For a film that revolves around its entire cast being asleep, Christopher Nolan’s latest is anything but restful.
Zone out for 10 seconds and you’ll spend the next 10 minutes trying to catch up; miss one hurried exchange and you’ll be without a crucial piece of exposition that will have huge ramifications later.
The British director may have hit Hollywood pay-dirt with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but he isn’t about to make things easy for his audience. Buy a ticket to Inception and you have automatically signed up for a crash course in mental gymnastics.
Those who have followed Nolan’s career from the fiendish reversals of Following to the conjuring act of The Prestige via the chronological conundrums of Memento will be at least partly prepared for where Inception takes them.
It soon becomes clear, though, that those movies were merely preambles to the main event: a conceptual coup that, in dealing with the shifting logic and fractured reality of dreams, frees itself from the need to satisfy any conventions, formulae or expectations.
Yet Nolan is too much of a showman not to entertain. He might ask us to work a little but he rewards us handsomely – not only in car chases, gun battles and other staples of action cinema, but also in jaw-dropping FX trickery that turns the alt-world he has created on its flawlessly realised head.
An opening salvo finds Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb – a hi-tech thief who sneaks into the psyches of unsuspecting marks to pilfer valuable corporate secrets – run for his life inside a dream that literally collapses around him in a shower of exploding woodwork and masonry.
Not long afterwards he is on the run again through a Mombassa flea market, a pulse-pounding sequence with enough kinetic energy to invite flattering comparisons with Point Break or the Bourne films.
But if there’s a template for Inception, though, it is probably Mission: Impossible , Cobb’s next assignment – a trip inside the subconscious of wealthy businessman Cillian Murphy to plant an idea instead of stealing one – requiring the recruitment of various clever-clogs with vital individual skills.
In a movie not overburdened with a sense of fun, the hiring of Ellen Page’s Ariadne – an ‘architect’ able to create the landscape of a dream from scratch – and particularly Tom Hardy’s Eames – a ‘forger’ able to assume the identities of people within it – offers a welcome respite from the generally sombre tone.
Indeed, Inception is probably at its most purely enjoyable in these early scenes, Hardy’s bickering banter with Leo’s right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) adding a perky frisson to characters that might otherwise have been no more than functional ciphers.
In terms of levity, though, that’s as good as it gets. For once Dom and co. have infiltrated Murphy’s brain things get deadly serious, Nolan introducing a ticking-clock element that steeps all that follows in palm-sweating urgency.
Sending his plot spiralling into four different levels of slumber, Nolan sets his heroes a series of life or death challenges that need to be solved in driving rain, high-altitude snow and, in one Matrix-style stand-out, zero gravity.
Not only that, but he also introduces a lethal rogue element: alluring ‘shade’ Mal (Marion Cotillard), a ghost from DiCaprio’s past who stalks his own subconscious looking for ways to screw stuff up.
Next: Inception review conclusion [page-break]
Weren’t paying attention during Cobb’s earlier tutorials with Ariadne? Well, you only have yourself to blame if you get lost down Nolan’s rabbit-hole.
To be fair, the director makes things as lucid as he can, ensuring that each dream-within-a-dream has a clearly defined visual identity and that even the most outrageous flourish – a freight train charging down a city street, for example – is painstakingly justified.
At no point do you feel anything is here for effect, or that one constituent part doesn’t interact seamlessly with those around it.
Inception may be a brilliantly audacious thrill ride, but it’s also a mechanism – a fine Swiss watch of a movie Charlie Kaufman would be proud of.
But in a way, that’s the problem. Inception may keep perfect time but it’s also a bit mechanical: an intellectual exercise that excites the senses while rarely stirring the emotions.
Beyond the satisfaction of seeing a well-planned heist unfold, there is nothing much for us to hold onto or root for.
And while DiCaprio’s unresolved history with Mal gives his character a motive, it’s not enough for us to feel for him way we did for his deluded detective in Shutter Island .
There’s no doubt Inception is a remarkable piece of work; indeed, it’s probably Nolan’s most technically accomplished to date. Yet is there a danger he’s becoming a better craftsman than he is a storyteller?