The premise of Inception is difficult to convey, but worth the effort to ken. A technology exists, called “shared dreaming,” that allows two or more people to enter the same dream, and therefore the subconscious of the source of that dream. From there, the guest(s) in the dreamer’s world can access info, plant idea, build worlds, and discover secrets. How? It’s not that important to know how. Just accept it and the world is your oyster.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to touring narrative consciousness after his breakout film Memento; here, he constructs the world where shared dreaming is possible, and the worlds that can exist in shared dreams. It’s not a gooey painting fantasy landscape like What Dreams May Come or The Lovely Bones, it’s a real-seeming illusion speeding through time as the sleepers tip toe through their real-life minutes, and one that demands the full attention of everyone involved. I did find the first 30 minutes or so unnecessarily obscure (why keep reality-based motivations as much of a secret as the other), but by 45 minutes in, the movie had taught me all I need to know to watch the rest of it.
Leonardo DiCaprio and his team of handsome underground oneironauts take a job from Ken Watanabe involving Cillian Murphy, his fellow cheekbone-sporting father Pete Postlethwaite, and shared dreaming. That’s all you need to know to go. There is of course a problem, and it gets worse, and the stakes get higher and the dreamscapes get deeper. It’s a pleasure to watch something based so deeply in psychological reality not be all surreal or simplistic. It doesn’t get weirder, not really — if anything, it gets more real (yes I am aware of the exception to what I am saying but it is totally justified by…we’ll discuss later). Nolan learned some things on the Dark Knight too, things about accessibility and the framing of action sequences and practical effects, and the result is really effective.
Modern audiences can thank the increasingly complex narrative structures of television shows like 24 and Lost for a starter manual for absorbing this much conceptual content in only 148 minutes. We can also thank movies like The Matrix and Frequency for helping prepare us for this kind of a narrative within a narrative. And still, sometimes you just have to pull out the old Star Trek manual and just accept the tech talk and roll with it. My one complaint is when movies give characters awful obvious literary reference names, like Ellen Page’s Ariadne. It drives me nuts, not just because it robs me of an illustrative analogy in what I do, but also it’s just lazy! It’s a quibble — at least Ariadne isn’t as ubiquitous as Cassandra.
There are plenty of reasons to like Inception, whether you found it obvious or impenetrable. One big one: I haven’t seen a movie in forever where I boggled “how did they DO that?” especially not one where I did it more than once. Remember that feeling? Especially back in the nascent CGI days where less was more? Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is in a number of these scenes. The score is a slow burn until it builds into Hans Zimmer Conquers The Universe madness, but it’s never out of place. I really appreciated that even in the dream universe, you still have to obey the laws of physics. You can’t just walk on water or blow things up with your mind, you have to plug the leak with a cork and push the button to make the thing work. And oh my goodness, the stunts, the wonderful stunts!
The intimate nature of the work that this team does is echoed by how close we all feel being drawn in to their worlds — when everyone is unplugged again, you feel a little thrown into the awkward cold like a tentative greeting of a long-ago acquaintance. You’ll wish you could dream as lucidly as this, but be grateful here you have Nolan as your tour guide.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/16/10
Time in minutes 148
Director Christopher Nolan
Studio Warner Brothers