Leonardo DiCaprio is indeed the man of everybody’s dreams in Inception, a winning sci-fi story about dream manipulation.
Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is the leader of a gang of thieves, specifically thieves who go after the secrets of others by digging through their dreams. This kind of thievery is useful not just for the nosy but also for corporate espionage, which is what he and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are doing when we meet him. They are trying to steal secrets from wealthy executive Saito (Ken Watanabe) by convincing him (in his dream) that they are there to teach him to protect his secrets. But the job goes wrong, thanks in part to the appearance of Mal (Marion Cotillard), a women who we find out is Cobb’s wife. When Saito wakes up, he knows what’s happened and, as Cobb and Arthur try to get away, he offers them a proposition: make a run for it (with the clients who hired Cobb to steal from Saito looking for him) or do a little job for Saito. Actually, do a big job for Saito — whereas Cobb and Arthur were engaged in what is called “extraction,” the taking of information, Saito wants them to do an “inception,” that is to plant an idea in someone’s head. This is much harder, we learn. For it to work, the person has to believe that it’s their original idea.
Impossible, says Arthur. But Cobb believes he can do it and he’s motivated to at least try because Saito offers him a chance to return home to his children, something he’s prevented from doing by some vaguely defined trouble. The mark for this one last heist is Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a massive corporation. Saito wants to convince Fischer to break it up and sell it off after his father dies. To accomplish this, Cobb needs Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger (someone who can appear as anyone to the person whose dreams the caper takes place in); Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who can mix compounds to put the various dreamers at the right level of sedation so they won’t wake before the work is done, and Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architect (someone who builds the maze that becomes the dream world). The architect helps to keep the levels of the dream believable and meaningful to the dreamer. If the dreamer realizes they’re dreaming, it can put an end to the heist (or in this case, the implantation). And, for this particular plan to work, all the dream levels have to lead Fischer to something he believes is a true realization. To achieve this, the dreamers will have to work in a dream inside a dream inside a dream — with each level more unstable.
Traveling through someone’s dreams — it’s a great concept. But with great concept comes great responsibility. One must resist the urge to use the power of shifting perceptions for evil, i.e. to screw with the viewer for no reason other than that you can. Or to pile on the nifty details of your fantasy world to hide the fact that there are some weak points in the story or some even weaker points in the acting.
There is so much to like about Inception that you can forgive a lot of the flaws (which include a few soft points, mostly to do with DiCaprio and his character). At its best, it reminded me of the wonder of Matrix or the originality of Dark City. As in both movies, people move through timeless cityscapes — this movie never specifically says if it takes place now or in some sleek future — while wearing natty suits. One particular fight scene, which takes place in a world constantly turning upside down (if you’re in a van that is rolling over and over then the sleeping people in the van will find the world rolling over and over in their dream), actually inspired spontaneous applause from the audience I saw the movie with. It was a kind of movement-in-space that trumps anything I’ve seen in a 3-D movie and really did make me think “wow, this is different” as I watched it. The movie adds a nifty detail about time into its mythology — if 10 hours are passing for your physical body, you will feel like a week is passing in a dream and if you are dreaming in that dream, that time will seem like a month. During climactic scenes, we get multiple layers of reality with action unfolding in the course of seconds in one, a few minutes in another and nearly half an hour in another.
The movie fills in its world well, with neat little moments and a mythology that is impressive when you consider that it isn’t some comic book adaptation where you can assume at least a basic level of knowledge about your universe from your audience going in. And the farther along in the story it gets, the more this world pulls you in, the more you get caught up in the excitement.
Where the movie stumbles a bit is in the subplot about Cobb’s emotional life and the strange role Ellen Page’s character plays in ferreting out his various secrets. There is something about DiCaprio’s performance that doesn’t completely click, something that is too squinchy-faced, too Shutter Island about what he’s doing here. I started to wonder if Gordon-Levitt (who does a fine job here and has proven his ability to carry a movie) might have been better in the role, but I don’t know if he could have pulled it off either — the part needs a certain amount of heft that DiCaprio just doesn’t have. He seems more pestered than tormented. I almost started to feel that the frowny and perpetually constipated-looking Christian Bale might have been more the movie’s speed. And, perhaps because of DiCaprio’s lack of clicking, Page doesn’t completely click either. We don’t always get why she’s in a scene, other than to serve as the person who asks the audience’s question or is otherwise the conduit for exposition and back-story. There were points when I liked where they were going with her character, but there were even more points when I didn’t get the sense that either the movie or Page knew where that was.
But so the casting’s not perfect — there’s plenty else to admire in this movie. Every time it started to lose me, every time I started to think “they made up the dream travel idea to do this with it?” the story found some way to pull me back in. Inception is less in the vein of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and more reminiscent of Memento and even The Prestige. It’s the kind of film that even when it doesn’t exactly succeed nevertheless remains riveting. B+
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is two hours and 28 minutes long and opens on Friday, July 16.