If they gave an Oscar for Most Densely Packed Screenplay, Nolan deserves to walk off with his tomorrow. A movie for people who thought Memento was somehow too straightforward, Inception takes that film’s juggling act and multiplies it, at one point following as many as five parallel tracks. There’s a certain thrill in watching Nolan hold it all together: Even veering into a philosophical thicket, Inception keeps everything exciting and clear.
Nolan has emerged as the most cerebral of blockbuster filmmakers, eager to pose provocative questions even in 800-pound gorillas like The Dark Knight. In parsing a series of existential chestnuts—what makes fantasy less real than reality? Is creativity individual or collective?—Inception stands in the shadow of a long line of influences from Solaris to Philip K. Dick. The narrative shape seems expressly constructed to start debates of the “Is Deckard a replicant?” variety; the way the hero plays with a small metallic object may be an explicit Blade Runner homage. More than anything else, though, Inception suggests a version of The Matrix in which, rather than plugging into a network, characters invade other people’s dreams.
Part of the fun of the movie is following Nolan’s highly involved, “realistic” rules for dream logic. (Sleep time does not equal real time. Anyone who falls while sleeping will fall in the dream.) Pointedly coiffed to resemble his director, DiCaprio stars as a shadowy operator who earns a living raiding the subconscious, stealing secrets for corporate clients. Haunted by his late wife (Cotillard), he’s hired for a job of inception, or planting an idea in someone’s head. The problem with this procedure is that the invaded mind always rejects the foreign thought, remembering how it was raised. Having an idea arise organically will mean delving deeply into the subject’s psyche—his personal relationships, his history, his way of thinking.
Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception is ultimately interested in the responsibilities—even the perverse romanticism—inherent in understanding what makes another person tick. The movie’s first two-thirds are breathtakingly clever, firing new concepts so rapidly it’s almost inevitable the barrage can’t be sustained. Inception is also inventive in its use of genre conventions. Parts of it play like an oneiric Ocean’s movie; you have to smile at a caper flick in which the easiest way to secure seats on a plane is simply to buy the airline.
There are sights here, too. Nolan conjures set pieces that are just slightly surreal: a dream architect (Page) bending Paris to her will; a pileup on a rain-drenched L.A. streetscape; a hotel that suggests The Big Sleep reimagined by Ian Schrager. Despite writing his characters as mouthpieces, Nolan is a flavorful director of actors. The most entertaining member of the cast is Bronson’s Hardy, who plays Eames (named after designers Charles and Ray?), the driest wit on DiCaprio’s team.
Inception is so consistently ambitious that it seems churlish to complain, but the movie loses significant momentum in its second half, once it descends into a raid on a snowbound compound. (You wonder if Nolan added this level to provide Slavoj Zizek with a bathroom break.) Nolan is more adroit at ostentatiously incorporating a Francis Bacon painting than he is at directing action. It may also be that it’s more tantalizing to see Inception’s world mapped out than repetitively realized.
Despite early reviews’ hyperbolic comparisons to Kubrick, Nolan lacks the master’s impulse for perfection. Nor is he David Lynch—a filmmaker with a gift for pure, sinuous seduction. Inception feels obsessively planned rather than intuitive, and it’s hard to ignore the self-conscious gimmickry in the film’s design. Still, this may be the closest we’ve come yet to seeing a movie about the way Nolan’s mind works. That’s a pretty impressive thing to watch.