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Inception is that rare mix of bullets and brains

Though its hefty $160m price tag keeps the stakes high from the outset, what really makes Inception not only a huge commercial risk but the year’s most important Hollywood film is what it represents. A vividly original and intensively intellectual reworking of the existential themes explored in the likes of The Matrix and Dreamscape, Inception represents Hollywood’s potential to make films as smart as they are entertaining. The future of the Hollywood blockbuster in many ways rests on Christopher Nolan’s shoulders, for if Inception is a box office flop – a very legitimate possibility given its headiness – then the confounding cynicism that executives and studio heads show for “dumb” film audiences may wind up proving true. Simply put – if you value the intellectual possibility of the Hollywood blockbuster, go see this wonderfully bewildering film, and then go see it again, because boy, does Christopher Nolan earn your money here.

Too much has already been said of the plot – and indeed, go in as ignorant as you can – yet the basic narrative revolves around Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert “extractor”, who enters people’s dreams to steal their secrets. However, he has wound up as an international fugitive as a result, and must find a way home to see his children again. A businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers Cobb a way home, yet at great risk; Cobb must perform an inception in which, instead of stealing an idea, he implants one in the mind of a fragile rival of Saito’s, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). An incredibly dangerous mission due to the unstable nature of the dreams within dreams required to perform an inception, Cobb recruits a sizable team of specialists; Arthur, the point man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne, the designer of the dreams (Ellen Page), Eames, a slippery impersonator (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf, the medic and tech support essentially (Dileep Rao). Endangering things further is the recurring subconscious presence of Cobb’s deceased wife Mal (Marion Cottilard) in the dream worlds, threatening to sabotage the entire operation.

It was long-thought that Christopher Nolan probably could not outdo himself after the seminal comic book masterpiece The Dark Knight, yet Nolan’s Inception is as – if not more – technically precise than his last opus, and a sight more ambitious. Under the familiar schematic of a heist film, Nolan has created an entirely unfamiliar treatise on life, love and reality, while keeping the action set pieces frenetic and pitch-perfect in their execution. Though the hyperbole can spew almost indefinitely, Inception ultimately is a film beyond satisfactory summation; it is a film you simply must see.

Lauded though Nolan’s previous works are, he frequently comes under fire for crafting worlds that are technically marvellous, yet emotionally stunted. Though Nolan could certainly have amplified the haunting disconnect between Cobb and his children further, he mostly acquits himself here from claims that he is a “frosty” director, aided largely by two of the best performances you’re likely to see in a blockbuster film all year, and a brooding score from Hans Zimmer that isn’t easily dismissed.

Bringing the heart and soul to Inception is DiCaprio’s Cobb and Cotillard’s Mal. DiCaprio, ever an underrated performer – yet an incredibly passionate and consistent one – soulfully conveys the anguish of Cobb’s dilemma, while delving into eerily similar territory he trod a few months ago in Shutter Island. By now, DiCaprio has surely put to bed claims that he’s little more than a pretty boy, and between his work here and on the aforementioned, his Oscar chances are solid. Cotillard, meanwhile, is utterly terrifying as the spectre-like manifestation of Cobb’s wife, who turns up intermittently to sabotage the inception. Her best work, however, is in a flashback scene, and once the exposition – of which there is, quite necessarily, a lot – falls into place, the emotional heft of her tragic end truly hits home.

In supporting roles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a standout as the cynical, anxious point-man, having the luxury of dominating both the delirious zero-gravity action scene, and probably the film’s funniest moment opposite Ellen Page. Page, though playing largely against type, does well in a fairly unchallenging role, teasing the expository information out of the principal characters, and at one point rather amusingly reflecting our own bemusement at Nolan’s narrative, as she bluntly asks “Whose subconscious are we in now?”. Tom Hardy is also fabulously sly as the smooth talking Eames, and here, virtually unrecognisable from his turns in Star Trek: Nemesis and Bronson, there are genuine hints that he would make a superb James Bond once Daniel Craig hangs up the mantle. Even the smaller roles, such as Cillian Murphy as the mark, Pete Postlethwaite as his father, and even straight-to-DVD exile Tom Berenger as Fischer’s godfather, are meticulously played and absolutely memorable.

As with The Dark Knight, Nolan’s supreme triumph is that he has expertly melded audience expectation with his own sublime ambition; the result is a thoroughly entertaining work of action cinema that’s also brimming with invention and intellect. Perhaps Nolan’s most succinct and definite qualification of this success abounds in the film’s extraordinary key set-piece, in which Cobb and his crew simultaneously penetrate several levels of dreams at once; a sprawling scene that, if there is any justice in the world, will ensure Nolan receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination next year. To a similar note, the spatial complexity of the scene – alongside its marvellous execution – makes the film a virtual, justifiable lock for a Best Editing nomination.

There is so much packed inside this film – so much torment, humour, exhilaration, and bewildering invention – that its 148 minute runtime hurtles by in a flash, and in fact, it is the rare film that could possibly have benefited from being a tad longer. Such is the density of Inception that it absolutely justifies multiple viewings, if only to put the last pieces of this ingenious jigsaw puzzle together. Though its greatest triumph is its mind-boggling technical execution and narrative complexity, Inception also vindicates the few valid criticisms of Nolan’s previous work, while demonstrating to us here – in what is surely his 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner – that he has aptly earned his place among cinema’s biggest thinkers and best storytellers.


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