Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-

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17 Responses

  1. Methinks your review is pretty brilliant itself. First off, I’m impressed with how you were able to synopsize it so effectively while including all the actors! :) Second, it’s a great allusion to movies claiming they’ve reached the peak of “new worlds” when people like Christopher Nolan are still around to create brand new worlds. It was something else.

  2. I love this movie without reservation, even though I can point to a handful of solid problems. The broken linearity of this and The Prestige (his best film) make Memento look like child’s play. Most of all, I love how Nolan can be so literal yet deal constantly with the abstract: dreams, magic, memory, morality. Those who complained that he shouldn’t make a movie about dreams may have a point, but I think his execution makes his film into something original instead of the Bunuel/Gilliam ripoff that some seemed to want.

  3. Agree with Luke about your review, but then again I don’t expect anything less. I’d give it the same grade if I were to rate my reviews, as despite its discombobulating storyline, it still mesmerized me. I said in my review that Tom Hardy stole scenes, but I failed to mention that Ken Watanabe radiates intensity and such poise that his name could’ve been the top billing if studios aren’t so concerned about box office take. So yeah, top notch casting definitely!

  4. Excellent review Meredith! I do disagree that the structure of the movie is nearly as complex as the one for Memento. Behind its “complexity”, Inception is actually a quite straightforward film. In all, this is a movie to be admired like a painting, rather than felt like a beautiful song.

    • @ Luke — “Something else” was a good way to describe “Inception.” I wouldn’t say it was perfect — few films are — but it was impressive enough that I didn’t care about the flaws. Plus, with a cast like this, what’s not to love?

      @ Jake — Probably I’d stick by what I said in the review: Dreams to me really are the last unexplored terrain. Like Nolan said, why not exploit them? Why not create one for us and lead us inside, then let us wander around? It’s ambitious as hell, but if anyone could make it work it’s Nolan. (And I agree about “The Prestige” — it’s still my favorite thing he’s done.)

      @ Ruth — Tom Hardy and JGL were great together — a real couple of cards. Marion Cotillard continues to amaze me. I can’t decide if I’m in awe of her beauty (the woman just RADIATES) or her talent.

      @ Castor — If you thought “Inception” was straightforward, clearly you need to pass some of your smartness on to me! I tend to think “Inception” engages both the mind and the emotions, much the same way “The Dark Knight” did. Nolan has a way of making these layered films with characters that SHOULD be hollow but are not. Leo, Marion, Ken, Ellen — all characters I felt for even though I didn’t know them. That’s good writing and good acting.

  5. Lovely review (I’ll agree with Luke). And JGL and Tom Hardy have some intense sexual chemistry. I kept expecting a slap-slap-kiss, it was so palpable. Maybe.

    Everyone was fantastic, my young mind exploded at the visuals.

    • Good point about the sexual tension — it was even better than the Sam/Frodo homoeroticism of “Lord of the Rings”!

  6. If anything, I think this film is hampered by Nolan’s imagination which is restrained and subdued by reality. His dreamscape, while visually arresting, lacks the kind of unsettling and illogical slant present in real dreams.

    Plus, his inability to craft an engaging cast of characters makes for a distance from the stakes of the film because there’s no kind of emotional investment in these characters.

    The intellectual construction is amazing, but I never found this film pulling me into the universe or characters like it should have.

    • Totally agree James, the true one element that could have pushed this movie to the next level would have been an emotional heart. Something that this movie lacks. Nonetheless, still a very good summer movie when it’s all said and done.

    • I respectfully disagree about the characters — I think they are more engaging than they have any right to be, particularly Mal. The problem with a lot of heist films is that the people aren’t really individuals. Here, they are. Caine should have been given more to do, though.

  7. I too had to point out the art direction and score, which were very impressive. Some great insight here, but I must say that I thought this film fell well short and cannot fathom all of the praise and hype that this film seems to be getting. His second half is painstakingly slow, there are gaps in the story (but that’s ok, because Nolan uses dreams to get out of that) and the characterization, which you bring up is stale and 2-dimensional. I need to see it again, but my initial reaction here is it has been grossly overrated. Not a bad film by any stretch. I very much liked the first half and the whole dynamic with the wife was great. Cotillard is terrific. Not sure why Caine was needed and Watanabe’s lines get lost to confuse the viewer even more.

  8. Hmm, a lot of people seem to have noticed Hans Zimmer’s score, especially toward the end. To be honest, I didn’t really notice it. Perhaps that’s a good thing because I was too enraptured by the story and characters.

    Splendid review as usual. I admire your flowy-ness. Something I need to work on.

    • @ Peter — I said this on Mad Hatter’s podcast, but I wish Caine had been given more to do. He looks very wise — Roger Ebert noted that he’s one of the few actors who shows up and looks like the wisest man in the room — but not much more.

      @ Franz — I read somewhere that Nolan looked at the score as something to be used sparingly — to illustrate certain elements or scenes, like the mountaintop fortress showdown. And thanks for complimenting my flowyness. That may be the word of the day.

  9. Zimmer’s loudness never fails to excite me

  10. Great review M. Carter! I really enjoyed this film as well and it’s definitely my favorite film this year (so far).

  11. My husband and I both loved this one.

  12. [...] “Inception” Christopher Nolan's "Inception" blurs the line between dreams and reality for Cobb [...]

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