Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur
Ellen Page as Ariadne
Tom Hardy as Eames
Ken Watanabe as Saito
Dileep Rao as Yusuf
Cillian Murphy as Robert Fischer, Jr.
Tom Berenger as Browning
Marion Cotillard as Mal
Pete Postlethwaite as Maurice Fischer
Michael Caine as Miles
Lukas Haas as Nash
Tai-Li Lee as Tadashi
Claire Geare as Phillipa
Magnus Nolan as James
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dream thief who has mastered the art of "extraction" - being able to steal ideas from people by entering their dreams while they sleep. A new client (Ken Watanabe) now wants him to do the impossible and put an idea into a target's head, a process called "inception," so Cobb assembles his strongest team, including a young new member named Ariadne (Ellen Page), in order to pull off the most complicated job of his career in espionage.
Those who've been anxiously awaiting Christopher Nolan to be the summer's "Great White Hope" needn't lower their expectations as much as alter them, since "Inception" is not the type of summer fare we're used to by any means. Instead, this is the type of personal filmmaking we've only seen from the world's most intelligent filmmakers when they chose to do something that challenges themselves as much as it does the viewer - a cross between Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" and Tony Gilroy's "Duplicity" immediately comes to mind in terms of the complexity of its storytelling.
As effectively or gratuitously as the dream sequence has been used in movies to throw viewers off their game, Nolan deconstructs the very concept of dreaming with a movie that is essentially one long extended dream sequence. Nolan's many influences are on display from crime noir to Bond to Escher as he strings together a number of ideas to form the concept of how dream sharing--literally having multiple people inhabiting the same dream--can be used as a form of corporate espionage in order to get into competitor's minds and extracting their most well-guarded secrets.
As much as some will immediately compare Nolan's latest to "The Matrix" in that it also plays with the concepts of reality, "Inception" is like "The Matrix" times 10, as if you took that meeting between Neo and the Architect from "Reloaded" and stretched it out across an entire film.
This is established almost immediately as Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb and his accomplice Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are in the midst of trying to persuade Ken Watanabe to use their abilities to prevent his own mind from being invaded by corporate "extractors." From this first series of sequences, Nolan creates a timeless look and feel with both aspects changing regularly depending on whose dream we're experiencing. Once things go sour on that first mission, Cobb needs to find a new "Architect," someone who can create believable dream environments for Cobb's elaborate dream to bring their targets in order to extract ideas, being introduced to Ellen Page's Ariadne, who quickly masters that skill.
There are many big ideas at play here, some that will be familiar to those who have read up on lucid dreaming, but it's the way Nolan uses this dream theory within the context of a corporate espionage setting that makes "Inception" so infinitely fascinating. It immediately gets into the idea of having dreams within dreams, and that's where things get a little harder to follow as it creates a complex story that cuts between these layers. More importantly, the film deals with dream addiction, something we've all experienced at one point or another, where the real world just doesn't compare to the ones we can create in our minds as we sleep. There are also a few specialized concepts involved with shared dreaming called "totems" and "kicks," both which would take up way too much time and space to explain.
We don't want to give everything away, and believe us, we haven't. Knowing the above is like a chef placing random ingredients in front of you and letting you try to guess the final product he's trying to create. In that sense, Nolan acts like one of the magicians from "The Prestige" to create a rich, layered story disguised as an espionage thriller, delving into territory both Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis have explored in comics, but making it work on film. That being said, you don't have to understand every single idea being explored or explained to be able to follow the story. Almost as soon as Nolan has established the rules, he immediately throws a monkeywrench into the works as soon as the team attempts the even more complicated process of inception with the son of a mogul who recently passed, a character played by Cillian Murphy. This is where things get interesting as we see how much Cobb and his team have to plan everything down to the minutest detail.
As far as what Leonardo DiCaprio brings to the mix, "Inception" is everything that "Shutter Island" should have been, as he is playing a similar character with demons related to being separated from his wife and kids, something that starts to affect the mission. The fact Leo seems dressed and coiffed like Nolan makes you wonder where the filmmaker's head may have been at while conceptualizing this. Considering how many original ideas have been spawned from Nolan's brain, it's surprising he might use himself as a model for a man whose job it is to steal ideas from others.
Those who can only take Leo in small doses should be equally entertained by the exemplary work by everyone around him, Marion Cotillard being as amazing as ever, making just enough appearances to make a serious impact every time she's on screen. Similarly, Cillian Murphy is quite impressive with a far more well-rounded role and performance than in Nolan's Batman movies, playing the corporate target of Cobb's team. It's a role that could have been phoned-in, but the character has enough layers to give Murphy more to work with. The rest of the ensemble is just as impressive, playing a bigger part in the story than just being there to bolster Leo. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are great, and Tom Hardy brings some humor to it while playing things down compared to "Bronson." You know you have a great cast when a small appearance by Michael Caine isn't the most memorable moment in your movie.
Despite trailers focusing on all those wild dream-like images of cities turning to rubble within seconds, Nolan doesn't go overboard with using those images just enough so they're quite effective. Although the character's emotions are mostly kept to a minimum during the missions, there's an emotional resonance to the entire thing because everyone will be able to relate to allowing the subconscious to permeate their dreams. This ultimately plays a large role in the powerful emotional climax of the movie.
The James Bond influence doesn't come into full effect until the movie reaches the climax of the mission with the group ending up on a snowy mountaintop invading a stronghold guarded by hundreds of assassins on skis and snowmobiles. As fun as it always is seeing Nolan delve into action, that's very much a red herring for what the movie is really about. The results are a fully immersive experience with a resolution that's so much more satisfying than "Shutter Island," and it's likely to leave you questioning what is real for a long time afterwards.
The Bottom Line:
While this may not be Christopher Nolan's most immediately accessible movie--it actually requires you to pay attention and use your brain... yes, in the summer--it's certainly his most personal and most daring film, the type of summer movie that leaves you thinking well after it's over, immediately wanting to see it again in case you missed anything the first time. Being that "Inception" contains some of Nolan's most innovative ideas since "Memento," it's also his most successful movie in terms of being able to fully realize every nuance of such a rich concept.