Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction: stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved.

Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible—inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse; their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime.

More impressive as a concept than as a movie.

Inception is an X-Box of a movie. It’s a 'puzzle film’ with terrifically impressive gee-wiz visuals wrung out of the current movie technology and a form that mimics (or is it a parodies?) interactive gameship. Here, Paris explodes and gets folded into the movie equivalent of origami; and you’ve probably seen the zero-gravity fight in a hotel room in the trailer. But there’s also a bit where an express train thunders across the screen so fiercely you might think it’s going to burst into the cinema.

It’s pretty exciting in an IMAX theatre, in a 'oh, wow, that was cool, so what’s next?' kind a way. Its epic look and sound is dedicated to a story about the subconscious, but it seems less about stirring up emotions than it is about creating an action movie theme park.

Its plot is intricate, in say, the same way The Matrix was intricate. In other words, there’s a lot for the audience to remember, as the action unwinds, for to make a mental misstep may mean momentary confusion (or total incomprehension for ADD sufferers). But then that isn’t quite the same thing as 'deep’ or, let’s say, 'cerebral’.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who apparently spent a decade writing and developing it, Inception is more impressive as a concept than as a movie. At times it seems nothing less than a pop-culture pageant. The narrative is a whirl of ideas, images, references, and allusions to our waking life of techno-dependency. And the plot makes a pass at a theme of some substance that remains, in the end, unarticulated and unprocessed. Nolan seems to buy into a contemporary crisis of first-world affluence; the underlining fear that since anyone can tap into our life via our 'virtual’ existence, our subconscious is no longer anymore our own.

It’s been called 'dark’ by a lot of critics. But it isn’t quite; like Nolan’s Batman franchise, the visuals have that baroque splendour redolent of up-scale design combined with an adman’s appreciation of beauty (which is the kind of beauty where beauty is the first thing you notice and the only thing you can remember once you close your eyes).

To be sure, the film has a tragic centre, which concerns the way our past is forever alive in our present, but this theme-beat is so buried under the layers of incident that whenever it does surface it seems to belong to a much smaller, quieter, and more angsty movie.

Inception’s dominant mood isn’t noir at all, but blockbuster bright. Buoyed by one set piece after another, it has that nagging, insistent quality of early Spielberg ('well, wait to you see what happens, next’). It feels like a James Bond film but without the bad jokes. The effect is grim; a few gag-lines might have been a good thing.

The premise is actually quite simple. Leonardo DiCaprio, no longer looking boyish, but prematurely aged and anguished, plays Cobb, a thief. He gets into people’s dreams and 'steals’ their thoughts; it’s a nifty trick perfect for industrial espionage. When a Japanese energy magnate called Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires him to defeat his chief competitor, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Cobb takes the brief. Since Cobb has been living in exile (he fears arrest), Saito offers to arrange a safe return to the US, where, it seems, Cobb has a young family. What haunts Cobb is his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). While Cobb works under a dream-state, Mal walks in with a knife or a gun, looking like she means business; this is a problem for Cobb, especially since he shouldn’t allow his subconscious to interfere with his work. (Is this a joke about not taking your problems at home to the office?)

Meanwhile, Cobb advises Saito that the only way to effectively beat Fischer is to 'plant’ an idea; this is called 'inception’. In the fiction of the film this is apparently dangerous and high stakes. Exactly what’s in it for the rest of humanity isn’t quite clear. Nolan doesn’t quite address the fact that if Saito’s plan and Cobb’s plot succeeds it means that the world’s energy will be divided between two companies instead of one. That kind of logic is a fun spoiler (and making sense of the story as if it were part of the real world seems a dead-end gambit).

A lot of the first part of the film follows Cobb as he assembles a crew of con-artist/experts in order to complete Saito’s mission. Each of them provides a special skill to the inception plan. Amongst them is Ariadne (Ellen Page), a post-grad who 'designs’ dreams; a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who provides the sleep-drug for the scheme’s victim; and there’s Eames (Tom Hardy), a sort-of 'dream-tech’.

What’s baffling about all of this is the way some critics find it, well, baffling. Nolan doesn’t obscure the narrative, or withhold some of its momentarily mystifying moments for long. Indeed, this is the kind of movie where characters stand in front of a white board and explain 'the plan’. When they’re not doing that, they’re telling us will what happen, what might happen and what has happened – in the dialogue. Nolan is a director who keeps things moving and his design concepts are seductive, but this is not exactly ingenious or adventurous storytelling.

Drawing its characters from con artist movies, and its narrative from WWII secret mission spy films, Inception actually positions you comfortably to absorb its more wayward tendencies; we’ve seen this kind of thing before (frequently). Part of the fun of the movie is watching how Nolan uses the conventions of the commando/con-movie, combined with the 'what’s real/what’s not’ story design of so much recent sci-fi.

Still, Inception, though it’s a movie about dreams, is not a dream of a movie. Nolan is too tied to logic and too tied to action for it to open up a space in the imagination that’s truly challenging to the psyche. For instance, when Cobb and his team make an 'assault’ on Fischer’s subconscious, the dream becomes a bland action movie, set in a snowscape with a great fortress; it’s not only literal, but it seems convenient and a little trite. And it’s not terribly interesting on its own terms; it looks like bad out takes from Where Eagles Dare, but, you know, without the Nazis. Of course, late in the movie, we do find out just why the movie’s dream worlds look like action movies and that answer isn't especially interesting. But then, looking for intriguing answers isn't quite Nolan's game here. What's exciting about the movie has nothing to do with content, or a coherent style; it has to do with watching a master crafts person conjure tricks with the best the modern movie tool box has to offer. But I'm not sure that Nolan knows anything about dreams or even cares.


2 hours 22 min
In Cinemas 22 July 2010,
Wed, 12/08/2010 - 11