Zombos Says: Excellent
If Sigmund Freud, Alfred Hitchcock, the Wachowski Brothers, and William Gibson walked into a bar, while Christopher Nolan was bartending with a very attentive ear, you would probably wind up with Inception, a stunningly original yet quite familiar movie that plays with its characters' minds and ours. In a disappointing cinema summer dotted with rote remakes and uninspired beginnings, Inception is refreshingly innovative in how it uses thematic elements from other movies to illustrate its complex but involving premise.
Familiarity comes from its intricate Mission Impossible-styled exploit involving futuristic corporate espionage, frenetically violent chase scenes that would make Jason Bourne flush, and deployment of essential but presumptive technology, normally found in movies like Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and Dark City. The complexity of its premise comes from the mind games played by Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of lucid dreamers, who are employed by conglomerates to steal corporate secrets by invading and manipulating the dreamscapes of their business rivals while they sleep. In Cobb's world, these "extractions," as they are called, appear to be a routine method of corporate raiding, so potential victims are trained to fend them off. This sub-conscious defense mechanism throws up "projections" which--conveniently simplified for us by Nolan's stunt people--look like car chases and assailants with guns. I'd like to take that MBA class.
Extraction involves having an "architect" first create an elaborate dreamscape for the exploit to be carried out, connection to a handy, attache-carried device that administers sleep sedation drugs to victim and extractors simultaneously, enabling them to dream together, and enough suitably conflicted psychoanalytic staples like transference and resistance--also embodied by those projections--to allow for coercion and disengagement as psyches are thrust and parried against each other.
The novelty here is how Nolan's psychological dreamscape, along with his unobtrusive explanation of its laws during a training session for the new architect on Cobb's team, Ariadne (Ellen Page), plays off the natural, visual-storytelling qualities possible in cinema. Matrix-like CGI effects and protracted, precision body-slamming, enhanced with bone-jarring thumps and whumps, is exploited for all it's worth. Scenes eagerly gobble up the screen's symbolic potential in screeching, glass-crunching car chases, a locomotive rampaging down a city street, and endlessly determined pursuers with rapid-firing guns acting--as Cobb explains--like anti-bodies warding off his team's intrusion. It reminds me of a similarly effective suspense-building googaw used in Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of miniature scientists is injected into the body of a diplomat to remove a dangerous blood clot. They must stay one step ahead of the body's anti-bodies eager to dissolve them like any other foreign organism, and they need to exit the body before time runs out and they grow back to their normal size.
In Inception, Cobb and his team must also complete their mission before time runs out. He's given a chance to end the forced separation from his children (he's been blamed for his wife's death). Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires him to do an "inception" instead of an extraction. Inception involves planting a subliminal idea instead of finding secrets. Saito wants his rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to split up the company left by Fischer's recently deceased father, to prevent it from becoming a monopoly that would put him out of business. It's tricky, more difficult than doing an extraction, and carries a greater risk to success because it involves fabricating multiple levels to the dreamscape. And the idea to be planted must be plausible enough for the victim to have thought of it on his own for it to work.
There's more standing in the way: a projection of Cobb's dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), keeps showing up in his dreamscapes trying to stop him. Buried deep within Cobb, his Id and super-ego are seething in repressed guilt, conjuring up a monster that threatens his team's safety. Remember Forbidden Planet and Morbius' monster from the Id? Nolan apparently does.
Cobb's elaborate plan for the inception exploit involves three elaborate levels of dreamscape to break down Fischer's defensive projections, each level going deeper, requiring a chemist's (Dileep Rao of Drag Me to Hell) extra potent sedatives to keep them there. One problem with using such strong sedatives is the potential for entering "limbo." Explained earlier, when a dreamer is killed in a dream, he normally wakes up. But going deeper into the dreamscape requires a dreamer to be more heavily sedated, so if he's killed, instead of waking up, he enters a mental place of isolation called limbo, where every minute of waking reality becomes years of dream time.
Nolan expands and contracts time as the inception is carried out aboard a plane in flight. Ten minutes in real time expands to hours in dream time, increasing as each dreamscape level is reached. A carefully orchestrated "kick" (see the Glossary of Terms) is needed at each level to awaken dreamers from that level, eventually bringing them back to reality. Slow-motion turmoil, zero-gravity fighting, scene-freezing a van plummeting off a bridge, and Mal's final interference builds Inception's nail-biting suspense, simultaneously interfering with our perception of time passing onscreen while paradoxically forcing us to pay closer attention to what's happening as it blurs what's real, a dream, or a dream within a dream.
Like he did in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan sets up his illusory dreamscapes' rules, misdirects with them, and then surprises us with its revelations. As one character remarks "you mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."
In Inception, the dreams are indeed done on a large and mesmerizing scale.