Nolan’s ‘Inception’ Is A Dream Worth Having

Inception -- Dir. Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.) -- 4 STARS

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Leonardo Dicaprio prepares to enter the world of the dream in Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

For Leonardo Dicaprio, “Inception” was an opportunity to reestablish his brand. Dicaprio’s turn as a troubled U.S. Marshal in “Shutter Island” was made up of brooding stares and mental breakdowns that garnered little more than shrugs from many viewers. This time around, both the brooding and breakdowns remain, but the result is infinitely more satisfying, fueled literally by the stuff of dreams.

Although Dicaprio’s acting in both films is consistent, his work in “Inception” is elevated by the stellar vision of director Christopher Nolan (director of “Memento” and, lately, “The Dark Knight”), a phenomenal supporting cast, and the added benefit that this film’s aesthetic compliments the actor’s own suave style. And “Inception” is about as suave as it gets.

This visually stunning movie takes place in a world in which individuals, especially powerful ones, have to worry about a new kind of breaking and entering: where human minds, not mainframes or security vaults, are the target. Dicaprio plays Dom Cobb, a specialist who has the ability to delve into people’s dreams and physically extract the secrets they store within them. Naturally, he uses this talent is the service of international corporate espionage, and in so doing has garnered a hefty list of powerful enemies, not to mention a series of personal tragedies along the way.

Given the option to leave his fugitive lifestyle behind for good, Cobb embarks on one last job, to perform not an extraction, but an inception—the planting of an idea that will fundamentally alter the dreamer’s thought processes upon waking.

Cobb is accompanied by a crew of extremely debonair and crafty dream weavers. Standouts from the group include the irreverent duo of Arthur and Eames, played respectively by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with a decidedly more kick-ass flair than he showed in “500 Days of Summer”) and relative newcomer Tom Hardy, who brings a quick-witted charm to the screen. Like the movie itself, each of these characters is striking, dressed and groomed with an artful precision. It’s all impeccably tailored suits and slicked-back hair in this joint.

Their polished looks are complemented by Wally Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography, one of the film’s most distinctive traits. From sweeping landscapes to action-packed fight scenes, every shot is crisp and captivating, whether it’s an avalanche cascading across the path of a snow mobile chase, or a gravity-defying fight scene in a hotel corridor.

Nolan deftly utilizes a complexly-designed system of internal logic coupled with arresting imagery to make “Inception” both an understandable and entertaining escape from the world of the waking to that of the imagined. The tension between the dream and the physical worlds comprises the crux of the plot, and ultimately holds the success of the film in the balance. Rather than being bogged down by the complexities of shifting between the two dimensions, the story revels in forcing the audience to keep up with the chain of events and reactions. It’s a thrilling joyride, and all in the state of REM sleep to boot.

But while the film succeeds in combining the wonder and freedom of a dream, and in translating those feelings into a real experience on screen, its primary weakness is that Nolan doesn’t take this opportunity as far as he could have. Rarely eschewing its James Bond-ian adventure and heist film foundations, “Inception” presents an illusory alternate universe that really isn’t so different from our own—apart from a few select instances, the film never presents a completely outlandish dreamscape. In short, it’s missing the unpredictability of the unconscious, despite being consciously enticing.

This shortcoming aside, Nolan has crafted a brilliant movie that tests the minds of the audience and probes into those of the characters.

­—Staff writer Li S. Zhou can be reached at lizhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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