Inception (2010, 6.5 stars out of 10)
Christopher Nolan assembles elements familiar from The Matrix (immersive reality), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (plastic mindscapes/architecture), and Tarkovsky's Solaris (ghost wife) into an entertaining, emotionally thin mess. In a vaguely-sketched, presumably future world controlled by vaguely menacing multinational corporations, Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) leads a team of "extractors" who specialize in stealing corporate secrets by entering sleeping executives' dreams. Their current mission, assigned by a Japanese energy company boss (Ken Watanabe), requires a reversal of their usual task: instead of stealing an idea, they're to implant one inside the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a young CEO who's just inherited his position from his dead father (Pete Postlethwaite). To do that, the extractors have to construct and navigate three nested layers of dream reality, and metaphorically transmit the desired idea to Fischer's dream-self at the third layer -- the dream within a dream within a dream -- without getting their own dream-selves killed by hostile manifestations (interchangeable guys with guns, mostly) of Fischer's subconscious. Complicating matters further, Cobb's subconscious is hiding its own threat -- an angry, homicidal version of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who committed suicide after an intense experiment in mutual dreaming with Cobb.
Confused? If so, that's mostly by design, I think. Like Nolan's other non-Batman films, Inception is structured to encourage some puzzle-piecing from its audience; scenes are introduced out of linear order as teasers for third-act revelations; dreaming is used as a device to fracture time however the director wishes -- to withhold and reveal information without disrupting the film's simple, heist-gone-wrong arc. At its best, it's both ingenious and conventionally thrilling. The extractors' modus operandi -- infiltrating a target's private space, putting him and themselves to sleep with a sedative, and networking their sleeping brains into a prefabricated, multilevel dream environment -- is a fertile set-up for action, weirdness, and unexpected twists. When a van containing the sleeping extractors hurtles off the edge of a bridge on Level 1 of the dream, sending the dreamers into a freefall; Level 2 (the dream within the dream) becomes a zero-gravity environment; which sets the stage for a wicked zero-grav fight in a hotel between Cobb's right-hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an army of faceless goons in suits.
Nolan's script does a decent job of explaining the dream environment's internal logic while avoiding sci-fi bloat; nerdy details that tempt intense nerd scrutiny are kept to a minimum (though I suppose that won't stop the Internet from trying). What the movie fails to avoid is a good deal of useless emotional bloat. Cobb's wife's dégringolade contains the seeds of real poignancy; when she wakes up from her shared dream with Cobb, young again after growing old with her husband over the span of 50 dream-years, it is easy to feel her disorientation and loss; but the progression from that point to her eventual suicide manages to be both overblown and insubstantial. The suicide itself feels like nothing -- just a corny plot point. Similarly, Cobb's separation from his children falls short of tragic, though that's probably on Dicaprio; he's un-dad-like. The "touching" reconciliation between Fischer Jr and Fischer Sr is likely to cause inner groaning. Worst, the appearance of Juno (Ellen Page) as a precocious dream "architect" and de facto therapist to Cobb does nothing except add to our culture's mountain of psychobabble on grief. Enough!
Of course, my main complaints about this movie are my usual complaints about Hollywood movies that purport mindblowingness: not trippy enough, not playful enough. But that is a personal thing. Taken on its own terms, Inception succeeds; it fills 148 minutes with brisk, inventive entertainment. If you like nerding out afterwards with friends and asking questions such as, "How do I really, really know that my ideas come from me and not from a team of dashing corporate superspies?" -- you can thank Nolan and company for that, but that's on you.
P.S. White audiences won't care or even notice, but did the brown guy (Dileep Rao) have to be both the drug dealer and the chauffeur?
Here's an unfinished Peanuts strip