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Adventure in Oneirology


I’m not sure that I’m qualified to write about Inception: I’ve only seen it once.

Of course, that’s all the opportunity we usually get, and for the most part it’s enough. For too many of this summer’s movies it’s been more than enough: 15 minutes of Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups was all I needed to see, though I sat through it all anyway.

But Inception is the new film by Christopher Nolan, who from Memento through The Dark Knight has staked his turf as this era’s filmmaker most willing and able to push the boundaries of mainstream entertainment.

To call this the most anticipated movie of the summer isn’t saying much. If your prime motivation in selecting cinema fare is not, “What do the kids want to see?”, Inception is just about the only Hollywood film of the season that gives you reason to head to the multiplex instead of the arthouses.

For that reason, you may be wondering whether the advance adulation Nolan’s movie has been getting is based partly on relief from reviewers thrilled to write about something more engrossing than the quality of the pop culture references in the cartoon of the week. (Bear in mind that not all reviewers are as blessed with Buffalonians are with alternative choices.)

Believe what you hear. It may be less than perfect, but it’s still pretty damn good, easily the best film of the summer and probably the entire year.

In a world that may be the present or the near future (the pace is too fast to bother with such details), Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a specialist in extracting thoughts from the unconsciousness of his targets. He has experimented with taking the process one step further to “inception”—planting an idea in the head of someone in a way that he will not realize it is not his own.

He gave that up after an early experiment led to tragedy and exile from his home and family. But he accepts an offer to try again from a powerful Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) who can erase his legal problems. The target is a rival who must be made to decide to break up the enormous financial empire he has inherited from his father.

How can this be accomplished by Cobb and his team—aide de camp Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), “identity forger” Eames (Tom Hardy), and newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page)? I’m not going to take up pages of newsprint trying to explain what Nolan’s screenplay does so brilliantly. Aside from a device which allows multiple people to participate in shared dreams, there is no futuristic machine to accomplish this. The team has to develop a method that seems plausible to the audience. Suffice to say that it involves a labyrinth of four interlocked sets of stories, none of which are real but all of which are more real than any of them fully understand.

The chief spoiler in Cobb’s web is Mal (Marion Cotillard), his wife. She may be dead, but that won’t stop her from heaving a monkeywrench in the proceedings. Like DiCaprio’s character in the recent Shutter Island, Cobb has some unresolved issues that cause a lot of trouble.

Nolan is weaving cloth from ideas about the nature of dreams and the subconscious, and the relation of reality and perception, tensions that have fascinated him since Memento. You can get drunk on the ideas here, especially given the speed at which they come at you—Nolan never slows down for you to catch up, but the confusion eventually becomes clear. Even if you don’t catch all of what’s going on, you sense that it has all been thought out and will become comprehensible, if not by the end of the film then certainly the second time you see it. (If ever a film guaranteed repeat business, this is the one.)

As a filmmaker whose last movie was one of the top-grossing films of all time, Nolan presumably got all the production money he wanted, and he knows how to use it. You could never follow Inception without the dialogue, but if you had to watch it that way it would still be dazzling. A Paris neighborhood folding itself into a cube or a man herding unconscious bodies in a hotel where gravity has ceased to operate are compelling, but no more so than the way Nolan and editor Lee Smith weave multiple stories together so that we can follow the elaborate interactions among them.

Inevitably it will be compared to The Matrix (the original, not the lousy sequels), though its concept is much better developed. It also bears some relation to the dream-simulating movies of David Lynch, especially Mullholland Drive, but Nolan is operating on a more rational level: He wants us to think about dreams, not put us in one.

The only place Nolan comes up short is in the emotional arena. You don’t get the punch from the ending that he wants to deliver. It’s not that he’s not capable of it—Memento and The Dark Knight certainly proved that. But the pace and density of the movie don’t leave enough room for the characters to sink in the way they should.

That quibble aside, Inception may single handedly restore the reputation of science-fiction cinema. And it’s also a forceful argument against the current wisdom that you need 3D to hold audiences. I can’t wait to see it again.

Watch the trailer for Inception

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