Beware the critic who claims the ability to analyze Inception authoritatively after one viewing. As engrossing and logic-resistant as the state of dreaming it seeks to replicate, Christopher Nolan's audacious new creation demands further study to fully absorb the multiple, simultaneous stories Nolan finagles into one narrative experience. First time around, the movie part sci-fi fantasy, part gun-toting heist pic, part mindfreak, all filmmaker brio is dazzling and buzzy. It's a rolling explosion of images as hypnotizing and sharply angled as any in a drawing by M.C. Escher or a state-of-the-biz videogame; the backwards splicing of Nolan's own Memento looks rudimentary by comparison. Only repeated exposure can clarify for each spectator not only what's going on, but also whether the emotional payoff deepens enough to warrant the arbitrary complexity of the game.
This much is clear: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief-for-hire in the corporate-espionage field who's able to mine info from a sleeping person's brain. Dom and a team of specialists, including a right-hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect (Ellen Page), and a "forger" (Tom Hardy) who can morph into another person's identity, have developed techniques to actually enter a subject's dream. And once on the premises, they can steal secrets. Demand for their services is great, and the team zips around the world. But Dom, a man with secrets of his own, wants to quit the business and return home to his kids. To do so, he takes on One Last Job, a mission with a twist: Rather than extracting an idea buried deep in a dreamer's subconscious, Dom must plant the seed of an idea that will, in waking life, take root an experimental process called inception. Ken Watanabe plays the tycoon who hires Dom for the job, angling to undo a competitor. Cillian Murphy plays the mark, the heir to a rival business fortune. In a tall tale where every character's name is crafted to signify something to cultists, naming Murphy's character Robert Fischer is a sure sign that Nolan is setting up a gleefully rigged game of chess. Speaking of names, consider Dom's beautiful, haunting wife, played with tenderness and a wiry undercurrent of malice by Marion Cotillard: Her name is Mal. As in the Latin for evil.
One could discuss or just gape at Inception's visual bravado, and the way the production team braids real locations (Paris, Tokyo, Morocco, snowy Canada) with perspective-shifting CG work into eye candy for MIT engineering students on Ecstasy. Page's architect messes around with the laws of physics, exploding a large chunk of "Paris" with kinetic delight. (As the newest member of the team, Page gets to explain stuff to the audience; for her pains, the actress is saddled with some awfully clunky expository declarations.) Gordon-Levitt wrangles sleeping dreamers into a configuration suitable for transport in a zero-gravity environment in a feat of cinematic choreography worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Any scene featuring the forger named Eames (as in mathematically elegant furniture design?) is compelling because of the effortlessly magnetic Tom Hardy (he played the title prison thug in last year's Bronson). The influences of other filmmakers, other films including The Matrix, Blade Runner, and James Bond movies peek out of every scene. But Nolan, the temporal origami master who made Insomnia, The Prestige, and those magical movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, handles his shout-outs lightly.
The reality that jostles the reverie is that, as brainiacally engaging as the movie is, Inception's emotions beat with a much fainter pulse. Nolan outfits Dom with an old-fashioned love of wife and children, and waking-life emotions of grief and guilt. But between DiCaprio's characteristic (and, don't get me wrong, often interesting) affect of broody complication, and the generic nature of Dom's longings, the heart is far less engaged than the head for most of the show. I like the movie's ambition so much that I wish that imbalance didn't matter that the daredevil rush to the (infernally open-ended) conclusion was its own satisfying reward. I'm left to hope, and wonder whether repeated viewing will shift my perspective. You know, as in a dream.
I can't wait to go back. B+