Stop right now. I mean it, stop reading. If you have not already seen “Inception,” there is nothing I can tell you that would not diminish your experience of this film. The less you know going in, the better you will appreciate the unfolding, doubling-back, and overall mind-bending stories within stories in one of the year’s best films. So, go see it and then come back and read what I have to say and share your thoughts about what you think it is all about.
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Okay, welcome back.
Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Memento”) has written and directed that rarest of movie pleasures, a fantasy action movie for people who like to think. It’s kind of, sort of, “The Matrix” crossed with “The Sting,” “Fantastic Voyage,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” On crack. It’s the kind of movie people will argue about all the way home, go see again, and argue about some more. Nolan understands that the power of movies is that they allow the audience to plug into a kind of Jungian collective dream and he takes that idea to the meta-level, and then metas it a couple more times.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is part of a renegade team that has taken corporate espionage to the next level. They do not steal secrets from the offices and memos of corporate executives. They steal secrets from their minds. Cobb has taken techniques developed by his professor father (Michael Caine) and come up with a way to enter into the subconscious of these people by literally entering and manipulating their dreams. This, of course, has led to the development of a whole new industry of counter-dream espionage through bolstering the subject’s psychological defenses. Within a dream, as with other abstract concepts, they are made explicit and concrete as armed assassins. Being shot by them affects the physical reality of the avatar-like representation of the person entering the subject’s dream. It can hurtle them out of the dream entirely. Or, it can push them into an endless mental limbo.
Audiences may feel (enjoyably) as though they have toppled into an endless mental limbo as the characters’ journey takes them into dreams within dreams, each with its own setting, time (moments in one dream level equal weeks in a deeper one), and properties. Sometimes those properties seep across dream boundaries, with vertiginous shifts in physical properties. In one extraordinary sequence, characters in an otherwise-standard-looking hotel become weightless and fights take place as though they are all under water.
The team knows how to extract thoughts from dreams, even the subjects’ most guarded secrets, made material within the minds’ fortresses and vaults. “Create something secure and the mind automatically fills it with something it wants to protect,” explains a character.
A new client insists that they must do something far more difficult — implant an idea, and do it so quietly that the subject will believe he thought it up himself. All of this is in the context of a slyly chosen, well-worn set-up, the last big heist. Dom wants out. He wants to go home. He wants to see the faces of his children. And this is his last chance.
The visual razzle-dazzle is breathtaking, especially as new member of the team Ariadne (“Juno’s” Ellen Page) is introduced to the world of dream architecture. But what makes the film so enthralling is its own fully-realized intellectual architecture, the rules and consequences of its world view that seem so complete they extend far beyond the borders of the story. This is a film that will reward repeated viewings. It will be the subject of late-night dorm discussions, application essays, and possibly some scholarly exegesis because of the way it poses provocative concepts of identity, responsibility, and consciousness. “Reality is not going to be enough for her, now,” Dom says as Ariadne explores an architect’s ultimate fantasy of creation. Yes, and that’s why we have movies. After all, dreams and reality feed each other. As Humphrey Bogart said in “The Maltese Falcon” and Shakespeare said long before that, they’re “the stuff that dreams are made of.”