At one point during Inception, you find yourself stuck with the other characters in a dream inside a dream, inside a dream, inside a dream. And there’s no guarantee that they (and thus, you) will find a way out, back into the “real world”—whatever that is. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story.
Expert dream thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has mastered the art of extracting material from the subconscious of his sleeping victims. However, when he is hired by successful industrialist Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), it isn’t to steal information, but to plant a self-destroying idea into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to Saito’s arch business rival. Though challenging, the prospect is tempting—for Saito has also offered Cobb, on successful completion of the job, his only chance to return home to his children after being on the run due to accusations that he murdered his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).
Painstaking preparation by a carefully-assembled team of a forger, chemist, and an architect result in spectacular creations of Fischer’s subconscious worlds. Yet, continually haunted by the memory of Mal and her ability to manipulate his mind, Cobb repeatedly risks sabotaging their meticulous plan; he must learn to navigate his own dreams and realities as the ghost of his elusive past threatens to destroy not only the operation at hand, but Cobb himself.*
Despite knowing next to nothing about special effects (and honestly, rarely caring about them) it would be blasphemous of me to recap Inception without mentioning some of its technological feats. With a zero-gravity, Matrix-like fight scene which has Joseph Gordon-Levitt running (floating?) down spinning hallways, a freight train hurtling down the middle of the street amidst speeding cars, and a sequence in which the entire city of Paris seems to be folding in on itself, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all. As the effects are part of the dream worlds that have been constructed by Cobb and his crew, Nolan has the license to make them as mind-blowing as he wishes. Yet he is careful not to exploit this allowance; rather than frivolous, self-indulgent spectacles, they are functions of their subconscious contexts, making it much easier for us to believe in them without scoffing at their improbability.
So much of this film focuses on explaining the logistical and temporal details of invading dreams and convincing us of the credibility of their endeavor, that the sheer complexity of the plot and devotion to special effects compromises character development. Usually for me, no amount of exploding sidewalks and snowy avalanches will compensate for lack of well-developed leading roles. Yet, here is one of those— rare— films that didn’t necessarily need to devote a great deal of time to fleshing out its principal characters to keep us invested**; as the only emotional relationship that really matters is that between Cobb and Mal, superfluous details about the backgrounds of the others may actually have been a hindrance rather than an enhancement to the film’s tempo.
This isn’t to say that the cast doesn’t deliver. The ensemble gathered here is as unique as the plot itself. Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page as Cobb’s right-hand man and principle architect, respectively, impressively move another step away from trapping themselves into careers in cutesy adolescent dramas. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be playing the same “intense” guy in his last few films. Luckily, it works here, but he is often overshadowed by Tom Hardy, whose mischievous take on his character of the forger Eames offers refreshing moments of comic relief. The scene stealer, however, is Marion Cotillard. With a role that seems small carries the fate of the entire film, her portrayal of Mal elevates Inception even higher, from being not just an extraordinary sci-fi, but a stirring love story and psychological drama as well.
I’d like to think that I have a slightly-larger-than-pea-sized intellect. But I’m not going to lie: at some points, it’s easy to go rather cross-eyed trying to understand the multiple labyrinths of subconsciousness that Chris Nolan keeps weaving us in and out of. It’s easy to feel him deftly, almost gleefully loosening the screws inside your head as you struggle to retain grasp of what is real and what isn’t. It’s easy to feel an uncontrollable desire to stand up in the middle of it all and scream for a time-out just to catch yourself up on what the heck is going on.
But that may be just what Nolan is going for: to shake our illusion that we are in control, and perhaps to make us come away from the film questioning our own dreams and realities, wondering to what extent our lives are dictated by our memories and how ready we are to confront the layers of our subconscious that we have previously shied away from.
I’m sure that, upon numerous viewings of the film, people will find all sorts of loopholes and logical imperfections to debunk its unnerving effect. But for the time being, I highly recommend this film for its compelling performances, awe-inspiring visuals, and an ending that is at once exasperating and absolutely perfect. No matter how you may feel about its technicalities, you will most likely walk out of the theater wanting to watch Inception again.
*I just read that synopsis through again and I’ve really done no justice to the story. I apologize. If you want to know how it really went, you just need to watch the movie. Probably twice.
**Or I could just have been too busy grappling with the plot to scrutinize characterization.