Imagine a world where expert thieves known as extractors are hired by companies to commit acts of corporate espionage by executing heists in a target’s dream. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is one such extractor, sedating his target, breaking into their dream, and stealing the secrets with which their subconscious has supplied it. A particular target, Saito (Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu), after Cobb fails to pull off an extraction on him, ends up offering to use his connections as a wealthy business magnate to clear Cobb of the criminal history that had forced him to flee the U.S., leaving behind his two children. The catch is that he has to complete the almost-impossible task of inception, or implanting a false idea in someone’s head.
Readers, I must admit that, in spite of the praise that audiences have given Inception since it released all the way back in 2010, I waited nine long years to watch it. Directed and written by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Dunkirk) and co-produced by him and his wife Emma Thomas, Inception has received both commercial and critical success for its wickedly clever plot, well-paced action, and profoundly psychological and metaphysical themes. It was even nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, and Wally Pfister, who has worked on several of Nolan’s movies and made his directorial debut with the 2014 sci-fi thriller Transcendence, won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography.
But at long last, I recently watched Inception—and realized why so many people regard it as one of the most (if not the most) visionary examples of Nolan’s auteur flair. This movie swallowed me up in its pure intensity and intelligence, and refused to let me go even after the credits began to roll thanks to the gasp-worthy final shot (do not google about it if you haven’t seen the movie, but just know it inspired years of fierce debate for the fans). Seriously, I rented it back in July, and the whole experience has left a distinct feeling of exhilaration that continues to linger with me.
Inception may be labeled as science-fiction, but part of what makes it so enjoyable is that it feels palpable and rooted in reality. Think about it—the PASIV (Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous) Device, a briefcase that pumps you full of sedatives to bring you into a state of deep sleep where people can invade your dreams. Surely, there have been classified research projects devoted to this sort of thing. What also grounds the story is how Nolan expertly weaves it with the themes of reality, dreams, and the arguable contrasts and similarities between those dual worlds; the terrifying potential that an idea, “the most resilient parasite,” as Cobb puts it, can possess, and the havoc it can wreak when left unfettered; and the fluidity and relativity of our perception of time, something which often sneaks its way into Nolan’s work.
Taking into account the fact that world-building for a story of this scale could get messy and tiresome very quickly, Nolan succeeds in structuring the plot so that the whole first act is an exposition dump that breaks down complex rules of the dream world—dreams within dreams, totems, falling into limbo, the kick, militarized subconscious—in an easy-to-comprehend and captivating fashion for the audience. Then Inception enters the second and third acts, where Cobb and his dream-heist team target Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later, Peaky Blinders), Saito’s corporate rival, and venture through a multi-level dream that descends into his subconscious, which is where they have to “incept” the idea for him to break up his multibillion-dollar empire. I could go on and on about how spectacularly constructed the dreams are, including the jaw-dropping visuals of an anti-gravity brawl, Penrose staircases, or a city that folds up into the sky; the distinct looks of dreams like ones built upon the crumbling metropolis or the highly-secured mountain facility; and the ways in which certain plot devices are utilized, primarily through music or the laws of physics, to show how the dream levels interconnect with each other. And I have to give a thumbs-up to Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean series, Nolan’s Interstellar), who composed intense scores to set a visceral mood for the movie, especially with the epically mesmerizing “Time.”
On top of everything else, Inception shines with a cast of bankable stars who use strong performances to bring out the best in each of their characters. DiCaprio’s acting prowess shows through as he plays Cobb, an emotionally tormented man who resorts to using his own dreams to cope with his guilt over the tragic events involving his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose, Allied). It’s enjoyable to watch him organize his team, which consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer, Looper), the point man who hammers out the nitty-gritty details of the heist and conducts background research on the targets; Ariadne (Ellen Page, Juno, The Umbrella Academy), the architecture grad who gets appointed as the architect to design the mazes in the dream levels; Eames (Tom Hardy, The Revenant, Venom), the forger who specializes in disguising himself with any person’s image in the dream world; Yusuf (Dileep Rao, Avatar, Drag Me To Hell), the chemist who brews up the Somnacin drug required for entering dreams; and Saito. Overall the cast is perfect; hell, the world-class Michael Caine, AKA Alfred Pennyworth in Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, even makes a cameo as Mal’s father.
As I said before, DiCaprio gives a compelling performance as Cobb. But you can’t talk about this movie without applauding Hardy for the casual swagger that he summons for his breakout role as Eames (the next time he works with Nolan is when he plays Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises). I also think most Inception fans underappreciate the work given by two actors in particular—Cotillard isn’t in the movie that much but steals the screen every time she shows up with the chilling air she gives off as Mal, and Murphy brings sympathy to Fischer as he not only deals with the dysfunctional relationship between himself and his late father but also unwittingly helps Cobb’s team with his own inception.
Let’s not forget one more thing about the movie: the names. People have been analyzing the meanings behind them for years, but the only name that I can confidently break down is “Ariadne”—a reference to the princess of Greek mythology who gave Theseus a ball of string to help him trace his path through the Minotaur’s labyrinth, therefore making Ariadne closely associated with mazes. There’s also “Eames,” an Irish name meaning “son of the uncle,” which might refer to the part of the movie where Eames poses as Murphy’s uncle.
So, if you haven’t seen this masterpiece yet, I highly recommend you watch it ASAP. And then you should consider whether Tenet, Nolan’s upcoming espionage thriller, could be the next Inception. Allow me to digress. From what we’ve heard about the Tenet teaser trailer that plays in theaters with Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (put the teaser online already!), it sounds like it will play around with time, something with which Nolan has experience; there have been rumors, but no confirmation, that time-traveling cops might be involved. Tenet, like Inception, also has a top-notch cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh. Plus, Pattinson described the script as “unreal,” which sounds like an adjective you could attach to Inception, aside from “mind-blowing.” And Zimmer won’t be the composer; that honor is going to Oscar-winning Ludwig Göransson of Black Panther and Creed fame. I’m highly anticipating Tenet, which doesn’t release until next July. Until then, I’ll quell my impatience by re-watching Inception. The only other Nolan film I’ve seen is Batman Begins, so the time may be long-overdue for me to peruse his filmography.
Windup score: 98/100