Inception is probably the first movie of 2010 that movie lovers have been legitimately anticipating—that is, looking forward to since that very first preview back in February. Certainly I was. Sometimes that anticipation is a bad thing, as when your hopes are dashed against a mediocre production; sometimes it makes a movie even better, when it meets or exceeds all of your expectations. Inception isn’t quite the latter but certainly isn’t anything else. Mostly, I think, what few preconceptions I had about the plot or scenario the movie would cover turned out to be wrong, so I can’t call it what I expected, but the movie as it exists blew me away.
The story of the film—and this is what surprised me—turned out to be one story with several layers, not several smaller arcs as they tackled different jobs or something. No, it’s just one job, and it is a big job. A swan song for DiCaprio’s character, who wants as payment for the job the client to use his political connections to clear him of murder charges against his wife. What they are trying to do is not extract information (which is their usual line of work) but implant an idea that will then bloom from that subconscious/unconscious implantation via dream into the flower of a conviction from the man himself, by his conscious mind’s reckoning. They have to create layers within layers in order to achieve this implantation, this “inception,” as they call it, and there is a risk to all of them, going this deep, that if they die in the dream they do not awake but get cast into limbo where the time dilation might well render them a lifetime before the dream comes to an end.
So here was the interesting thing about this set-up: I wasn’t sold on the framing story, about DiCaprio trying to get home to his kids via this shady corporate spying deal, and we never saw anything about the man they were implanting with this inception to know if he was a villain or a victim. I didn’t know who I should, in a moralistic way, be rooting for—but by the time the action started, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care whether I was in favor of the mission’s execution; all I cared about was that within the parameters they were given, the objective was immediate and exciting and tense to watch them try and accomplish. The flashes back through the successive levels of the dream ratcheted that tension higher and higher, as you saw each team racing within its time dilation to beat both their clock and by extension the clock driving the entire structure.
Another thing that made the story not matter—I loved this conception of the dream world. For me, one of the only enduring ideas that stuck from my 13-year-old reading of The Wheel of Time books was the dreamworld his characters could enter, where things were like and yet not like the real world. I have a version of my parents’ road that I know as well as their real one, but yet it exists only in my dreams. And we all have times when we’re trying to tell someone about a dream, and we have to say things like “well, in the dream this made sense” or “then we were just elsewhere, like you are sometimes in dreams,” and this movie played with those ideas. The world had its own physics, its own rules, and the dreamer would never notice it was odd until s/he awoke, because in that dream those were the rules.
The visuals were the final piece of this movie, and they were awesome. From the scene early on with Ellen Page’s character changing the physics of the world and creating streets that met at right angles along the x/y plane instead of the y/z, to the sequence when they are in a rolling van in one dream and the physics of that physical change affect the next level down so as the van rolls they are engaging in this fight that ranges from the hallway floor to its ceiling, to the sudden rearing of new buildings in the landscape or their equally sudden crumbling…this movie had some awesome things to look at. So if you’re someone who likes visuals—not special effects, which were actually used sparingly in comparison to achieving the same effect, but better, via camera tricks, but visuals—then this movie is worth seeing regardless of other considerations.
But I’ve spent all this time saying why the story didn’t matter without touching on whether it turned out to be good. It did. It was a bit slow to get started, and you will leave the theater still thinking about it. There is a facile surface reading that you can take away and feel satisfied with. If your mind can’t let go of the ideas that were incepted early in the film, however, if you paid close enough attention to note them, then you will start reevaluating everything. I have gone through three layers of understanding so far, and this is only in the first 12 hours since I saw it. I am planning to see it again already—I expect on a second viewing my theories will become obviously right or wrong. But on the first viewing, this film leaves you thinking.
Chris Nolan is an excellent director, and I think he does better with idea movies rather than plot movies—for as much as I enjoyed the first of his Batman movies (I was the one person any of my friends knew who didn’t like The Dark Knight), I think they are the least of his films. He has a great cast that he’s working with here; there were no real weak links, although Ellen Page was probably the weakest only because she wasn’t doing anything we haven’t seen her do before. Which could easily be said of DiCaprio, too, here, except we forgive him for it because he’s just so damn charismatic to watch anyway. Joseph Gordon-Levitt—off his 500 Days of Summer backslide and back to his better form—Cillian Murphy (doing his usual naïf thing, too), Handsome Bob from Rocknrolla (Tom Hardy), Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, and John Hurt round out the rest of the cast.
My bottom line on Inception is this: if you thought you wanted to see this movie, you do. And if you weren’t sure, imagine a mix of The Matrix’s reality-bending and reality-questioning and Ocean’s Eleven slick, complex heist, and The Dark City‘s mind games and Memento’s mood and fractured storyline, and you get some idea of what this movie is. Add in a dash of Plato (“A man’s mind, once stretched to encompass a new idea, can never go back to its original dimensions”) and some hyberbolic space-time dilation, and I think it becomes obvious that you can’t go wrong with this movie. Expect to be caught in the moments. Expect to be made to wonder. Expect to be made to think. And expect to want to see it again.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.