Available this week on DVD, “Inception” breaks a number of rules for Big Summer Movies, but it turned out to be one of last summer’s biggest hits. Oh, it has lots of special effects, a name star (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a budget reputed to be over $200 million. But it doesn’t have crude humor, a goofy plot, a romantic ending. (The teasing ending, in fact, will frustrate those who want certainty in their films.) In short, it’s not a formula film, the kind of pap that the film industry—apparently believing that we all cease to think during the summer—constantly feeds.
That said, this will not be everybody’s favorite movie—even in winter!--in part because of the chances it takes in going against the grain. The story deals with the relation between dream and reality, particularly how the former can influence the latter. Director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan layers dream upon dream, or dream within dream, sometimes confusingly but almost always intriguingly. He also mixes in chase scenes, action sequences, even a tad of humor, though none of these really characterizes the film.
To recap the plot, then, is a bit misleading, since it doesn’t capture the film’s flavor. But here goes. DiCaprio plays Cobb, a man who has lost his wife, whom he is suspected of having murdered. He literally can’t go home again to be with his two children. Cobb earns his living by getting into people’s dreams by a process that, to say the very least, is left unclear. But his team includes a chemist to put the subject under, an architect to lay the scene for the dream, an assistant who generally takes care of the necessary, and a wild card with a strong imagination.
Generally, Cobb gets inside people’s heads to extract information: secrets, desires, guilt. But now he is asked by Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea inside the mind of a powerful rival’s son: to break up his father’s business empire. This “inception” has to be made so subtly that the son (Cillian Murphy) will believe that it is his own inspiration, or change of heart.
But Cobb himself has a secret, one that keeps intruding itself into his plans, threatening to blow the whole scheme apart. One of his recruits, Ariadne (Ellen Page), finds out about it by tracking down through the layers of Cobb’s subconscious. Good at creating mazes, Ariadne must ultimately supply the thread that gets Cobb and the team back to “reality”—if that’s where they wind up.
Nolan keeps things moving along at such a feverish pace that you don’t have time to reflect on the plot’s several problems, nor even the desire to. Di Caprio, Page, and Marion Cottilard as Cobb’s late wife are especially good, again helping us to suspend disbelief by making their characters credible. Film editor Lee Smith and cinematographer Wally Pfister create much of the scenes’ look and the internal logic that ties scenes together, generally avoiding what could have been a hopeless tangle.
The previews generally tried to sell “Inception” on the strength of the computer-generated imagery: indeed, the technical work here is impressive, but it’s not the main appeal, at least for those who want to think about a film after they’ve left the theater. I’m looking forward to seeing it on DVD. The film is rated “PG-13,” and I’m guessing that many preteens would be lost in its mazes, in any case. But adults and fans of, say, “The Matrix” will likely be impressed.