MOVIE REVIEW: Inception

INCEPTION-- 5 STARS

If there's one movie this year that people have been asking me the most questions about as their "movie guy," it's the new Christopher Nolan-directed Inception.  If you're like my friends, you've seen the heavily-hyped imagery from the previews and commercials of a folding Paris skyline, an exploding cafe, gravity-defying hallway falls, and crumbling beachfront skyscrapers, all accompanied by a booming musical score and ominous narration by its star Leonardo DiCaprio.  People constantly ask me "Don, what the hell is that movie about?"

I can tell you right now, those images are just a taste of many like it, and that's only the start of the genius of Inception.  It is, without a doubt, a challenging maze of dreams within dreams.  Contrary to M. Night Shyamalan movies, or even the TV show Lost (which I love for the mental workout) that implausibly twist with very little explanation afterwords and cause their audience to feel baffled and turned off, Inception delivers twists that fit the evolving context of the story it's creating and commandingly wins your attention enough to not turn you off.  While it may not seem like it, trust me, there is a point and a light at the end of the tunnel to this maze.

Now, after seeing what all the fuss was about, I kind of don't want to answer that question of what it's about because it's so worth going to see for yourself.  That, and it's still hard to explain!  However, my friends and readers need help, so here's my best shot and the boost I'll give them.

Inception is essentially two things at its core.  It's a "one last job" story for a thief and a dramatic story of regret and forgiveness of a father and husband, both of which are set in a modern science fiction setting that echoes shades of Minority Report with a dash ofThe Matrix.  The thief is Dom Cobb, compellingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his two kids back home in the U.S., but his illegal activity has made him a wanted man.  He also carries a deep and complicated regret with his wife Mal (luminous Public Enemies French actress and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard) as to why he can't be there.

Here's where you're going to start to need the salt grains.  It's going to sound crazy and preposterous, but I promise it's easier to watch and enjoy than explain in words.  Dreams are what is being stolen, but not in a Freddy Krueger way.  Cobb is an "extractor," a man who specializes in entering a person's subconscious by sharing in their dreams to steal that person's secrets for profit and corporate espionage.  Imagine being able to steal the idea to invent the iPod before Steve Jobs was able to do it himself.  You can't call it patent stealing or copyright violation because it doesn't exist yet.  That's what Cobb does and he operates where our dreams occur, where we don't don't remember how they start, and when we don't know they're not real until we wake up.

He does so by getting close to the subject, sedating the target, and plugging them into a mysterious briefcase.  The case injects compounds that enable a shared dream experience for all of those plugged it.  Cobb works with his long-time partner and "point man" Arthur (a grown-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt going way beyond playing Cobra Commander in last year's G.I. Joe), who researches the target subject.  They recruit a team consisting of an young "architect" named Ariadne (Juno's Ellen Page doing a great job not being Juno) who constructs the labyrinth world of the dream they induce, a charming "forger" (Tom Hardy, a long way from Star Trek: Nemesis) who specializes in imitating and taking the physical appearance of people within the dream, and finally a "chemist" (Dileep Rao of Avatar) who creates the strong sedative drugs needed to enter the dream world.

Cobb is given, in "one last job" fashion, an "offer he can't refuse" from Saito (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese businessman who has the means to clear Cobb's name and enable his return to his children.  Saito's target for Cobb is his business rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy of Batman Begins and 28 Days Later), but the job is more dangerous than the extraction of an idea.  Saito challenges Cobb and his team to perform the impossible opposite, "inception," on Fischer.  Inception is to plant an original idea deep in the target's mind that their powerful subconscious becomes convinced is real and their own.  The movie becomes the set-up, planning, and execution of that dangerous "anti-heist" with scary consequences through the many layers of both Fishcher's, and Cobb's, (keyword) shared dreaming.

