Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) was the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career up to that point in time. This film mixed the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). It took the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with the science fiction genre as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering the dreams of their targets – think Dreamscape (1984) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve – and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Heat) – there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues his fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real right down to the last enigmatic image.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, he is visited by his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful, and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has only been done once before and Cobb was the person that pulled it off but can he do it again? In exchange for completing the job, Saito will make the necessary arrangements so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities in connection with his wife’s death. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.
Inception delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. While there is a lot of exposition dialogue to absorb during these scenes, Nolan also keeps things visually interesting at the same time. This is arguably the most cerebral part of the film as he explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on – pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are all impressively staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with the character of Cobb and his desire to return home to his children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.
Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tried to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focused on a costumed vigilante that waged war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, and layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that the actor does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.
Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Gordon-Levitt and Hardy, in particular, are stand-outs and their banter provides several moments of enjoyable levity during the course of this intense, engrossing film. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity – think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight – and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger some well-deserved mainstream exposure after languishing in direct-to-video hell, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.
Regardless if whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film up to that point. With Inception, he created a world on a scale that he never attempted before and was able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.