This Week’s Popcorn: Inception

‘Inception,’ perchance to dream

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Anyone who says he totally comprehends writer-director Christopher Nolan’s surreally fascinating yet confounding “Inception” is full of it. Aside from the economy, rarely is there so much pontification about what is so little understood. Which, if you don’t mind someone having a bit of sport with you, is what makes this movie such strange fun.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a mysterious operative whose career in things clandestine has him venturing not only over sovereign borders but also, via the latest technology, into others’ dreams. This poses the proverbial puzzle wrapped in an enigma, and then some. When we meet the mind traveler, he’s been offered a dangerous job.

Like all great fictional endeavors, of course it’s never been done before … or so it is thought. The assignment comes from Mr. Saito, a mega-powerful international player who doesn’t want dying Maurice Fischer’s (Pete Postlethwaite) gigantic energy conglomerate passed intact to sonny boy Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy).

If there were a written estimate for the exploit, it might read: Do Inception, whereby contractor will delve three dreams down into subject’s mind and plant idea to divest inherited holdings. Price includes subcontracting dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page); engineer, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); and general finagler, Eames (Tom Hardy).

Fantastic indeed. But the truly outrageous achievement isn’t just the wildly inventive plot imagined and constructed by filmmaker Nolan, who previously bedeviled us with “Memento” (2000). It’s that he’s able to translate the concept and bring us into his ingenious chimera. While entirely confused, we know we’ve been somewhere, or other.

But the craziness aside, this is a typical action-suspense yarn, with all sorts of hair-raising, cliff-hanging stunts on each of the prefabricated dreams’ plateaus. Adding to the excitement are the numerous what ifs always inherent to such groundbreaking, potentially fatal exploits. I.e., What if someone wakes up, or if they die in any of the three reveries?

Assuring it is as visually exciting as it is mind-boggling, Mr. Nolan imparts what he has no doubt synthesized from Salvador Dali, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein and all that gang. Yet in positing that ideas and matter function in several dimensions, major accomplishment #2 is that he doesn’t fall off the edge of the world he has designed.

While it’s one thing to formulate a truly loopy science fiction scenario, it’s yet another to sustain that premise and maintain a consistent logic the entire length of the film. Wafted away in this kaleidoscopic quest, we find ourselves thinking in its mechanisms. The nutty thing is, the interpretation is unlikely to be the same for any two moviegoing companions.

Such is the consequence of abstract artistry and the sort of creative analysis it engenders (see Einstein’s theory of relativity). And that’s a good thing if you like to have Marge and Frank over for coffee and cake afterwards to mull the movie. How you can stand Frank I don’t know, but you can bet he’ll be able to expound with his usual, smug conviction.

Never one to put much credence in what Frank and his ilk think, I prefer to believe that, while Nolan envisions a particular theoretical reality, he might explain his work in the way Robert Browning was said to describe the meaning of a poem. The bard allegedly informed, “Only God and I knew what it meant when I wrote it; now only God knows.”

Left-brained sorts who decry the Yin and Yang of our being should thus consider avoiding what they’re bound to view as a perfect example of the Big Fraud. Those, however, who can enjoy a roller coaster ride without knowing exactly why might want to give it a shot. Still, this doesn’t define “Inception,” let alone imply that it’s a good film.

What can be safely affirmed is that it is definitely a movie and, as such, most of the acting performances are spot on, especially when you consider the hypothetical circumstances in which the characters are realized. Successfully establishing the fantasy, Leonardo DiCaprio exudes the frazzling tentativeness of the world he explores.

Aiding and abetting all suppositions, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur is all you could ask for in a right-hand man; Ken Watanabe is appropriately imperious as Mr. Saito, the inscrutable mover and shaker; Ellen Page is winsome as the objective, quick-study outsider; and Tom Hardy’s Eames adds a quirky, arrogantly self-effacing comic edge.

But because this review never satisfactorily explains what the film is about, the thought is it’s the do-it-yourself aspect that ultimately may entice viewers. The mental equivalent of checking your own groceries, you supply the illumination. The only thing I’m sure of is that I did see “Inception.” That is, assuming it wasn’t all just a dream.

“Inception,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Running time: 148 minutes.