“Inception,” an Important Picture, tries to get inside our heads

Inception is a chilling trip into the psyche … of writer-director Christopher Nolan, an Anglo-American action director who shattered the Tomatometer of mass consensus with The Dark Knight.

His new movie offers more muted colors, gift-wrapped themes, and GQ leading men with stockbroker comb-backs over the frowns carved in their brows — indicators of high-minded artistry, all. Leonardo DiCaprio has every reason to scowl, shackled with a character named Dom Cobb. Fugitive Cobb is a corporate espionage hired-gun expert at “extraction”: lifting secrets out of targets' minds. Drugging them, then joining them for naptime, he can drop in to guest-star in their dreams, and there pick the locks of his marks' subconsciouses — often represented as an actual safebox, as everything in dreamlife is signified by genre-movie totems. Cobb is planning his “last job before he retires,” a mind-cracking with the untested mission of leaving an idea in his mark's head. The target is the heir to a corporate dynasty, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), who must be persuaded to renounce his waiting throne. This will be achieved through running amok in his subconscious and prying in the desired suggestion, using his daddy issues as a lever. (Do not linger long over the ethics of mental rape; Nolan doesn't.)

Following caper procedure, Cobb assembles a team: his researcher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), mimic (Tom Hardy), apothecary (Dileep Rao), and a novice recruit, Ariadne (Ellen Page), the architect who'll landscape the dreamworlds that they'll haunt. Tagging along on her debriefing, we get glimpses of Cobb's history, his unresolved anguish over the mysterious end of his marriage, from which spring his personal demons that inconveniently invade other people's dreams in the vengeful form of former wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). Cobb also lays down the rules of shared dreaming to us via Ariadne, explaining that “we only use a fraction of our brain's true potential” — a shopworn line that appears almost verbatim in this week's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, though it's a sure bet that only one of these movies will be buried in laurels. As Ariadne learns the ropes, we get teasing flexes of the effects budget, M.C. Escher stairs and Parisian streets folding over themselves like a crêpe. The Hans Zimmer score suggests we shouldn't be gassed on these images so much as, I dunno, respectful?

The introductions to placeholder characters, the taking notes through the tutorial scenes: It's all let's-put-on-a-show buildup to opening night, the heist, the stage for a moviemaker to show his stuff. Cobb slips Fischer his mickey on a Sydney-to–Los Angeles flight — it's like an Olivier Assayas business-class thriller, with context scrupulously removed. Nolan has blueprinted a palatial setpiece inside Fischer's sleeping mind, an involuted whorl of dream-stages leading to deeper dream-stages. Team members break off in rear-guards, defending one level so the rest can continue in dreams-within-dreams. Nolan cross-cuts among stages as synchronized alarm clocks tick toward zero, while surface actions send rippling reactions along the chain.

Three setpieces in one! This approach is ambitious — and pretty routine when taken apart. Cobb explains his art as “a chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed.” Those so inclined can follow the script's breadcrumbs and read Inception as a metaphor for the act of artistic creation, with Cobb as director-surrogate — but Cobb and Nolan aren't constructing things that never existed. Fischer dreams of a car-chase shoot-out in the pouring rain (better done in We Own the Night, where action was wired to character emotion) and a snowblind siege on a brutalist municipal building. The gun-wielding henchmen in his dreams are indistinct from the ones who earlier chased Cobb through picturesque Third World streets in what was presumably reality. It's telling when one Dream Warrior quips, “You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger” — and pulls out a grenade launcher.

Like Nolan, the dreamweavers work from their movie memories (the center of Fischer's labyrinth is the intersection of Citizen Kane and 2001) and narrative formula. Planning how to get through to Fischer, one conspirator who has obviously attended a few screenwriting seminars offers: “The stronger the issues, the more powerful the catharsis.” Inception is a spectacle about creating a spectacle, and Nolan keeps giving behind-the-scenes glimpses — here, he's suggesting how we filter life through storytelling, while intending to use these same dramatic rules to move his audience.

That's the idea, at least. With his inability to let actors occupy a scene together, Nolan couldn't pass Pathos 101, and here he's trying graduate seminar stuff. “The catharsis” at the center of Inception is based on Cobb's choice: whether to go on permanent vacation with his dream-memory of Mal, or to return to real life. It's deciding between eternity with a bitchy wraith, presumably sexless like all of Inception's subconscious, or … that recurring sentimental snapshot-memory of his children? Dad Michael Caine, who drifts through the production? Ellen Page, barely considered for romantic-emotional counterbalance? There's no push-pull around DiCaprio's torrid emoting, and when the “We're awake now — or are we?” kicker catches you in the pants, who cares? It's obvious that Nolan either can't articulate or doesn't believe in a distinction between living feelings and dreams — and his barren Inception doesn't capture much of either.

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