Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker interested in truth, particularly how it diverges from perception. The theme has played a part in every movie he's made, including Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige. Even his Batman films delve into the issue. But none of his previous works have been as boldly philosophical in their exploration of truth as his latest, Inception. Through a dazzlingly original sci-fi tale it, like Pilate, asks, what is truth? Can we create it, as many in our postmodern age insist we can? Is what we believe the same as what is true? And what is the source of our ideas, both true and false?
The movie opens to an unspecific time in the future. Cars haven't changed, clothes haven't changed, even cell phones haven't changed. But one important thing has-the government has created a technology that allows people to invade each other's subconscious via their dreams and uncover their innermost secrets. If the invader does it skillfully enough, the dreamer will never know he was there. They call the process extraction.
No extractor is as skillful as Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former architect who traded a career designing buildings for one that allowed him to create dream worlds where natural laws don't apply. But when he became too enamored with his dreams, tragedy ensued, and he no longer creates. He just goes in, collects the information, and cashes his check. That is, until he meets Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of an energy company who offers him a very special job, one that will finally allow him to quit his life of mind-raiding and return home to his children. Instead of stealing an idea, Saito wants him to plant one.
Inception-idea planting-is generally believed impossible. As Dom's partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) explains it, inspiration occurs so spontaneously, from a place so deep within the subconscious, that any attempt to artificially manufacture a thought causes the brain to reject it. But Dom believes that if they wrap the idea in a promise of reconciliation-the ultimate desire of every human being-they can accomplish the feat. After recruiting a new architect (Ellen Page) and a forger (Tom Hardy) who duplicates not handwriting but personas, the team sets out to plant an idea that will reform the beliefs of Saito's business rival.
It sounds confusing, and it is. The visual dynamics of Inception alone are stupefying, then you add in a series of intersecting narratives of dreams within dreams along with mind-bending metaphysical concepts, and one viewing doesn't feel like near enough to absorb it all. (And there certainly isn't enough space here to review it all.) But though Nolan at times overloads his film with ideas, his classic heist plot keeps us riveted.
It is the subplot involving Dom's wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), that does the intellectual heavy lifting. Unlike Dom, Mal is still living in the dream world, unwilling and unable to escape, and she wants her husband to rejoin her. At one point she prods him to accept her faux reality as an equally valid option, saying, "You keep telling yourself what you know, but what do you feel?" Dom responds that it doesn't matter what he feels because his feelings may deceive him, just as hers have. Having come to realize that his own creations are pale imitations of real creation, above all else, Dom wants what is real. It is only guilt for a past shameful act that keeps him from pursuing it wholeheartedly.
Sound like some meaty spiritual themes to chew on? Without a doubt, they are. Even better, the PG-13 Inception avoids anything beyond mild violence and a few profanities, giving parents with sci-fi-loving teens little reason not to see it together. After all, smart, gripping thrillers that make the case that there is absolute truth and that death awaits those who settle for anything less usually only exist in our dreams.
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