Inception is an extraordinary film, a feast for eyes and ears, a thrilling visceral experience that is also a finely tuned cerebral puzzle. It defies both gravity and easy explanation. It’s a sci-fi thriller, a high-stakes heist, an international adventure, a dazzling con game, a haunting love story, a time-warper, a mind-bender. It’s a totally original story—fully warranting the decade that writer/director Christopher Nolan spent developing it. Yet it borrows respectfully from the film canon of action spectacles and psychological twisters, as well as Nolan’s wonderful previous two brain befuddlers, The Prestige (2006) and Memento (2000.)

Sigmund Freud might dismiss the legitimacy of Inception‘s dream imagery (like some sorry film critics who couldn’t suspend their disbelief for two hours), but Carl Jung, Federico Fellini, and Lewis Carroll would revel in it. The film is often bold and noisy yet its essence is revealed in its details—a spinning top, a broken wine glass, a paper pinwheel. Simple phrases, whispers almost, demand remembrance: “Take a leap of faith.” “…an old man filled with regret…” “Come back to reality.”

The basic setup, sort of, is this. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best “extractor” in the corporate espionage business—he gets into people’s dreams and steals their ideas. Japanese billionaire Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb to reverse the mind invasion process—do an “inception,” —that is, to implant an idea into the mind of the scion of his chief competitor Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy). Inception is supposed to be impossible (hmmm, doesn’t brainwashing work?), but Cobb is obsessed with going home to his children in the U.S., so he agrees to do this “one last job.”

With this Mission Impossible directive, Cobb assembles his team. Already on board is his right hand, stalwart Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). From Morocco comes Eames (Tom Hardy), skilled forger and consummate impersonator, and Yusef, (Dileep Rao), unorthodox chemist who compounds the drugs needed to survive the descent into three layers of shared dreaming. With the recommendation from his elderly father-in-law, Miles (Michel Caine) in Paris, comes the last member, Ariadne (Ellen Page), an inspired architecture student/maze maven, who designs the physical appearance of the labyrinthine dream layers.

The meticulous plan should work—except for two unforeseen challenges. Industrialist heir Fischer, trained to anticipate kidnappers, populates the shared dream with an endless horde of weaponized attackers. Even worse, Cobb’s subconscious is totally screwed up by his guilt over the suicide of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who threatens the whole mission with her bizarre attempts to sabotage him.

The “science” of the dream weavers is pure poetic license, so don’t try to figure it out, just accept that the rules are logical within the Inception universe. Though the film is exquisitely photographed by veteran Nolan collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and vibrates literally from Hans Zimmer’s incredible music, the landscape of Inception is bleak. There are ocean waves in this world, but no butterflies, no romping puppies. It’s full of concrete and steel architectural wonders, but there’s no landscaping, no benign shade trees, no park lakes rippling with ducks. People sleep a lot, but they don’t eat and only rarely crack a joke. If the movie weren’t so exciting, it could be depressing.

Viewers wonder if Inception is really only a dream within a dream within a dream, or is it a mirror trick of infinite dreams? Does the film’s shared dream include only its onscreen characters—or does its wizardry turn the audience into dreamers, too?

Who’s real? Who’s a dream? Who should we believe? As in life, in films I always pay special attention to what is said by old people and long-suffering spouses.

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