It isn’t impossible to describe "Inception," the wondrous new Christopher Nolan thriller, in the limited space afforded here, but it’s close.
Inspired at times by movie classics — "Metropolis" and "Citizen Kane," but also "Dark City" and "Minority Report" — it earns its place in the same conversation, a tribute to Nolan’s ingenuity. The breadth of his vision is extraordinary.
Whether Nolan will prove too clever for his own good remains to be seen at the box office.
Those anticipating a thriller like his "The Dark Knight" (2008) won’t be disappointed, but "Inception" is more complicated, driven by a plot that becomes a baffling maze. Even Stephen Hawking might be hard-pressed to get to the heart of it.
The premise is deceptively simple: If it were possible to infiltrate the subconscious through people’s dreams, where their most intimate secrets could be discovered without resistance, would it not be possible to plant new ideas there as well?
Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) thinks so, and he’s willing to bet his life on it.
Accused of killing his wife (Marion Cotillard), he is convinced that taking such a risk is his last best chance to clear his name. The hard part? In the course of a 10-hour dream, persuading an enterprising son of privilege (Cillian Murphy) to break up his dying father’s empire.
Cobb is an extractor, so called because he steals ideas from slumbering targets and delivers them to high-paying clients. He doesn’t work alone: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the cool-headed Watson to his increasingly unstable Holmes, and Ariadne (Ellen Page) the architect who designs the dreamscapes he navigates.
Nolan has called "Inception" his version of a heist film, which speaks only in the most basic terms to the elegantly layered story on screen.
Cobb and his crew are cerebral con artists. Their grand scam is laughably complex but utterly mesmerizing.
Nolan first pitched "Inception" after completing his 2002 remake of the Norwegian thriller "Insomnia" (2000) — three years before establishing himself with the popular "Batman Begins."
What I would have given to sit in on the meeting that greenlighted this one. How could a young, unknown director sell a story as arcane as "Inception," with all its breakneck twists and nerve-rattling turns? Did Nolan’s audience that day not think him mad, brazenly proposing an undertaking so audacious and vastly expensive?
Today, I marvel at the results. If "Inception" isn’t the year’s best film to date, it is certainly the most daring — a fast-moving feat of the imagination that challenges us to keep pace and doesn’t condescend by making it easy.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Running time 2 hours 22 minutes