For a guy feeling the heat, Christopher Nolan is doing a remarkable job of keeping cool. It’s a scorching July day in Hollywood, and as his kids splash in the family pool, the 39-year-old British-American director of Memento and The Dark Knight is clad in a crisp black suit and sipping hot tea inside the renovated garage that serves as his cinematic workshop. Until last week, the walls were papered with plans and designs for Inception, a sci-fi psycho-thriller, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, about thieves who steal secrets from people’s dreams. Now, three days before the movie’s July 16 release, all that remains for Nolan is to sweat the perception that his newest opus might be too confusing to be a crowd-pleaser. ”This is a real nail-biter,” says the director, sitting in a small office filled with heady tomes on Hitchcock and Scorsese, stacks of DVDs and video-games, and props and models from his films, including three Joker masks. ”I really want this to work for an audience. They just need to relax and go with it. Yes, afterward there could be disagreements about what things mean. But hopefully there will be a unified response to the roller-coaster ride of it all.”
Nolan can now ease up a bit on his cuticles. Inception took in $62.8 million during its opening weekend, an impressive haul for a 148-minute live-action extravaganza that isn’t a sequel or in 3-D or both. Credit DiCaprio’s box office clout (he also helped launch Martin Scorsese’s similarly mind-boggling Shutter Island earlier this year), Nolan’s growing rep, and an ad campaign showcasing the film’s dazzling images of crumbling skyscrapers, cityscapes bending upon themselves, and zero-gravity fisticuffs. The film also benefited from great reviews, including a few dubbing Inception an Oscar-worthy masterpiece. (Several less-impressed critics and bloggers have raised a fuss over the hyperbole of their peers — an outbreak of backlash reminiscent of that surrounding Nolan’s enthusiastically praised The Dark Knight.) Moviegoers, for the most part, think Mr. Nolan’s wild ride is a pleasure; according to CinemaScore research, Inception earned a B+ average from ticket buyers, with the under-25 set giving it an A. EW’s own sampling of audience reaction was dominated by admiration. One viewer called it ”a really cool concept. I was blown away.” Declared another: ”I loved its intelligence. You actually have to pay attention, which is not what we’re used to.” The harshest assessment? ”It was boring. I’m waiting for Dinner for Schmucks.”
Inception is certainly the summer’s we-gotta-talk-about-this movie, an experience that all but demands coffee-shop discussion and message-board debate over its plot, mysteries, and open-to-interpretation ending. (Do you think that top kept spinning?) For Inception newbies, here’s what you need to know, based on what we think we understand. DiCaprio is Cobb, a crook-for-hire who uses a combo of drugs and technology to infiltrate the sleep of corporate bigwigs and swipe inside information — Freddy Krueger as industrial spy. Cobb’s own noggin is a mess, a ruin of guilt menaced by the memory of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Because Cobb is suspected of murdering her, he lives in exile, separated from his two children. Yet he gets a chance to go home again after a businessman (Ken Watanabe) hires him to bring down a monolithic energy company led by a dying CEO (Pete Postlethwaite). The mission isn’t to ”extract” intel, but rather to plant an idea deep inside the subconscious of the mogul’s successor and son (Cillian Murphy) — an intricate process known as ”inception.” Cobb and his team of head-hackers (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy) must complete the caper before a maze of dreamscapes disintegrates into chaos — and before Cobb’s increasingly toxic psyche destroys them all.