central character, whose every thought and action is influenced – consciously or otherwise – by his murky past and his terrible burden of guilt.
That Nolan can still make films which are personal and recognisably his own, even when provided with vast sums of cash, is the mark of a truly great director. It’s worth noting that, when James Cameron was given a truck-load of money to make a science fiction project, he came back with a film about blue hippies living in a forest.
Christopher Nolan, by contrast, has made a picture which is both original and bold, a multiplex movie which dares to reference Jung, Freud and M.C. Escher between shoot-outs. And in a climate where old ideas are continually sold back to us in shiny new packages, Inception‘s success as a showcase for ideas – not to mention good, old-fashioned popcorn-munching fun – shouldn’t be underestimated.
We can only hope that Inception is successful enough to encourage other studios to invest their capital in unique ideas that may otherwise have been rejected for yet another remake, reboot or warmed-over fourth sequel.
Coming out of Inception is like waking from a particularly lucid dream. You can’t remember everything you saw, and not all of it makes sense when you start to think about it. But there’s no denying that it’s a dizzying, electrifying movie unlike any other seen so far this summer.
Inception is released on July 16th