“It was all a dream” is just about the most clichéd twist ending a movie can throw at you, so one of the most impressive things that writer-director Christopher Nolan does in Inception is make the dream-state of his characters into a source of genuine suspense, with stakes just as high as in the real world, and often more so.
It takes him a long time to set up the rules and requirements that give those dreams significance, though, and the two-and-a-half-hour movie drags a bit in its first half. We start by meeting master dream manipulator Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner in crime Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they’re inside the dream of wealthy businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) trying to steal corporate secrets. That job doesn’t go as planned, but Saito turns around and offers Cobb and Arthur an enticing new job: Instead of stealing ideas from people in their dreams, as has been their M.O. so far, he wants them to implant an idea in the head of one of his corporate rivals (Cillian Murphy), in a process called inception.
Nolan then pulls back for quite a while to illustrate the mechanics of dream hijacking, thanks to newbie dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), who needs everything explained to her. Some of the exposition is a little clumsy, but Nolan the visual stylist is great at show-don’t-tell, and while Cobb is explaining to Ariadne the importance of totems and projections and kicks, dream worlds around him are collapsing and folding in on themselves and shifting perspective. If nothing else, it looks totally awesome, and it means that when the intricate plot gears up, we know exactly how all the pieces fit together.
At heart, Inception follows the basic beats of every heist movie (it’s even Cobb’s “one last job”), so Cobb and Arthur gather up their team, come up with an absurdly elaborate plan and set things in motion. Once Nolan gets to the job itself, Inception becomes one of the most ingeniously suspenseful movies around, with Cobb and his team entering into three different layers of dreams within their mark’s mind, all of which function according to different temporal rules. The race against time to plant the right idea before everyone’s pre-timed wake-up is masterfully edited, wonderfully shot and perfectly scored, and probably the most exciting thing you’ll see at the movies this summer.
But there’s another layer to the movie, a more serious, ponderous aspect that Nolan doesn’t handle quite as well. Cobb is haunted by the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard), whose subconscious manifestation keeps popping up at inopportune moments. His yearning for a lost past lacks the emotional sting of the main character’s fate in Nolan’s similarly twisty Memento, and the movie loses steam whenever Cobb rhapsodizes about his marriage. Still, even without a strong emotional hook, Inception remains a remarkable achievement in ingenuity and storytelling, and a movie that will satisfy viewers looking for something more substantial than just explosions and car chases—while including those, too.