If Christopher Nolan shook up the summer blockbuster formula a couple of years ago with The Dark Knight, he's turned it inside out with Inception. Sure, his trippy new science-fiction heist flick delivers all of the spectacle you could possibly want from a big-budget tentpole movie, but it wants its audience to do the one thing that most films of its kind pointedly do not permit, let alone encourage: It wants us to think (and, if we're to keep up with Nolan's fiendishly serpentine heist scheme, we'd damn well better do it fast). If you've ever bemoaned Hollywood's tendency toward a lowest-common-denominator approach to storytelling, Inception is the movie you've been waiting for. Smart, thrilling, and cagey, it's an action movie for people who'd rather solve logic puzzles than watch wrasslin'.
Though he revels in showing us amazing things and asking us to think big thoughts, Nolan makes the wise decision to hang his story on a tried-and-true plot construct. Reduced to its simplest form, Inception is just another story about a career criminal who finds himself drawn back into the underworld for one last job. But Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn't your average safecracker. He specializes in extraction—the process of infiltrating a person's dreams in order to steal intellectual property. After a job goes spectacularly wrong, he tries to walk away from the trade. Wanted by American authorities and therefore unable to return home to his two children, he is drawn back in by the promise, not of wealth, but of exoneration. Do this one thing, a former mark-turned-client promises, and Cobb's name will be cleared with one phone call.
The problem is, the task set before Cobb might be an impossible one. Instead of stealing an idea, he must plant one—a process known as inception, generally considered impossible. Cobb thinks he can do it, but it will involve a dream invasion scheme so elaborate that it surpasses anything that has ever been attempted.
If you've ever seen a heist movie, you know what comes next. Like Danny Ocean, Cobb can't do this alone. He needs a crack team of dream thieves, and that's just what he puts together. He already has his point man: his sidekick and best friend, the dapper and resourceful Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). A globe-trotting Cobb quickly recruits a forger named Eames (Tom Hardy), who specializes in impersonating people in the dream world; a chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), whose job is to brew up the sedatives the team will need; and finally Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant young college student who will serve as the team's architect—the one responsible for building the dreams they will manipulate. There's also the unwelcome Mal (Marion Cotillard), a dangerous femme fatale who might or might not exist only in Cobb's troubled mind.
Together, the group formulates an insanely complex plot that involves multiple layers of dreaming—a dream within a dream within a dream. Naturally, things go horribly wrong at the earliest narrative convenience, and the team is left scrambling to finish the job without ending up as vegetables trapped in a never-ending nightmare. (Trust me, it makes sense while you're watching the movie.) It would also be nice if they could manage to not get beaten up, shot, driven off a bridge, tossed off a mountain, run over by a train, or otherwise abused by the nasty characters and situations their subconscious minds cook up for them as they navigate through their shared dreams.
It's easier to follow Inception while you're watching it than to explain it afterward. That's actually for the best, since part of the fun of watching it is trying to figure out exactly what's going on, and where it might be going next. While many films that play with car chases and shoot-outs have a tendency to talk down to their audiences, Nolan instead asks us to rise to the occasion. His movie's mental acrobatics are even more impressive than its physical ones, but the writer/director is always confident that we'll keep up. Think of him as the anti-Michael Bay.
Since the basics of the plot are so familiar to moviegoers, Nolan can spend more time explaining the rules of the dream world, and the consequences of violating those rules. Though Inception is loaded with an extraordinary amount of exposition, Nolan delivers it in ways that are as engaging as the film's stunning action sequences. We might find ourselves scrambling to make sense of it, but we're never bored.
Some viewers will be frustrated by the film's ambiguity, but that's sort of the point. As it becomes harder and harder for the characters to separate dreams from reality, the lines blur for the audience as well. The biggest mystery, in fact, is why Philip K. Dick never got around to writing Inception. It's that sort of story. Though it's a science-fiction movie grounded in film noir conventions and spiked with spectacular action set pieces, at its core, it's really a meditation about our perception of reality, versus the reality of our perceptions.
Or maybe not. Maybe it's just a movie about a guy who wants to go home. Either way, Inception is bigger-than-life Hollywood filmmaking at its best.