For weeks — nay, months — I played along with the coy refusals by writer/director Christopher Nolan and the cast members of Inception to reveal too much about its premise. I resisted the urge to watch online trailers; I shunned early reviews; in effect, I spent the entire spring doing everything but literally sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting “la la la la la.” So now I’m faced with a philosophical question nearly as thorny as those posed by Nolan in the film itself: How do I approach discussing its conceptual ambition while preserving that sense of discovery?
Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who demands that you wrestle with ideas. Now, that doesn’t mean bowing down to him as pop culture’s answer to Socrates; he’s too gifted a showman to make it all about dissecting his koans. But for a decade, Nolan has built a body of work out of how we define our identity and our reality: the self-created memory of Memento; the existential magic trick at the climax of The Prestige; Batman’s surrender to what people need to believe in The Dark Knight. Inception finds him again in that familiar territory—and the result is something almost as thrilling to contemplate as it is to watch.
Those who prefer their tabulas entirely rasa may want to exit now, because here’s the set-up: In an unspecified future, the technology exists for people to enter one another’s dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a researcher into the technology, has (for initially unclear reasons) become a fugitive, supporting himself as a corporate spy stealing business ideas from the subconsciouses of executives. But one powerful businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), offers Cobb a chance to reclaim his life if he can pull off a trickier feat: rather than stealing an idea from the mind of his chief competitor, Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Saito wants Cobb to plant one in there.
It takes most of Inception’s first hour to introduce its characters and the complex rules of its mindscape universe, which could have made for a long slog. Nolan proves too crafty to fall into that trap, allowing his exposition to unfold in a purely visual context that allows us to discover what we need to know alongside Cobb’s newest team member, Ariadne (Ellen Page). The same approach provides the opportunity to unfold Cobb’s crucial, tangled back-story, including the events that led to his exile and the role of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who keeps showing up unwanted during his jobs. Considering how much raw information Nolan needs to unload — and how easy it would have been to lose momentum, and the audience, during that time — Inception proves remarkably nimble at getting us to the payoff.
And what a payoff it is. The trip into Fischer’s head that comprises the final hour-plus of Inception — involving Cobb and his team members, which includes his long-time partner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a master “forger” of other personalities (Tom Hardy) — turns into a bravura, jaw-dropping extended set-piece that’s astonishing on nearly every possible level. As pure action, it delivers crunching chases, snowmobile pursuits, and one gravity-defying fist-fight that blows every other Matrix-esque fight out of the water. As an imaginative visual showpiece, it gives you a world where stairways bend in Escher-esque directions and a train can come hurtling down a city street. And as an exercise in multilevel storytelling, it should become one for the film-studies textbooks, as Nolan and his editor, Lee Smith, often find themselves juggling four concurrent plot lines. For more than an hour, Inception maintains a level of breath-holding tension that simply doesn’t seem possible.
That should be enough for any movie-lover to ask for — but Nolan gives us more. The emotional weight he adds to Cobb’s tale pushes Inception to another level, one in which questions the way we shape our reality balance the excitement. It’s not necessary to see Nolan’s philosophizing as earth-shaking; it does tread into notions he already explored in Memento and does so with less potency than the simple gee-whiz moments. But Nolan continues to succeed at what most big-budget filmmakers never even bother to try: trusting that our cinematic sense of wonder doesn’t have to be disconnected from our brains. Even if you now know a little about what Inception is about, you don’t even know the half of it.