With Inception (Warner Brothers), Christopher Nolan definitively proves that he's more interested in blowing the viewer's mind than in tracking where the mind-shards land—or how and whether they can be pieced back together. The director who gave us Memento and The Prestige, along with Batman films The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, may be unmatched among contemporary filmmakers for solemn bombast—but he's also unmatched for visual elegance and genuinely original action. There are plenty of movies that will give you a spectacular chase scene through the streets of Paris, but how many of them would think to fold a Parisian street onto itself until it resembles a three-dimensional game board designed by M.C. Escher?
Escher is a good reference for Inception, and not just because the film includes the image of a Penrose stairway similar to the one the Dutch artist created in his lithograph "Ascending and Descending." The action in this psychological thriller pivots on questions of perception and perspective, questions of exactly the sort that fascinated Escher. How do we know the difference between reality and projection, past and present, memory and dream? If we agree to stop asking these questions and simply live in a shared delusion, what have we lost? These are admirably ambitious riddles for a summer action movie to pose, reminiscent of the shape-shifting and romantic trickery of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But in place of Puck's rueful speech enjoining the audience to imagine "that you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear," Inception is content to end on a Keanu Reeves-esque "Whoa."
In a convoluted opening sequence, we learn that Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master of "extraction"—the art of infiltrating people's dreams to steal their secrets. Along with his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he's hired to engineer elaborate dream worlds that the victim mistakes for reality. A Japanese tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe), hires the team to pull off a feat never before tried: Rather than harvest a previously existing idea, would it be possible for them to implant a new one in someone's mind?
Financed by Saito, Dom begins choosing his—fine, I'll just say it—dream team, including an expert forger (Tom Hardy), a pharmacist specializing in deep sedation (Dileep Rao), and an architecture whiz named Ariadne (Ellen Page). (There are moments in Inception when Nolan's script lays the symbolism on with a trowel. Ariadne's character name is one of them.) Together, the team designs a plan to invade the dreams of a young corporate scion (Cillian Murphy) who's about to inherit his father's company.
The plan they come up with is a three-level chess game involving a dream within a dream within a dream, and by the rules the movie establishes, the whole scheme makes a kind of ingenious sense. The problem is that the emotional stakes are consistently too low for the viewer to engage with the story. It's never clear why we should care about the relationship between Murphy and his dying father, played by Pete Postlethwaite—their characters enter the story too late, and are too hastily sketched, to amount to anything more than types. Even more problematic is the love story between Dom and the specter of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Until he can let Mal's memory go, we're told, Dom is perpetually in danger of becoming lost in the dream world. (Mal's name, by the way, means "evil" in French. Trowel!) The idea of being weighed down by the ghost of an old love is rich with narrative possibilities, but Dom and Mal's passion never stops feeling like a clumsy narrative contrivance, especially after Ariadne starts intervening as an amateur psychotherapist. In essence, all of Page's dialogue in these scenes amounts to variants on "Dom? Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."
It's a shame that Inception's visual sophistication so far outstrips its emotional savvy. The movie's portrait of Mal and Dom's doomed love is a far cry from Vertigo, but its best set pieces are vertiginous indeed, especially a long fight scene that takes place in a hotel corridor under zero-gravity conditions. The effects were achieved not with computer animation but with a revolving set and actors suspended on wires, and the effort and expense pay off in an oneiric sequence that looks like nothing you've ever seen. The cinematographer, Wally Pfister, has worked with Nolan on nearly all of the director's films, and he's familiar by now with Nolan's visual obsessions: sleek reflective surfaces, forbidding cityscapes, sudden down-the-rabbit-hole shifts in perspective.
The score, by Hans Zimmer (who also co-wrote the Batman Beginsand Dark Knightsoundtracks with James Newton Howard), hammers too insistently at the viewer's ear, lest we forget we're witnessing events of great import. Lack of wit has always been a problem in Nolan's films; the only big laugh in Inception may be unintentional, when Page's character interrupts a mission-planning session with the plaintive query "Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?" I never really bought Ellen Page as a dream-designing prodigy; when she first appeared onscreen in her indie-girl duds, all I could think was "This is a job for Juno!" But it's not Page's fault that her character amounts to little more than a peg on which to hang plot exposition. Meanwhile, Cotillard brings her signature world-weariness to a disappointingly one-note femme fatale role; by the end of the film, the unkillable dream-ghost she plays is essentially a pretext for target practice. Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the dream team's detail-oriented middle manager. As for DiCaprio, I've already aired my reservations about him in somber, scrunchy-faced leading-man parts. He's at his best when he plays a trickster unburdened by conscience, yet both he and the directors who love him seem inexorably drawn to these guilt-ridden brooders.
Even so, M.C. Escher drawings are neat to look at, and there are worse summer pursuits than solving the spatio-temporal puzzle of an intricate three-level dream, even if the characters serve more as game pieces than people. At the end of Inception, I hadn't lived through the grueling emotional journey Nolan seemed to think I had, but I'd seen a bunch of cool images and admired some technically ambitious feats of filmmaking (notably the editing of Lee Smith, who by the movie's climax has to cross-cut among four concurrently unfolding realities). Though Nolan is a prodigious architect of detailed dream worlds, he's too controlled and controlling a filmmaker to give himself over fully to the chaotic logic of dreams.