Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is about an espionage expert, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb, who has a highly specialized way of stealing corporate secrets: He extracts them from within the dreams of his targets.
Depending on your taste for narrative logic, Nolan’s penchant for delineating dream states carries either a built-in advantage or a huge liability. If you don’t mind being tossed about in a state of high confusion for 2-1/2 hours, as dreams enfold within dreams and subconscious states are poised in an infinite limbo, then this is your dream movie.
I found myself more inclined to sympathize with Cobb’s notion that, in limbo states, hours can turn into years. After one too many dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, I was feeling in limbo myself.
Which is not to say that “Inception” isn’t a compelling thrill ride. It’s just not much of a fun ride. Nolan, best known for his “Batman” movies and the time-shifty “Memento,” is very big on noir. For him, black is beautiful – i.e., horrible. When Cobb starts hunting dream worlds, he never encounters anything transcendent inside anybody’s noggin. The darkness of this movie, as was also the case with Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” is magisterially oppressive.
Cobb’s situation, despite its newfangled presentation, is fairly conventional, even sappy. Once upon a time he became a fugitive from America for supposedly causing the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, who, coming after Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” is Hollywood’s designated noir vamp). Mal keeps invading his dreams, or the dreams he concocts within other’s dreams-within-dreams, or their dreams within his dreams, or – oh, forget it. Anyway, she’s up to no good, even though, technically, she’s dead, or in limbo, or something.
The point is, man-with-a-past Cobb is still in love with her. She is, literally, the woman of his dreams. His enraptured state is scaled big, Wagnerian big, but neither he nor Mal can quite fill out the ardor. That’s because Nolan, ultimately, is a head guy and not a heart guy. He’s all about architecture. Everything in this movie issues from the heavy doominess of its look.
Things lighten up ever so slightly when Cobb, hired by a Japanese tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to do some heavy-duty extraction – excuse me, inception – on a corporate heir (Cillian Murphy), assembles his A-Team of fellow dream foragers, including Ellen Page’s Ariadne, master forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and sidekick-researcher Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
But even here, Cobb too often spoils the party by offering up such deep-think pronouncements as “we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential.” I cite this line, which is typical – not to mention unoriginal and probably untrue – because many people are going to be conned into thinking “Inception” is some sort of high-I.Q. whirligig just because it’s festooned with Möbius strips and M.C. Escher stairs and everybody in it seems to understand what’s going on even if you don’t. (The biggest, the only, laugh line at my screening came at a particularly confusing time when Ariadne suddenly asks, “Whose subconscious did we just go into?”)
For movie buffs, the only real fun to be had at “Inception” could be toting up the lifts from other movies, including Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” and “The Matrix” series and just about anything by Kubrick. (One movie not referenced is Joseph Ruben’s terrific “Dreamscape,” from 1984, which had a lot more fun with some of the same concepts.) Nolan, like Cobb, is an assiduous extractor, and he knows how to wow audiences. But scaling big and thinking big are not the same thing. And dark, just because it’s dark, isn’t more artistic than light.
It’s artier, though. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.)