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by Yoda
posted on 7/19/10
"What's the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities."

Or movies. The human mind in question is that of writer-director Christopher Nolan, who with Inception has made his most confident and compelling film yet, which is saying something. It is a movie about a single idea, and all ideas, and it has no less a goal than illustrating the mystery, majesty and might of the mind.

Inception's premise springs from this thought: what if you could access another person's dreams? The implications for everything from leisure to corporate espionage would be profound, though the monosyllabically-named Dom Cobb (played by the octosyllabically-named Leonardo DiCaprio) is mostly concerned with the latter.

Cobb is a fugitive who performs illegal idea extractions on the industrial rivals of would-be robber barons, and he seeks a job that will make his legal troubles disappear. Of course, he finds it, and of course, it is many magnitudes more challenging than his usual jobs. This time, instead of extracting an idea, he must plant one.

Cobb discerns that the only way to plant an idea so that it takes hold is to break it down to its most basic form, so that the subject can build on it themselves. This is one of many points where Inception gets all meta on you. Nolan claims he formed the idea behind the film a decade ago, but that it took time to grow in his mind; thus, the entire effort can be viewed as a recursive commentary on both its own creation, and all forms of the creative process.

All the heist memes are here: Assembling The Team, One Last Job, et cetera. But they counterweight the audacious premise; the setting keeps the concept fresh, while the conventions of the genre keep us situated. The delicate balance between rabbit-hole and reality was always going to be the film's greatest challenge, and Nolan somehow keeps it from toppling.

As the characters enter dreams-within-dreams, the story finds itself operating on five different levels at five different speeds simultaneously. It's hard to say which is more impressive: the fact that Nolan believed this could work, or the fact that it does. One wonders what his pitch might have sounded like:

NOLAN: I want $150 million to make a heist film inside someone's head with four layers of sub-reality that all operate on different timelines concurrently.
EXECUTIVE: In your dreams.
NOLAN: Exactly.

Obviously, some suspension of disbelief is required, though like all great science fiction Inception anchors its reality to ours in little ways to make the premise more palpable. Nolan has incorporated all the peculiarities about dreaming into his story, from the sensation of falling right before waking up, to the curious way that time seems to slow inside them. The subject matter provides the film with ample excuse for narrative fuzziness, but it insists on seeing its rules all the way through.

Nolan's thoroughness extends to casting, where no role is too small for an accomplished actor. Michael Caine and Pete Postlethwaite can't have more than 10 minutes of screen time between them, but their presence is part of a paint-all-the-way-to-the-frame philosophy that gives the world a sense of fullness.

No self-respecting film about the nature of reality would be complete without a few red herrings, and no serious film about the nature of ideas would limit us to one definitive interpretation. Still, one gets the sense that Nolan has too much respect for the integrity of his drama to play that game, except for the sheer fun of inviting speculation.

More M.C. Escher than The Matrix, Inception is a virtuoso high-wire act on all levels that manages to capture all that is great -- and terrible -- about the human mind. It is both a love letter to, and a cautionary tale against, the spark of inspiration that makes itself possible.