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INCEPTION is a masterpiece that will leave you breathless (review)

Rating:  (Exceptional)

When Inception ended, everyone in my theater let out a collective gasp. We had all been a part of something truly intense. Not since Requiem for a Dream has a movie so tightly wound me into its world. Christopher Nolan explores the realm of dreams, memories, and the subconscious mind with Inception, the film that will surely make him a household name. Amidst a sea of remakes, sequels, and by-the-numbers blockbusters, Nolan has made one the most unpredictable, astounding pieces of art I've ever seen. I recommend you stop reading and go watch it.

Dreams and the dreams inside them

When I was young, I saw an episode of a terrible Saturday morning kids show called Super Human Samurai Syber-Squad (yep) where the main character (Matthew Lawrence) is trapped inside a dream. He wakes up, but soon discovers he's in another dream. When he wakes up from that, he realizes he's still in a dream. It happens again and again. While the show has been forgotten, the idea of being trapped in a dream, and having a dream within a dream remains intriguing. How do we know when we're awake? Christopher Nolan's Inception explores this simple, powerful concept. 

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a corporate dream thief in an alternate world where corporate dream theft seems to be common. He and his team drug powerful people and enter their dreams to steal valuable secrets. However, a failed extraction opens up a new opportunity when Saito, the head of a major energy corporation (Ken Watanabe), hires Cobb for a new kind of mission: to plant an idea in a man's head and make him believe that he thought of it. Saito wants the son of his rival's company to break it up his newly inherited empire. Planting an idea in someone's head is called inception, and it's very difficult, if not impossible.

To accomplish this crazy mission, Cobb builds a new team. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is his Point Man, the guy who runs the dream. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the Architect. She designs the maze-like dreamscapes that will help the team implant the idea. And Eames (Tom Hardy) is the Forger. He can change his appearance inside the dream world and imitate others. Together, they construct and practice their elaborate inception, which involves creating a three-layered dream world. That's a dream within a dream within a dream. Crazy, right?

I could keep rambling about the plot, but I think Roger Ebert says it best in his review:

The story can either be told in a few sentences, or not told at all. Here is a movie immune to spoilers: If you knew how it ended, that would tell you nothing unless you knew how it got there. And telling you how it got there would produce bafflement. The movie is all about process, about fighting our way through enveloping sheets of reality and dream, reality within dreams, dreams without reality.

We learn more about Cobb as we go along, and the troubled relationship he has with his wife, played chillingly by Marion Cotillard. In all honesty though, the film moves into a realm beyond story. This world is beautiful and complex. Cities bend; bridges build themselves; people walk on ceilings; time stops. All the while, it feels more real than any blockbuster has in ages. There is CGI, but it's mixed with real places and real things. The Bond-like snow mountain hideaway toward the end of the film is a perfect example. It feels dream-like and impossibly grand, but has a sturdiness to it that only a real structure filmed in a real place has. 

The Power of an Idea

Nolan leans toward a single idea in many of his films. Insomnia is about finding your way back to a line you've already crossed. The Prestige is about jealousy. The Dark Knight is about humanity in the face of chaos. Inception's accomplishment is that it shows the infectious power one of these single, simple ideas can have. 

Last night, I drove an hour and a half to see Inception on the largest IMAX theater in Michigan. Several hundred other late night moviegoers did the same. I tried to clear my head of hype and expectations. I always do this, but with Inception's unique premise, I couldn't help but dream I would see a movie that surprises in every way--a film devoid of predictability, one that wouldn't lose itself in its budget or the weight of its concept. I hoped that Nolan hadn't gone too far and built a maze no mainstream audience (like me) would want to watch. I sit here, the morning after, still stunned at what I saw. Amidst such hype, the writer/director pulled it off. Last night, I had the most vivid dreams I can remember.

Inception has stunning performances, a beautifully complex story, and is a visual marvel, but it's true accomplishment is that it reminds us that though we live in a sea of remakes, brands, and sequels, anything is still possible. 

Update 7-20-2010: A friend of mine described the film very well. "I can't remember the last time I saw a movie with such a complex storyline that is simplified enough to be so enjoyable." Well said.

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