Those scenes and visuals you see in the commercials are the grand physical and symbolic manifestations of the dreamer's world, either in their own subconscious or created by the architect.  Giving away the meaning of these manifestations takes away from the experience.  It's in these realms that director Christopher Nolan delivers incredible action sequences of taut and pristine filmmaking.  Composer Hans Zimmer's booming, breathing, electronic-influenced score goes nearly the whole distance, from opening title through the end credits, and could constitute a character of its own in the film.  The visual effects and outstanding cinematography are seamless.  You cannot tell where the actors and the production design stops and the CGI begins.  Not one element of visual style is out of place.  You will never see dreams come to life quite like this!

The greatest accomplishment for Inception, even larger than the incredible visual achievement, is Nolan's storytelling.  Inception is the best of everything Christopher Nolan has shown that he is good at.  With Memento's famous backwards plot structure and The Prestige's mystery of misdirection, he changed the way we see psychological thrillers with a dynamic human element.  In Insomnia, he showed that he can challenge great actors, like Al Pacino and Robin Williams, with complex roles.  His Batman reboot of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, shows his ability to tell a story of amazing size and scope. 

Inception may go down as his masterpiece, with its ability to take such a huge, wild, and suspenseful concept and pace it was such a deeply affecting emotional story.  The powerful relationship between DiCaprio and Cotillard successfully overcomes the heist action to great effectiveness.  Between Inception and his continuing work with Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island earlier this year), DiCaprio is building an impressive resume of compelling psychological performances.  He hasn't been that teen heartthrob from Growing Pains, Romeo + Juliet, and Titanic for a long time and it's time for people to take notice, because he might be the best young actor working today.  

I'll say it right now and put my reputation on it.  This is best film I have seen this year and I cannot see another movie topping it for originality, vision, and magnitude.  I challenge Hollywood to do better between now and the end of the year.  Hand the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to Nolan right now, or at least put him down as the leader in the clubhouse. Inception's strong writing and technical prowess in so many areas I predict will cause its name to be called several times next February at the Kodak Theater.  Answer the hype and the mental challenge of Inception.  You will be glad you did. 

LESSON #1: THE HUMAN MIND IS DEEP LABYRINTH OF MEMORIES AND SECRETS-- Every one has one and every one has their own world inside there.  One man's place of solace can be another man's fortress.  What we chose to remember and what we can't seem to forget can be two different and powerful things at the same time.

LESSON #2: IN REAL LIFE, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS "ONE LAST SCORE"-- This lesson might be the one formulaic element of the movie, but Nolan elevates the material.  We've seen dozens of other movies where the "one last job" is never easy and rarely successful.  While it may seem obvious to quit while you're ahead, the compelling dual lesson of "an offer you can't refuse" (thank you Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) is a strong draw for even the most determined character.

LESSON #3: OUR SUBCONSCIOUS IS A POWERFUL THING BEYOND OUR CONTROL-- The human imagination knows no bounds, and this movie shows it visually like few movies have done in history.  The incredible and impossible come alive in our minds, but at the same time those things belong there and aren't meant for others.  I'm no therapist, but it's important to know when it's acceptable to act on that imagination or to leave it a dream.

LESSON #4: GUILT IS A POWERFUL MOTIVATOR-- In Nolan's Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne references that "my anger outweighs my guilt" when talking about the loss of of his parents.  The opposite is seen here.  Guilt creates an insurmountable love for what was lost that anger is never in the equation.

LESSON #5: AN IDEA IS AS CONTAGIOUS AS A VIRUS-- This one takes some thought, but take a moment.  Have you ever noticed how a good idea, not just a suggestion, is hard to forget?  Have you ever noticed how once you have your mind or your heart set on something that it's hard, nearly impossible, to convince you change it?  Have you noticed how a good idea, once shared with others, is very easy to spread and multiply its strength.  Inception emphasizes these notions.  

LESSON #6: THE WIDE-RANGING INTERPRETATION OF DREAM MEANINGS-- Go online, get some tarot cards read, lay on a leather couch, or go to Borders and there are a thousand opinions of what our dreams mean.  Even Disney movies tell us "a dream is a wish your heart makes."  If they come true or not is a whole other story.  Whether dreams are just dreams, our true inner feelings, or just chemical synapses of memories and imagination firing in our brain is up for the dreamer to decide.  Besides, you know yourself better than any so-called expert or book.