At AMC’s flagship theater in midtown Manhattan, I caught the 6:30 showing of Inception last Saturday. This was the third theater we tried, the others posting “sold-out” signs until 9:00. It was worth the journey. At the end of the film, members of the audience groaned loudly, then burst into wild applause, two reactions to a movie I had never witnessed occurring in tandem.
Inception is twisty and cerebral; it delves into deep philosophical ideas without misleading or confounding the viewer (at least not through any fault of the filmmakers). And that’s just about the only knock critics have had against it, a concern that viewers might be confused by its narrative and theoretical complexity.
But a quick look at the the critical acclaim and overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth the movie is getting—it made more than $60 million in its first weekend—suggest it’s pretty safe to say (most) audiences “get it.” They may not conclude that they’ve understood every subtlety after a first viewing (which only a very simple film will allow anyway), but clearly audiences are not warning their peers to skip the film lest they get lost in the dream world director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight) constructs.
To be sure, the plot of Inception is anything but straightforward. It concerns a corporate spy (Leonardo DiCaprio) who gains information for clients by entering shared dreams (through a technology that, thankfully, isn’t fully explained) and breaking into the simultaneously literal and figurative “vaults” that contained the targets’ most valuable ideas. When he is offered a chance to return to the United States to be reunited with his children (there is a warrant out for his arrest for crimes not specified in the film), he must assemble a team that can do the impossible—plant an idea in someone’s head, known as causing “inception.”
The excellent cast is rounded out by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout, Brick) as “the point man,” Ellen Page (Juno) as “the architect” (she creates the dreamworlds they enter), Tom Hardy (Rocknrolla) as an impersonator who tricks marks into revealing information, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) as the financier of the operation, Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies, Nine) as DiCaprio’s dead ex-wife who haunts his dreams, and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, 28 Days Later) as the mark. The cast is rounded out by Dileep Rao as a chemist who produces sleep-inducing drugs, and a few scenes with Michael Caine, a Nolan regular.
As one would expect of such a cast, there are good performances all around, but the real star of the movie is Nolan’s vision. Nolan has easily established himself as one of the most imaginative storytellers in Hollywood, and he may be the most imaginative of all. Visually, the movie is astounding: the visual imagery urges the viewer to participate intellectually and emotionally in the film to the point that it would not surprise me to see a major rise in individuals attempting to lucid dream upon leaving the theater. Wally Pfister and Hans Zimmer could both win awards next year for their amazing contributions to the film’s photography and music, respectively. Editor Lee Smith should gain acclaim for putting together the final act, which involves four simultaneously occurring dream sequences.
That said, this is an extremely difficult narrative to follow. Don’t bother bringing young children along (though they might be dazzled by the incredible action and dream sequences), and make sure to use the restroom before you go in—if you leave the theater for a minute you’ll be light-years behind when you get back.
When I finally left the theater, my mind was mush (and I swear it wasn’t when I got there). Yet I enjoyed the film immensely.
That is apparently a common reaction to Inception. As noted earlier, audiences seem largely to understand the movie well enough to enjoy it, which is a good sign not just for the film’s box office prospects but also for the industry. Inception gives us cause to hope that this kind of difficult but thoroughly rewarding film can receive increasing support from Hollywood’s power brokers—and that brainless (albeit entertaining) movies like the Transformers series and nonsensical political propaganda like The Day After Tomorrow won’t be our only choices.