Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
When Avatar was setting box office records and racking up Oscar nominations, a million people were asking the same question: "Doesn't anybody realize that the screenplay is terrible?" Now, imagine if the visual innovation of a film like Avatar was matched by a screenplay that was equally ambitious in its themes and character profiles. This is the status in which Chris Nolan's new film, Inception, lies. This is a film that is so intriguing and so beautifully told, that it may be something that is totally unlike all American summer-release movies: original.
What is 'inception'? I've watched the film only once, so I still don't have a complete grasp on the concept. At its simplest: breaching the subconscious of someone by entering into their dreams and planting ideas. Why would anybody want to do that? In the world of Nolan's film, not only are their crack teams trained to penetrate someone's dream state, but there are actually entire enterprises founded on defending the mind against such crack teams. Why would you want to enter someone's mind? Some of the most inspiring ideas of some of the most powerful people lie within the subconscious of their dreams, and grabbing hold of these ideas can give you a lot of leverage.
One of the best dream-breakers in the world is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Cobb is now doing second-hand jobs, hoping one day he can make his way back home to his children--he is denied any chance of returning to them since he is being hunted, by what seems like the entire world, for a crime (we don't find out till much later what this crime is or whether or not he is guilty or innocent). The film opens on a riveting sequence, where Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), try to extract info from shrewd business man Saito (Ken Watanabe) by placing him in a "dream within a dream". Yeah, it's pretty confusing off the bat.
When Cobb and Arthur's job goes all kinds of wrong, Saito makes an incredible offer: do a job for him, and Cobb can go home and spend time with his children. The job? Inception. In other words, enter someone's dream, and instead of extracting information, you implant a contagious idea. The special someone? Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), a young, prodigious businessman and Saito's main competitor. So, Cobb collects people for his crack gang of dream-breakers, including Arthur as the "point man", a suave Englishman named Eames (Tom Hardy) as their "forger", a serviceable chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and lastly, a college psychology student who is tapped to be the crew's architect, named Ariadne (Ellen Page).
Sure, Ariadne has a very prominent purpose throughout the film: as Cobb explains all the complexities and dangers of entering the dreams of others, he is also explaining it to the audience. Not very often are vehicle characters, such as Ariadne, so watchable and interesting, continuing to reveal things about the characters until late in the film. Like, for instance, Cobb's torment when dealing with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose spectre continues to show up and disrupt jobs, haunting Cobb's subconscious. Arthur, as well, seems limited to a character that is mostly an information dump, but it's a testament to Nolan's screenplay and the performances of Gordon-Levitt and Page that they never really seem that way.
Which brings me to the film's finest point: the screenplay. Not the loaded cast, not the beautiful locales, not the mind-bending special effects; but the screenplay. What Nolan crafts here is really unlike anything we've seen since 1999's The Matrix, but even that film had characters with limited motivations. Inception is a film that sees no boundaries, visually or thematically, refusing to let its high-profile summer-release make it shallow and obtuse. Yeah, there are plenty of high-octane chase sequences, but those moments become a lot more interesting when you actually care about those being chased. What is written here is a process that is so complex and difficult to understand (particularly on first viewing), but Nolan somehow manages to undermine all that by reflecting those complexities and those difficulties onto the characters.
Nobody does more reflecting then Cobb, so that makes DiCaprio's lead performance that much more important. Leo's character here is not unlike his character in Shutter Island, trapped in a world where reality is hard to decipher and tormented by a dead wife. Both performances work for the same reason: DiCaprio fills that well of grief with raw emotion, as opposed to histrionics. We never doubt Cobb's love for Mal (much like we never doubt Teddy's love for Delores in Island), but there is always that hint of uncertainty, that small drop of doubt that keeps that character in limbo. DiCaprio has become a master of walking that tight rope between sincere and devious, and even though we always know he's sincere, he gives us just enough to make it interesting.
Of course, when you direct the third-highest grossing film of all time (The Dark Knight) two years ago, it helps you get any kind of budget you want and any kind of cast you want. There are no unknowns in this cast (though a bloated Tom Berringer could probably pass for one), and I could only imagine what the effects budget was. Usually, these kind of details will set off prejudices for me, but it didn't here. Here is a film that dared to be commercial and daring when so often those words appear to be antonyms. There are many things I wish could have been stronger (mostly character-wise), but there are no visual cues that could have been better executed. With this film, Nolan takes a step away from the mindless spectacle of The Prestige and Batman Begins (and in many ways, I fear, The Dark Knight) and another step toward the mindful spectacle of his earlier films like Memento. It takes balls to have a budget this big and make a film so intellectually stimulating. I hope this starts a trend.