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Watching Inception is like striking a match and setting your brain on fire. The movie’s tagline, your mind is the scene of the crime, is so much more than a reference to what happens in the film. Sure the plot involves a group of dream-invading thieves, but in the process of telling that story, something much bigger happens inside your own head. It’s as if writer/director Chris Nolan has invaded your brain as well. As he attempts to unlock the secrets of the human psyche, his movie implants its own ideas in your subconscious. You’ll walk out of Inception questioning your own reality. It’s a feeling I haven’t had since the first time I saw The Matrix, only, Inception pulls it off without fetish leather and kung fu.
Inception spends almost all of its running time risking collapse as the plot becomes more and more complicated. It never holds back. It dares to challenge its characters and its audience. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb as a desperate man teetering on the edge. We learn he has the technology to invade people’s dreams and he uses it to get inside their head and steal secrets. Where this technology came from or exactly how it works is never discussed, it’s accepted by everyone as a matter of course. Is Inception set in a near future? An alternate universe? We don’t know it’s just one of the many layers hidden inside Nolan’s film left for you to either unravel or accept as the rules of this world. And as Cobb’s story unfolds, it’s riddled with more unexplained complexity. We learn that he’s unable to return to America to see his kids, but don’t know why. Are we even sure his kids exist? Is Cobb mad? At some point you’ll have to decide, but Inception won’t give you all the answers.
Cobb assembles a team and starts diving deeper and deeper into the dreams of their target. His dream-thieves are like psychology superheroes and their discussions of how to invade and alter the human consciousness from the inside out are as fascinating as any fight scene. But just in case you were wondering, Inception has a few of those as well. Joseph-Gordon Levitt ends up with the movie’s most physically demanding role as Cobb’s assistant Arthur and the zero gravity combat sequence he pulls off towards the end of the film may be one of the coolest things you’ll ever see on screen.
Cobb isn’t interested in the gritty details of how they’ll get their mission done, though. He’s too wrapped up in himself, his private hell, his all-consuming need to get home. He hopes that if he goes deep enough, dreaming dreams within dreams, within dreams, within dreams, he’ll be able to plant an idea in the mind of the dreamer and in the process, earn himself a ticket back to his kids. But as the dreams pile on top of each other, as Cobb throws himself in deeper, he risks losing himself and in trying to unravel it, you may lose yourself along with him.
Inception captures the inner workings of dreams in a way no other movie has before: Realistically. How do you know when you’re dreaming? You don’t, at least not until you wake up. The world of Nolan’s dreams is almost real and you’ll have to look closely around the edges for discontinuity, for the little places where things don’t quite fit together. It’s all there in the way the movie’s filmed and as Hans Zimmer’s brilliant, throbbing score swells around you in the theater and Nolan’s carefully chosen images shine out from the screen you may even find yourself wondering not if you’re watching a dream, but if you’re actually in one.
As the dreams go deeper the complexity of what’s happening skews dangerously close to becoming overwhelming and there are a million moments in the film when it could have and maybe it all should have collapsed under its own weight, buried beneath Nolan’s psychological hubris. At times understanding it is almost like trying to hold four or five different movies in your head all at once. Yet it never collapses. Inception runs along a razor’s edge, layering worlds on top of each other and pushing the audience’s ability to keep up right to the breaking point, but never passing it. It holds together because even if you’re baffled by the details, Inception isn’t actually a movie about the riddles of dreams. Though the plot’s ever deepening layers play out with impossibly perfect precision, at its root this is the ultimate heist film, what matters are ideas and Inception has big ones. It’s not the idea Cobb is trying to implant in his subject that matters, it’s the ideas that Nolan’s movie quietly plants inside you.
Inception is about ideas; contagious, powerful, unstoppable ideas and how they shape the way we live, breathe, and think. It wonders how you became the person are and explores how the things you’ve experienced have affected the decisions you’ve made and will make. It’s a blisteringly original and breathtakingly smart, a movie willing to take every risk imaginable to create a significant work of art using the power of cinema. That it does that while also entertaining the hell out of everyone who buys a ticket to see it, is an achievement beyond measure. You won’t just like Inception, you’ll be a better person for having seen it.