The word “inception” actually means the beginning of something, that start of a journey, the first part of a major undertaking. In Christopher Nolan’s new film, Inception, the word has an additional definition in its role as a bit of jargon utilized by the individuals who have become adept at invading the dreams of others for purposes of mental espionage. It means planting an idea in someone’s mind so deeply that they believe it is their own invention. In some respects, it makes perfect sense that Christopher Nolan would conjure up this concept. On the available evidence, Nolan has so many ideas ricocheting around in his noggin that the unseen influence of outside sources must seem as likely an explanation as any.
There are certainly plenty of ideas in Inception. The movie is dense and rich. Despite the obvious temptation to slow everything down to make certain it’s all thoroughly explained, it’s also propulsive. Without fuss, Nolan keeps things going at a headlong pace, introducing his major concepts and then letting the wrinkles reveal themselves in the rigors of the plot. It is a movie enamored of mazes, and the narrative is built with a similar precision and intricacy. Many viewers, including some of those who rave breathlessly about the film, note that it’s confusing, an assessment that seems reasonable considering the final act involves no fewer than five different realities (or, perhaps more accurately, nonrealities) operating simultaneously. I think, however, that Nolan’s greatest achievement with the film may be the clarity of it all. The film requires attention, but it rewards it too. Everything happening onscreen in set up carefully, and all those set-ups pay off. Unlike other films that traffic in wild brainstorms, Nolan’s script always remains as dedicated to its story and its themes as it does to its own concerted trippiness. Hotel hallways are sent spinning like a turbine, but the showmanship of it doesn’t undercut or overwhelm the heavier emotions hanging over the film. The exploration of grief receives the same loving attention as all the effects shots.
In doing all this, Nolan may not always keep his dueling rules of cavorting in dreamscapes from clanging into one another. Someone trying to map the twists and turns on a piece of graph paper may very well spot dead ends in the resulting sketch. I’m not sure that much matters. The film is fully convincing in the execution and equally so in the afterglow. It’s not just that it largely resides in the slumbering imagination where, as it establishes, everything can be bent to suit whatever is needed in any given moment. Instead, it’s due to the integrity Christopher Nolan brings to the story construction. Nothing comes out of thin air, some makeshift business whipped up by a screenwriter who’s been painting furiously only to spin around and find himself facing the unforgiving line of two walls meeting. If it is in the movie, Nolan has justified its presence, whether it be major events or almost incidental character motivations.
The actors clinging to the lap bar on this wild ride are game collaborators. The film occasionally swerves towards treating them as mere pieces moving around an elaborate game board, an understandable slip given the sheer amount of story that needs to be relayed. The performers prevent that from happening. They don’t necessarily invest their roles with additional detail to fill them out, but they do shrewdly play what’s there with conviction, never proceeding as if anything that may be lacking on the page is impetus for coasting through the stunning imagery. There’s not a lot of backstory that can be gleaned about the characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Tom Hardy, but I still felt like I knew them well by the time the closing credits arrived. They add shadings to the characters, making sure that their contributions aren’t perfunctory comic relief or obligatory exposition, but represent genuine reactions from skilled professionals whose chief workplace exists only in the corners of a stranger’s mind. In the central role of the man who leads the team of subconsciousnauts, Leonardo DiCaprio is resolute but pained by the wisdom he’s earned. It’s solid work that would look even more impressive were it not standing side-by-side with his performance in this year’s Shutter Island as a character with similar agony rendered in a more memorably cataclysmic fashion.
Part of Nolan’s brilliance in the construction of Inception is that, for all its folding of reality into lovely, surprising origami, it is built like a heist movie, that sturdiest and most satisfying of sub-genres. The terms of the job are laid out, the team is brought together to figure out how to pull it off, and they embark on it brimming with confidence only to weather unexpected setbacks with anxious ingenuity. There’s even the whiskery old trope of the one last big job before a seasoned operator takes his leave of the ill-gotten business for good. If Nolan’s imaginings threaten to skitter off into unwieldy wanderings, the solidity of the story’s framework draws everything back to something that’s easy enough to comprehend. The film bounds high, but gravity does its work, always bringing it back to solid ground. The bold ideas aren’t subservient to the familiar narrative. The two elements work in tandem. Somewhere in that partnership is the secret of great moviemaking. How fortunate that somehow, someway it was embedded in Christopher Nolan’s brain.