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Inception is a movie about ideas, quite literally-- stealing them, creating them, their power and their ability to linger. But this is a Christopher Nolan movie, so of course it's about Big Ideas, about reality and heartbreak and choosing how to best live our too-brief lives. The fact that Inception is also fun and emotional and thrilling, even with all those eggheady concepts wrapped inside it, makes the movie a true marvel. It's not quite perfect, but it's uncommonly ambitious and courageous, which is close enough.
Don't worry too much about spoilers for this film, as the central concepts of Inception are too complicated and frankly ridiculous sounding to be clear from the mouth of anyone but Nolan and his characters. At its core Inception is a heist movie, about a team of operatives led by haunted soul Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to venture into peoples' minds and extract the darkest secrets from their subconscious. In this particular mission, which will be Dom's last, the goal is a little different. Japanese business mogul Saito (Ken Watanabe) has assigned them to the perilous task of Inception, planting an idea so deep in the subconscious of rival CEO Fischer (Cillian Murphy) that he believes he thought of it himself.
Like any good thief, Dom must assemble a team, and he sticks with the best-- his young stuffed shirt second-in-command Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), budding architectural prodigy Ariadne (Ellen Page), slippery thief Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Saito himself, who tags along despite Eames's condescending "There's no room for tourists on these jobs." Dom and his team don't just enter Fischer's dream, they define it, guiding him toward his darkest secrets and so far through several layers of consciousness that the risks are compounded even further than usual. It's a tough job under the best of circumstances, but when immersed in dreams-- his own or someone else's-- Dom is haunted by a particularly persuasive projection of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who shows up to ruin his missions for reasons Dom isn't willing to explain.
The layers of the heist fall in place like the familiar Nolan clockwork, so that the images that seem so foreign in the trailers-- zero-gravity fights in hallways, stony cliffs collapsing into oceans-- make perfect sense within the airtight dream logic of the movie. It's not just that Inception whips between beautiful foreign locations and tweaked dream realities, but that each of those created worlds seem fully realized to the tiniest surreal detail; Nolan uses his penchant for polished, elegant visuals to create dream worlds that are unsettling in their perfectness. The warm ochre lights in a dining room, the glistening fruit at a market in Paris-- all are beautiful, all are fake, and all represent our subconscious as it reveals our deepest secrets.
Nolan's screenplay, which he worked on for nearly a decade, keeps the audience on a leash that is expertly loosened and tightened throughout, allowing us sometimes to predict what's coming and other times ramping up the suspense so that we can't imagine how the team will make it out alive. The greatest accomplishment is providing stakes for the dream worlds-- yes, dying in a dream means you just wake up, but there are plenty of exceptions to that rule that Dom tweaks willingly. And while Inception is primarily a narrow heist film set within a brand-new universe in which dreams can be shared, Nolan deftly explore other possible ramifications of such a collective unconscious, namely what it can mean to share someone else's dreams, and how two people can meet in a dream and in reality with different results.
Inception constantly invites you to marvel in expertise, both that of the characters and the filmmakers themselves-- Wally Pfister's camera work, Hans Zimmer's score, Chris Corbould's visual effects are all unparalleled and utilized beautifully. But for all its cleverness Inception lets down its characters from time to time, denying nearly every character save Dom a meaningful character arc, and revealing much of Dom's mysterious back story-- which whispers its way provocatively through the film's first half-- in a chunky expositional monologue. His story has tremendous emotional payoff near the end, and there is great satisfaction in merely watching the team come together as equals, but it's hard not to wish for something more from the smaller characters. Gordon-Levitt, Page and particularly Hardy make strong impacts in their limited roles, as does Michael Caine in what amounts to a glorified cameo, but for the large part they are merely eloquent pieces of a particularly impressive machinery. Cotillard is an exception, her beauty and fragile voice adding an ethereal, unforgettable quality to her every scene.
And while the many wows of Inception come almost entirely from visual splendor, big ideas or impressive fight sequences, DiCaprio provides added dazzle with yet another well-calibrated, weight-of-the-world performance. The third act of the film is almost nonstop action culminating in visual effects-aided heartbreak, but in the denouement a single shot of DiCaprio, his face both a mask and a soul laid bare, has just as much impact. Inception can feel cold at times, more interested in the stunning mechanics of its plot and its philosophies than the characters who guide us through it, but in its best moments it has the power to swiftly, almost subconsciously, devastate you. On that level it surpasses The Dark Knight, not allowing its flawed heroes to hide behind masks and scars, but literally laying open their minds for us to explore.
Possibly the most important thing of all about Inception is that it is easily the most original film of the summer and likely to be the most successful as well, a clear reminder that big budgets can be spent on new ideas and risky filmmaking, and that with true imagination, the limitless resources of Hollywood can accomplish real magic. Nolan has done this with all of his studio films, but Inception ups the ante in nearly every way, reminding us, as Eames tells Arthur, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger." Inception doesn't just dream bigger than most movies even dare, but it leaves the audience feeling inspired to do the same.