Film Review: Inception

A professional information thief who steals straight from his victims’ unconscious minds undertakes one last job that inevitably proves more complicated than he imagined. Dazzling, riveting spectacle from 'Dark Knight' director Christopher Nolan.

In a not-too-distant future, no one’s secrets are safe, not even those buried in the deepest recesses of their minds: High-tech “extraction” technology allows teams of spies-for-hire to manipulate the dreams of others, creeping around their thoughts and riffling through their subconscious minds. Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best in the business—good enough that even former victims like corporate hotshot Saito (Ken Watanabe) turn to him when they need someone to do the impossible.

Saito is in a position to offer Cobb the one thing he wants most in the world: a way home. Saito’s connections can erase the murder charge that forced Cobb to flee his country and abandon his children to the care of their grandfather (Michael Caine), and all he has to do in return is get inside the head of Richard Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a multinational empire, and plant the idea to dismantle it so deep that Fischer will believe he thought of it all by himself.

Conventional wisdom has it that mental capital only flows one way: You can dig it out, but you can’t sneak it in. Cobb knows otherwise and assembles a team willing to do the mindwarp with him: chameleon Eames (Tom Hardy), who can assume any identity within a dream; chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), whose concoctions facilitate deep, prolonged sleep; architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), who imagines every physical detail of the dream world; and point-man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who sweats whatever details need sweating.

The only newbie in the bunch, Ariadne quickly realizes what the others don’t: that the persistent dream presence of Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard)—whom he was accused of killing—isn’t just a pesky sign of lingering grief. It’s a giant, flashing-neon warning that Cobb is on the fast track to a full-blown mental meltdown.

By their nature, rubber-reality movies walk a thin line between clever and stupid. But when they work, the balancing act is breathtaking: Just think back to 1999, when The Matrix had fanboys, mall rats and cineastes alike lined up for a tumble down the rabbit hole. Inception owes both The Matrix and the all-but-forgotten Dreamscape (1984), in which a psychic is unwittingly drawn into a plot to assassinate the President of the United States in his dreams, a debt of imagination. But writer-director Christopher Nolan is much more than a crass recycler of other people’s cool ideas, and his greatest strength is the ability to tether pop-culture spectacle to authentic emotions.

If Inception were all spectacle, it would be nothing more than magic trick of the month: nifty but disposable, at the mercy of smart alecks eager to reveal the cogs and wheels behind the illusion. But while one day soon the eye-popping effects will inevitably look dated, Cobb’s misery—a messy mix of grief, guilt, denial and resentment—will continue to feel painfully real. Whether or not history validates comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception is a superior summer movie, one with heart and brains and loads of razzle-dazzle.