With Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout. 148 minutes.
With INCEPTION, writer-director Christopher Nolan combines the mind-bending narrative of his early hit “Memento” with the mainstream appeal of his Batman movies (“Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”). This is a movie people will go see and then argue about and then, very likely, go see again. It is instantly the must-see film of the summer.
The plot is the least important part of the movie. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an “extractor,” whose job it is to invade someone else’s dreams to “extract” information from them. Saito (Ken Watanabe), a past target, now wants to hire him not to extract information but to implant it. He wants Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s business empire, to dismantle it instead, removing Saito’s competition. That’s all you really need to know about the plot and, in the end, you won’t care.
For what the movie is really about is a visual and narrative tour-de-force in which Cobb and his team invade Fischer’s dream, and then go to a dream-within-a-dream. And then they have to go to a dream within that. Cobb’s team includes Ellen Page as the “architect” of the dream worlds, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy as his utility players. Unfortunately the dreams also include his late wife (Marion Cotillard), who is a wild card often working against him. Nolan has pulled together an amazing cast here which also includes Michael Caine in a cameo as Cobb’s father-in-law and mentor, Tom Berenger as Fischer’s attorney and Lukas Haas as Cobb’s previous architect.
What makes this work is the surreal visuals, including a bravura fight in a hotel hallway that seemingly defies gravity, and the complexity of the storytelling. At one point we’re going back-and-forth between a van driving off a bridge and an exploding elevator to a shootout at a snowy mountain retreat, with each being a different level of dream state. Amazingly, it is easier to follow than to describe. The two-and-a-half hour running time races by, with Nolan making sure we have the information we need to follow the action without difficulty. This is, however, a movie where bathroom breaks and visits to the concession stand should take place before the film starts. If you miss a few minutes here you may become hopelessly lost.
“Inception” is an example of what the late, great Alfred Hitchcock would refer to as “pure cinema.” It is something that can only be experienced in the movies. The stunning visuals not only provide the thrills and chills, but some of the most poignant character moments. The film’s final shot will be leave audiences gasping and talking for some time to come. That’s the difference between a movie like “2012” and “Inception.” The former provided the roller coaster ride but nothing more. With “Inception,” Christopher Nolan wants to do more than provide cheap thrills. He wants your eyes and ears, but he wants your brain as well.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.