Overlong yet awesome. What else did you expect from a Christopher Nolan flick?
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a very special kind of thief: he steals from your mind. A billionaire industrialist (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to do just the opposite, planting the seed of an idea, an inception. Cobb’s specialized team includes an architect who can design the environment of a dream (Ellen Page), a forger who can assume the identity of people a target knows (Tom Hardy), and a handful of specialists who know how to get around inside a dream. In addition to setting up when the mission will take place, the group must also plan their escape from the dream as well as create multiple layers of engagement to obscure their intentions from the target (Cillian Murphy.) Unfortunately, Cobb himself carries secrets that could not only thwart the mission but possibly doom them all to being unable to wake ever again.
Moviegoers have experienced this kind of dream invasion concept before: Dreamscape, Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and pretty much the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series to name a few. Writer/director Christopher Nolan starts with these ideas and creates his own set of rules while weaving multiple story lines in and around them, all to an engaging effect. Add to this the possibility that someone might be trained or instructed to ward off such an attack and that one of the team members has a few psychological issues of their own, and the stage is set for plenty of drama. Although the middle and final act both leave room for a bit of trimming that could have moved the film along a little quicker, there’s a lot of story to tell, and Nolan manages to balance it all while making you care about the characters it’s happening to.
The script has taken liberties with the established science of controlled dreaming, or lucid dreaming, to create a sense of urgency. Using fictional “dream syncing technology” (developed by and for the military, of course), multiple specialists can enter and ride out someone else’s dream. Once inside, the trick is to avoid alarming both the dreamer and their subconscious mind’s attempt to protect itself and keep any secrets hidden, often in the form of “projections” that act as extras in the dreamscape who eventually seek out manipulators to end their interference. The script does a great job of introducing viewers to the rules (mostly through Ellen Page’s character) as well as reinforcing them as plot points throughout the story. Science fiction fans live for details like this, and Inception delivers the goods.
The layered storyline has plenty of opportunities to go off the rails (like the kind of manipulative ending that Shutter Island finished with), but Inception never takes its eye off the ball and runs with it to the very end of the field, delivering on its promise to both intrigue and entertain. In addition to some great performances, the overall production trusts the audience that they can keep up with the complexities being thrown at them, and that’s been a rare thing this summer. This is the kind of film studios need to green light more often: high concept, daring action, and meaningful drama all orchestrated by the crafting hand of a director who knows what he wants and makes it happen.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)