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Sweet Dreams

'Inception' the best of 2010 so far.


'INCEPTION': Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio star.
  • 'INCEPTION': Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio star.

If you're planning on going to see writer/director Christopher Nolan's new film "Inception," stop right now. With a script this intricate and delicately made, pretty much anything beyond the names of the principal actors is a spoiler. There's just not a whole lot you can say about the movie without spilling some bit of carefully laid beans. So if you've already got a date set to go see it, just put the paper down. You can read my thoughts on the movie later, after Nolan's ass-over-teakettle take on the heist flick has reduced your frontal lobe to figgy pudding.

Now that's out of the way, let's get on with it. If you're not planning on going to see "Inception," do so. Play hooky from work. Go tonight. It's that good.

If you're a fan of Nolan's other works — most notably his debut, "Memento" — you already know that he's a writer/director who likes to take a cleaver and pick axe to the expectations of his audience. Though he has gained quite a bit of notoriety in recent years directing the superb reboots of the Batman franchise, "Inception" really represents a return to his roots. Yes, it's a vast and sprawling film, one that feels like it contains — just outside the reach of the camera — volumes of history that we're never going to be privy to. At the same time, there's the character-driven brilliance and breakneck twists that made his plot-busting "Memento" such a dark and lovely film.

The story behind "Inception" sounds a bit too sci-fi for most serious cinephiles, but just go with it and you'll be OK. In the near future (or possibly even a parallel universe), the military develops a kind of mental simulator to train sleeping soldiers: a machine that can enter the dreams of a subject, rearrange the furniture any way the person running the simulation wants it, and then make the subject believe it's all real.

Of course, as you might imagine, this kind of thing quickly breaks out into the open market, spawning a whole new kind of crime: "extraction," a kind of mental espionage where trained dream-thieves enter the often-bizarre world of a sleeping person's subconscious and then steal secrets like bank account numbers, intellectual property and the like.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, one of these dream criminals. Exiled from the United States, pining to get back to his young children, Cobb ends up striking a bargain with a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe). The job: to break into the head of Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), the son of Saito's business rival. Instead of taking away a secret, however, Saito wants Cobb to do something almost infinitely harder: to plant a memory, a process called inception, which few in Cobb's shady underworld think can work. If Cobb can pull it off, Saito will use his powerful connections to clear his record, allowing him to go home to his children. Cobb assembles his team, including young "architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page, of "Juno" fame), whose job it is to create the incredibly complicated world of the dream. Cobb proceeds to tell his crew that to get the idea to take root in Fisher's mind, they have to go deeper than anyone has ever gone before: a dream within a dream within a dream. One issue with the plan is that every time you go down a level, time slows down exponentially, so that a minute in the real, waking world can seem like decades to someone wandering around a subject's mental sub-sub-basement. Worse, Cobb tells them: If they get lost, they might never make it back out.

Mind blown yet? Good.

"Inception" is what science fiction — and indeed film — should be. No built-by-committee plot baloney, no unnecessary special effects, just one deeply-imaginative twist after another. Sure, it's an old-fashioned heist movie, complete with a ticking clock and a team of experts who are all the best at their individual skill. The difference is that Nolan turns that tired old trope straight on its head with the idea of dream theft, a wrinkle so damn cool that it's sure to have every other screenwriter kicking himself for not thinking of it first. There is so much neat stuff going on in this movie that I could write a review 10 times this long and not get to it all. Zero gravity. Runaway trains plowing through downtown streets. The shade of Cobb's wife, who seeps through Cobb's guilty conscience and comes out as a really, really pissed version of Lady Macbeth. Though it looks for awhile like "Inception" is finally just going to spin off into weirdo limbo, somehow Nolan holds it through the skid and gets it straightened out on the other side. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

"Inception" is not going to be everybody's cup of tea and I don't blame you if you hate it. It takes a fair bit of focus just to keep up. The plot is so complicated that I think I'm going to make a return engagement later this week, just to pick up everything I missed. That said, if you want to know what the action/thriller genre would look like in a perfect world, this is a good place to start. Watch for this one to be a contender at Oscar time.

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