The summer movie season is usually the time for big dumb brainless fun and there is nothing wrong with that. But as director Christopher Nolan has reminded us with his two Batman films, the blockbuster doesn’t have to be just that. It can have emotional depth and a smart and layered text. Nolan ramps that up this summer with the brain-twisting brilliance of Inception, which could best be described as the best film adaption of a novel that Philip K. Dick should have written but didn’t.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo diCaprio) is what could best be described as an industrial spy. He and his group are hired by powerful and rich businessmen to infiltrate their rivals for key pieces of information. However, they do not do this through computer hacking or even old fashioned breaking and entering. Cobb and his group are known as extractors. They enter their target’s dreams and manipulate the subject in to giving up the desired secret.
Nolan bravely begins the film in the middle of one of these missions and holds back on spelling out exactly what is going on for almost a half-hour. This could conceivably alienate and confuse some, but Nolan doesn’t leave his audience entirely helpless. There is enough information available to follow the action and decode what is happening and Nolan trusts that his audience is smart enough to figure it out. And by engaging their brains to actively follow the onscreen action rather than passively letting it wash over them, Nolan is prepping the audience for the many twists and turns he will be putting the concept through later in the film. A little later, Nolan offers a second reason through Cobb for this mise en scene when the character explains to new recruit Ariadne (Ellen Page) the nature of how one experiences a dream and how you don’t necessarily realize that you are dreaming. Again, a warning to the audience for what is to come.
Cobb and his crew find themselves in a quandary when Saito (Ken Watanabe), a former target of theirs, wishes to hire them for a job of his own. Instead of just extracting information from Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the son of a recently deceased business rival, they are asked to implant in him the idea of breaking up his father’s company which he has inherited into smaller groups that won’t be as competitive with Saito’s business. Cobb’s associates, lead by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), think that it can’t be done. But Cobb is strangely adamant that it can. And as Cobb begins to train newcomer to the group Ariadne, she slowly begins to why he feels it can be done. And that reason could endanger the mission and the group.
Characters interacting with each other in a shared dream is not a new idea in movies. We saw it back in the 1980s with Dreamscape while the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy is pretty much built on the concept’s foundation. But Nolan takes the idea and moves in a direction that recalls another film – The Sting. As Cobb and his crew descend in to Fischer’s dreams, they must use a number of tricks and subterfuges layered on top of one another to gain his trust and to be able to implant the suggestion. It’s a complicated confidence game they are running. However, when those carefully laid plans hit an unforeseen snag and start to unravel in the way these things often do, they are forced to think on their feet and improvise solutions. It’s during this segment of the film that many members of Cobb’s group, and the actors who play them, get a moment or two to shine and prove that they are not just dispensable sidekicks.
Interestingly, Nolan takes the hoary old horror movie cliche of a dream-within-a-dream and builds the crux of the movie on it. His dreamscapes follow a certain logic, but never get too random and weird. Characters have the ability to create and move through M. C. Esher-like geometries, but the unreality would alert the target that something is wrong and ruin Cobb’s chances of success. Have you ever been asleep and dreamed of a specific song only to wake right up and hear it playing on a radio? Nolan allows those kinds of influences to play an important impact on the dream landscapes and on the plot.
But the movie isn’t all just tricky characters moving through a complicated, if inspired, plot. DiCaprio’s Cobb is as much a mystery to be solved as is the mission to implant an idea in Fischer’s mind is a task to be accomplished. It moves through some tough places, playing to DiCaprio’s strengths. But it all dovetails nicely with the main plot in an ending that will have audiences debating and discussing for years.