Christopher Nolan is ill-served by his admirers. In an age starved for movies that straddle the line between middlebrow and highbrow, pop art and the real thing, he’s been hailed as a kind of last best hope for mass-market filmmaking: the artist who knows how to make a blockbuster, the crowd-pleaser who’s also an auteur. The Dark Knight (2008) was lauded as the superhero movie that Shakespeare would have made, had somebody graced him with an ample budget for special effects and the chance to cast Heath Ledger as the Joker. This summer’s follow-up, the high-concept blockbuster Inception, was inspiring similar hosannas before it even reached the multiplex. If you believed the online chatter, audiences could look forward to a James Bond film written by Carl Jung and directed by David Lynch — or maybe to The Matrix as reimagined by a tag team of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick.
Nolan’s movies, alas, don’t support these panegyrics. The result has been backlash: From the blogs to the glossy magazines, critics have lined up to declare the new movie overrated, and Nolan a grim gamesman who lacks the human touch. The new consensus was summed up pretty well by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who dismissed Inception as “a handsome, clever and grindingly self-serious boy-movie, shorn of imagination, libido, spirituality or emotional depth.”
This assessment is basically correct. But in a summer populated by superhero sequels and 1980s retreads (The A-Team and a Predator reboot, Hollywood?), let me say a word for handsome, clever, self-serious boy-movies. If you don’t expect them to outdo Kubrick or Hitchcock or The Godfather, they can be a pretty good time.
So it is with Inception. At its best, this is a heist movie in the spirit of Ocean’s Eleven, with less wit but a bigger “wow” factor. Instead of George Clooney or Brad Pitt, Nolan has Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Cobb, a professional thief who specializes in relieving corporate bigwigs of their intellectual property. His goals are old-fashioned, but his methods are novel: Instead of invading his marks’ homes or offices, Cobb invades their dreams, swiping the crucial ideas from the recesses of their subconscious and leaving them none the wiser that anything’s been taken.
Or at least mostly none the wiser, since the movie opens with the exception to that rule: an “extraction” gone wrong, in which the target — a Japanese tycoon named Saito (Ken Watanabe) — figures out that his dreamworld is a dream. But the botched operation is still impressive enough to convince Saito to make Cobb an offer of his own. He wants the near-impossible: not extraction but “inception,” in which an idea is planted rather than lifted, and the dreamer awakes and follows through on whatever premise the invaders have dropped into the basement of his consciousness.
#page#Cobb wants to turn the job down, but Saito dangles a carrot he can’t refuse — the chance to be reunited with his children in America, which he fled years ago under suspicion of murdering his wife. (That spouse, Marion Cotillard’s ravishing Mal, now haunts Cobb’s own nightmares, and sometimes shows up unbidden when he’s on the job, through subconscious mechanisms too mysterious to quite explain.) So he reluctantly signs up to “incept” Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), the heir of a vast energy empire that Saito wants the younger Fischer to impulsively decide to break apart.
For this he needs a team. (Saito actually says “Assemble your team!” — an early clue that this is going to be more of a boy-movie than a masterpiece.) This means an architect (Ellen Page), who weaves the dreamscapes where the inception takes place; a chemist (Dileep Rao), who designs the sedatives that drop the mark and the thieves alike ever deeper into sleep; a forger (Tom Hardy), who can play different parts within the dream; and an aide-de-camp (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who keeps the whole operation running smoothly.
Together, they enter a series of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, following an intensely complicated set of rules that you’ll probably still be puzzling over hours after the film has run its course. (The biggie is this: Time moves more slowly in dreams than in reality, and more slowly still in dreams-within-dreams, so that every time the dreamers drop deeper into the subconscious they gain hours more to work with.) Here Nolan the visual magician goes to work, staging set-piece after set-piece — cities that fold up on themselves, M. C. Escher–style; weightless fights on the walls and ceilings of a spinning hotel corridor; and a finale in the acres of empty skyscrapers that Cobb and his late wife built for themselves in Limbo, the bottom level of everyone’s unconscious and the place where all the ladders start.
The key is to relax and enjoy the ride, instead of hoping for something deeper than a heist movie. Nolan’s dreams are gorgeous but simplistic, more like video-game levels than the irrational, unstable tableaus one enters in real sleep. His allusions to mythology and theory are thudding and painfully on-the-nose. (Page’s character, the dream architect, is named Ariadne; Cobb literally rides an elevator into the darker regions of his subconscious, etc.) And the story’s human drama, Cobb’s wrestling match with the specter that is Mal (another on-the-nose name), plays like a rehash of DiCaprio’s similar dance with dead-wife guilt in last winter’s Shutter Island.
But go in with the right attitude, and none of this will matter. You’ll be wowed by Nolan’s technical proficiency, and come out arguing about the rules of inception, the various plot twists, and the hints that what seems like the film’s “reality” might be an illusion as well. And the characters and themes, such as they are, will fade like an unmemorable dream.