Inception [2010].

The list of Writer-Director Christopher Nolan’s creations is not long, but what it lacks in quantity is more than made up for in quality. “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” have become the definitive works of the Batman legend, and his 2000 offering “Memento” is both a minor classic and an adumbration of this latest work. “Inception” follows in this ground-breaking tradition, outstanding both for its originality of theme and for the complexity of its plot. 

Neither plot nor theme are immediately apparent, but as they unfold the significance of initial details become clearer to the audience, and the basic elements are inherent in the first five minutes. All that remains is for them to unfold in all their elegant intricacy. At two and a half hours running time, this is a long movie, and the story needs every minute of that running time to fully reveal itself. 

There is the sound of crashing surf. A bedraggled man, whom we come to know as Cobb [Leonardo DiCaprio] is lying face down in the sand, barely moving. Two children, a girl of about three and boy of perhaps two, are playing nearby, building sandcastles. Armed men appear and drag the barely conscious Cobb before an ancient Japanese man, who examines the only two items found on his captive; a hand gun and a small brass spinning top. “I once knew a man who owned this,” says the ancient one. 

The scene changes, and we are not sure where we are. Back in time? Forward in time? In a dream? Where are we? Cobb is talking earnestly to Saito [Ken Watanabe], a sardonic Japanese businessman, trying to convince him to accept Cobb’s offer of protection from Extraction. We begin to learn that the technology now exists to enter peoples’ minds through dreams and steal their ideas, a process of which Saito is aware. To obtain the protection provided by Cobb and associates, Saito must open his mind completely, sharing all his secrets. Saito says that he will think it over. We begin to sense that there is some double-dealing here, but who exactly is double-crossing whom? 

Cobb then leaves Saito, but meets Mal [Marion Cotillard] a mysterious woman whom Cobb appears to know very well, but who is obviously not welcome. Not here. Not now. It emerges that Cobb is not here to protect Saito but to extract information from him, information that is contained in a safe that Cobb must open. A real safe? Or is it a metaphorical safe, the product of Saito’s unconscious? There is no way of knowing. 

Cobb manages to open the safe, but immediately Saito and Mal, as well as armed guards, confront him. There is a shoot-out and again the scene changes, this time to a room in a hotel. There is rioting outside. Explosions rock the street. The building with the safe was but a dream. 

The rioters close in on the group, which includes Cobb and Saito and associates, in the hotel. There is a welter of violence – and they awake in a speeding train, bound for Kyoto. The hotel, the rioting, the explosions, all were just a dream. The house with the safe that Cobb broke into was a dream within a dream. But Saito was aware of Cobb’s intentions all the time. Cobb has failed, and must report his failure to his employers. 

But all is not lost. Saito, despite everything, is impressed with Cobb’s expertise and offers him a commission of a rather different nature. Saito does not want to steal someone’s ideas. He wants to do the opposite, to plant an idea in someone’s mind so deeply that the implantee will believe that it is his or her own idea, and will thereafter make decisions that are advantageous to Saito and his associates. In return he offers Cobb something that he cannot buy; a safe return home to his children without being arrested and locked up in prison. 

The implantation process, the opposite of Extraction, is known as Inception, and is much more difficult. 

Cobb accepts and we follow him into a surreal world of dreams, of dreams within dreams, of dreams within dreams within dreams. He plans the operation like the professional that he is, but he needs others to help him; his right-hand man Arthur [Joseph Gordon-Levitt], the chemist Yusuf [Dileep Rao], and above all an Architect, someone who can design the dream into which they must draw their victim. The architect selected is a brilliant young designer, the appropriately-named Ariadne [Ellen Page]. 

The victim is Robert Fischer [Cillian Murphy], the son of dying oil magnate Maurice Fischer [Pete Postlethwaite]. Saito and his associates fear that Robert will continue his Father’s work after the old man’s demise and build the company into what would amount into a commercial superpower. He must be convinced that he has to break up his Father’s Empire. This is the idea that must be planted within his mind. This is the mission of Cobb and his dream-team. 

They begin their assignment, but immediately they are compromised by images from Cobb’s subconscious, images that stem from his private longings and his secret guilt, of which only the insightful Ariadne is aware. We gradually learn more of Mal, who was Cobb’s wife, of the two children that keep appearing here and there, of where they come from and where they are – or where we think they might be. Nothing, it seems, is what it appears to be at first sight. 

This makes what was already a dangerous mission far more so, for they begin to learn that while on a normal mission if they are killed during the dream they simply wake up, this time they may well be locked for all eternity into the nightmare that is lying deep within Cobb’s unconscious. To complicate matters further, time stretches the deeper they travel into the layers of dreams. Five minutes of sleep means one hour of experienced time in a dream. In a second layer dream, that hour spent in the first layer extends to a week of experienced time in the second, to years spent in the third. Long sequences of action are experienced as their van is falling off a bridge. 

Which is reality, and which is dream? And who is actually controlling what? Each dream is generated by one person, and controlled by him or her, but who is dreaming, and who is coming along for the ride? What events or characters in the dreams are planned, and which are intrusions from someone’s unconscious? The viewer has, at all times, to work out who is what, and what is where. There are layers upon layers, intrusions upon intrusions as we gradually begin to piece together Cobb’s life and his real motives. 

Is it an action movie? Is it a science fiction movie? Is it a love story? Is it a parable of sin and redemption, of pride and punishment? Yes, all of these. And more. This is a quite extraordinary movie, brilliantly conceived and executed. Leonardo DiCaprio is showing that he is an actor of increasing maturity and depth, well placed opposite award-winning Marion Cotillard. An excellent supporting cast that includes the very talented Ellen Page, best know for her 2007 performance in the title role “Juno” and Ken Watanabe, with too many excellent performances to enumerate, enrich the tapestry. Cameo appearances from veterans Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite and depth and colour. 

This is a movie that everyone needs to see twice; once to absorb it, a second time to fully appreciate it. And at the end, as at the beginning, it all comes down to the spinning brass top.

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