Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
For weeks — nay, months — I played along with the coy refusals by writer/director Christopher Nolan and the cast members of Inception to reveal too much about its premise. I avoided online trailers, I shunned early reviews.
And now I'm faced with a philosophical question nearly as thorny as those posed by Nolan in the film itself: How do I approach discussing its conceptual ambition while preserving that sense of discovery?
Because Nolan is nothing if not a filmmaker who demands that you wrestle with ideas. For a decade, he has built a body of work out of how we define our identity and our reality: the self-created memory of Memento; the existential magic trick at the climax of The Prestige; Batman's surrender to what people need to believe in The Dark Knight. Inception finds him again in that familiar territory — and the result is something almost as thrilling to contemplate as it is to watch.
Those who prefer their tabulas entirely rasa may want to exit now, because here's the setup: In an unspecified future, the technology exists for people to enter one another's dreams. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), once a researcher into the technology, has become a fugitive, supporting himself as a corporate spy stealing ideas from the subconscious of executives.
But one powerful businessman offers Cobb a chance to reclaim his life if he can pull off a trick even harder than stealing an idea from the mind of his chief competitor, Fischer (Cillian Murphy): planting one there.
It takes most of Inception's first hour to introduce its characters and the complex rules of its mindscape universe, which could have made for a long slog. However, Nolan allows his exposition to unfold in a purely visual context that lets us, along with Cobb's newest team member, Ariadne (Ellen Page), discover what we need to know.
The same approach provides the opportunity to unfold Cobb's crucial back-story, including the events that led to his exile and the role of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard Considering how much raw information Nolan needs to unload, Inception proves remarkably nimble at getting us to the payoff.
And what a payoff it is. The trip into Fischer's head that comprises the final hour-plus of Inception turns into a bravura, jaw-dropping, extended set-piece that's astonishing on nearly every possible level.
As pure action, it delivers crunching chases, snowmobile pursuits and one gravity-defying fistfight that becomes the final smackdown to every other pretender to the Matrix throne. As an imaginative visual showpiece, it gives you a world where stairways bend in Escher-esque directions. And as an exercise in multi-level storytelling, it should become one for the film-studies textbooks, as Nolan often finds himself juggling four concurrent cliffhanger plot lines. For more than an hour, Inception maintains a level of breath-holding tension that simply doesn't seem possible.
That should be enough for any movie-lover to ask for — but Nolan gives us more. The emotional weight he adds to Cobb's tale pushes Inception to another level, one in which questions about the way we shape our reality balance the pure adrenaline excitement.
Nolan continues to succeed at what most big-budget filmmakers never even bother to try: trusting that our cinematic sense of wonder doesn't have to be disconnected from our brains.
Even if you now know a little about what Inception is about, you don't even know the half of it.