4 stars out of 4
Driving home from a screening of "Inception" the other night, my husband said to me, "I don't know how you're going to write about this movie."
"What, you mean without giving anything away?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I don't know how you're going to explain what it's about."
Well, yes. There is that, too.
We can begin by announcing, with great relief, that all the hype is justified. Writer-director Christopher Nolan's first film since "The Dark Knight" is a stunningly gorgeous, technically flawless symphony of images and ideas. "Memento," the mystery-in-reverse that put Nolan on the map a decade ago, looks almost quaint by comparison.
In its sheer enormity, it's every inch a blockbuster, but in the good sense of the word: with awesomeness, ambition and scope. The cinematography, production design, effects, editing, score, everything down the line -- all superb. But unlike so many summer movies assigned that tag, "Inception" is no mindless thrill ride. It'll make you work, but that's part of what's so thrilling about it. With its complicated concepts about dreams within dreams, layers of consciousness and methods of manipulation, "Inception" might make you want to stop a few times just to get your bearings.
The juggernaut of Nolan's storytelling momentum, however, keeps pounding away.
Even from the very beginning, you may feel a bit off-balance, with Nolan jumping around in time before dropping you into the middle of a tense conversation between Leonardo DiCaprio as dream thief Dom Cobb, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his right-hand man, Arthur, and Ken Watanabe as one of their clients.
That's part of the game, though: making us question what's reality and what's a product of sleep, right alongside the characters.
That experience in itself may sound a bit familiar, and "Inception" does feature glimmers of mind-trip movies like "The Matrix," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and even a "Wizard of Oz" moment. At its core, it's actually a heist movie -- the tried-and-true One Last Job, to be exact -- but Nolan takes these elements and combines them in a way that is daringly, dazzlingly his own.
So ... where were we again? Ah yes, explaining what "Inception" is about.
DiCaprio's Dom Cobb is an extractor, a sort of master thief who enters the mind while a person is dreaming to steal their secrets. Watanabe, as the powerful businessman Saito, hires Dom and his team for a different kind of crime: sneak into the subconscious of a competitor (Cillian Murphy) and implant an idea that will ruin his empire. In return, Saito will help Dom clear his name for a crime he didn't commit, one that's torn him from his wife and two young children and forced him to go on the run.
And so, as in any classic caper, "Inception" provides the anticipation of watching Dom assemble his crew and map out his scheme, with each person performing a specific function. While Dom is the big-picture guy, Arthur handles the details. Eames (the hugely charismatic Tom Hardy from "Bronson") is the forger -- someone who can assume another identity to control the dreamer. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is the chemist whose concoction allows them all to turn on, tune in and drop out together.
Ariadne (Ellen Page, showing an appealingly low-key intelligence) is the architect, the one who builds the maze-like structure of the dream. Since she's the newcomer, she also serves as our guide in this brave new world. And her name, like that of several characters, couldn't have been a coincidence; in Greek mythology, Ariadne helps lead Theseus out of the labyrinth with a ball of red thread when he enters to slay the Minotaur. (Thanks, seventh-grade English class!)
But when they all fall asleep and dream together, both as practice and during the real deal, forces from their own subconscious states enter the picture -- namely Dom's wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), someone else whose name offers a clue. Here's where DiCaprio infuses the character with vulnerability to complement his drive. Wistful memories of their relationship provide the necessary heart to balance out the intense braininess of the picture, some softness to lighten the substantial heft of the machinery.
And what a machine it is. You've seen the big set pieces countless times in the commercials: a freight train plowing through downtown traffic, DiCaprio and Page sitting calmly in a cafe surrounded by explosions, Paris folding over on top of itself, Gordon-Levitt floating through a hotel corridor. You haven't seen anything until you've seen them on the big screen. They're enormous yet intricately detailed, tactile while at the same time ... well, dreamlike.
It's all part of one of the year's best films, one that will surely get even better upon repeated viewings. (Warner Bros.)