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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-