Even considering the psychological weariness of “Insomnia,” the mystery of a trick in “The Prestige,” and the haunted world of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a film this audacious and brilliant since “Memento,” also about a mentally-unbalanced man holding onto the past. Word is he’s been working on this for 10 years…
…and the result is surprisingly polished, which doesn’t always happen with films that’ve been in the works for this long. Nolan is at his elegant and mind-bending best here, blending special effects with note-perfect plotting and casting that allows us to accept this world, it’s possibilities, and navigate through a sometimes exceedingly-complex narrative that is as awe-inspiring as it is exciting.
As he did in “Shutter Island,” Leonard DiCaprio plays a man with a past that clouds his present. His name is Dom Cobb, he is estranged from his two children, and his work involves the human mind. Namely, the information that can be extracted from it. He leads a team of thieves who specialize in extracting ideas from the subconscious. It’s dangerous business, but profitable for Dom and his crew, including Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). When businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) looks to enlist them for idea placement- called Inception- he makes Dom an offer he can’t refuse. But should he? Lately he’s been seeing his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) pop up in his work, and she hasn’t been helping matters.
Enough plot. Don’t look for spoilers here, or read much of anything that might ruin the experience Nolan has in store for you. Like “Memento,” things come together in stunning and unsettling ways in the final minutes, and in a way that makes us question the reality of what we see in the last frames. And don’t worry- just focus and follow the story and you’ll be fine. Nolan wants to cater to your intelligence, not insult it.
But this film isn’t just for the mind- Nolan has given us a visual and sonic experience as well. Sound design has always been important to his films, not just in what he leaves out but the way music plays into that. And Hans Zimmer is in peak form with a score that combines the musical elements of adventure, drama and mystery he and David Julyan (Nolan’s composer on “Memento,” “Insomnia” and “The Prestige”) have been so adept at into a fascinating tapestry that’s as striking as it is sensational to experience (especially when heard through IMAX’s massive speakers). They don’t create themes so much as moods the audience takes with them out of the theatre; here, Zimmer shows why he’s one of Hollywood’s best at that (listen to “The Thin Red Line,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Crimson Tide” if you don’t believe me).
But after Nolan, the real behind-the-scenes star of “Inception” is cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose work has just gotten better with each challenge Nolan throws his way. On “The Dark Knight,” it was using the massive IMAX cameras to make certain sequences immerse and dazzle the senses. Here, he and the visual effects teams give us sights like a city folding upon itself (imagine the “tuning” of “Dark City” on a $200 million budget), crumble into the ocean, and a zero-gravity fight in a hotel hallway that makes “The Matrix” look like a cheesy ’50s sci-fi film in comparison. Nolan is using effects in a way that recalls Kubrick in “2001”- not as “look what I can do” showing off but as a way of making this world more real. Someplace we can see ourselves dreaming up, and being able to make reality.
Still, all the visual and sonic miracles in the world don’t make up for palpable feelings and characters, and this is where Nolan has always thrived. Whether it’s Heath Ledger’s Joker or Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby or Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden, we understand these characters, and what drives them, every step of the way, even if we would never go to the extremes they do. You can add DiCaprio’s Cobb to that list. He puts on the face of a man in complete control of any situation, but deep down are pains that we sympathize with as much as we are surprised by them. He and Mal had a life together that went terribly wrong when reality and fantasy became inseparable, and DiCaprio and Cotillard are haunting and unforgettable in their roles and interactions. When I say you won’t be able to guess where their past leads you, I know what I’m talking about.
The rest of the cast fills a part, is a pawn in the larger game this film is playing. And everyone, from Gordon-Levitt as the realist Arthur, Tom Hardy as the quick-thinking idea forger Eames to Ellen Page as the quick-learning new recruit (who is brought in to create the reality of the dream) and Michael Caine in a small but important role as Dom’s mentor, plays their parts well. Still, it’s the dark and heartbreaking secrets between Dom and Mal that turn “Inception” into more than just another head-fuck, and into the smartest and most thrilling film around. Just be sure you have your head on straight while driving home…