Published at: July 5, 2010, 5:16 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
INCEPTION is Christopher Nolan's reward for a commercial assignment profitably executed: the opportunity to realize on a grand scale an idea that has intrigued him for the better part of a decade. In the studio tit-for-tat equation, this is the "one for me". It's the reason you start making movies in the first place. It's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. APOCALYPSE NOW. GANGS OF NEW YORK. It's the the movie you stake your career on. It's the movie you make now.
For most filmmakers, this project is a gamble; for Christopher Nolan, it's a shrewdly calculated risk. Though the narrative speeds ahead like a rapidly unfolding lucid dream, INCEPTION uses the familiar vernacular of the heist film to keep less attentive audiences engaged. Unlike other films that traipse across the boundless landscape of the unconscious mind, it's not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The central concept is simple: plant an idea in a character's mind in order to manipulate them into behaving in the best interest of a rival party. The particulars may be complex, but there's an emotional logic that drives the story forward. There are also wildly compelling action set pieces. In this regard, INCEPTION is a miracle: a multi-layered meditation on the unruly clutter of the subconscious that works sensationally well as a classical action film. It plays brilliantly on every conceivable level.
Nolan's very few detractors have often knocked him for coldly constructing narratives that snap together like traps. His gift for precision is used against him: he's all brains, no heart. This is a concern of personal preference, I suppose, and generally cited by people who've likely never known the icy splendor of a Dashiell Hammett tome. Regardless, it won't be an issue with INCEPTION, which is built around one man's quest to see his children's faces again. And while Leonardo DiCaprio has never been the warmest of movie stars, he's believably devastated as Dom Cobb, a highly sought after agent of corporate espionage whose facility for navigating dreams has come at an awful price.
It comes as no surprise that lucid dreaming is of particular interest to Nolan (it stands to reason that a control-freak storyteller would be fascinated by the idea of manipulating his unconscious thoughts), but while he goes to great lengths to explain the rules of dream theft, he stays pleasingly vague on the scientific details of entering another person's mind. This isn't a cheat. From the beginning, where we meet Cobb and his point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) completing their latest gig, the emphasis is on the obtainment of information (and its attendant perils), not the technology that makes such theft possible. And this works because Nolan has cut the whole film as if it takes place in a waking dream. It's an ideal use of cinematic language: the mundane details of traveling and arriving are elided in order to keep the dense story skipping along.
Before Cobb can move forward with the mission that might wipe the slate clean and return him what remains of his family, he must enlist the assistance of a brilliant young architect (Ellen Page), who possesses the ability to create elaborate cityscapes that defy logic and trick the mind (M.C. Escher is leaned on heavily here). She's the audience surrogate to whom Cobb breaks down the do's and don'ts of dream exploration - one key concept being the potentially adversarial nature of another dreamer's "projections". And then there's Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb's persistent and pernicious manifestation of the woman with whom he ill-advisedly disappeared into an elaborate, jointly-created world. Mal is the one element of Cobb's memory that he cannot control; the lost love forever threatening to blow up the gig and keep him from seeing his children again.
For a film that's clearly sprung from the deepest reaches of Nolan's creative mind, INCEPTION is appropriately enhanced by his boyhood preoccupation with James Bond movies (he admitted as much in a recent interview). During the deliriously intricate set piece which encompasses a good deal of the second act and some of the third, Nolan gets to pay ecstatic homage to ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE - as Hans Zimmer's score takes on lovely, invigorating John Barry dimensions. For all Nolan accomplishes as a storyteller with INCEPTION, what he pulls off with this extended sequence will be broken down and studied for years to come; this is probably giving too much away, but if you can think of a filmmaker who's deftly managed four globetrotting layers of interrelating action stretching across increasingly precarious levels of unconsciousness, then I'll back down from calling Nolan's achievement one of the greatest action set pieces ever put to film.
Based on one viewing, I'm not ready to break INCEPTION down with any degree of assuredness. But I want to. God, how I want to. I haven't been this obsessed with a film since PRIMER, which I watched somewhere in the neighborhood of four times before hazarding a review (and ultimately calling it the fourteenth best film of the last decade). What's most exciting about INCEPTION is that it finds Nolan peaking as a visual artist; he's using the extravagantly cinematic tropes of other genres to connect with the viewer intellectually. With INCEPTION, Nolan joins the company of Coppola, Lean and not too many others as a filmmaker who treats the big canvas with the respect it deserves - but with the steely verve of a chess player who can see dozens of moves ahead.
Pure cinema at its best feels like dreaming with your eyes wide open. Cinema doesn't get much purer than INCEPTION.